Inspirazione! : Leaving 'Die Tote Stadt'

I have a friend who is decidedly not a fan of opera and likes to say that opera is the only art form that is “less than the sum of its parts.” I wish I could disagree with him emphatically, but I’m sorry to say that in practice his words often come true. On a bad night at the opera, you can see a bad play, hear a bad orchestra, and if you’re unlucky enough, even see a bad ballet—and that’s not including the bad singing.

I must admit that when I first made the shift from theater to opera, I found the dramatic content of most operatic performances—what’s the word?—lame. But the more I came to appreciate the music, the less this seemed to matter. I enjoyed the singing, was grateful when the acting wasn’t too terrible, and gave thanks when the director and cast achieved something approaching a cohesive artistic vision. As an audience member I lowered my standards for the drama, and because of the music I didn’t feel cheated. When I wanted the experience of being completely swept away into a story, where I forget that the people are acting and that their crises and emotions are not, strictly speaking, real, I continued to attend the theater.

I don’t mean to say that I didn’t get swept away at the opera. But usually it is a different sort of experience. I get swept away by the beauty or pathos of the story. But theater at its best seems to achieve the creation of a truly believable world more often. Opera tends to give itself away as illusion with more regularity, either intentionally, as in holding for applause after an aria, or unintentionally, as when staging is awkward, supertitles deliver jokes early, or emotions are just implausible.

It is this difference between reality and illusion that is the subject of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, which I saw for the first time at San Francisco Opera this past fall. The story is about Paul’s obsession with his dead wife. He is trapped in a living shrine of sorts that he has created. He meets a woman who resembles his wife and is tormented by his attraction to this woman and by his loyalty to his dead wife. In a dream, the woman seduces him, they quarrel, and he strangles her, realizing he has made her just like his wife—dead. He awakens, leaves the city of Bruges, and goes on with his life.

Emily Magee as Marie/Mariette and Torsten Kerl as Paul carried an enormous burden in what is basically a two-person play with short interludes for secondary characters. I don’t want to write a review, but I do want to give credit where it is due. The singing was phenomenal and this score contains some of the repertoire’s most difficult music to sing. For the drama, the director (original production director Willy Decker and revival director Meisje Hummel) achieved something remarkable. An ensemble of five characters forms a sort of Greek chorus. These singers truly became a convincing troupe, moving as well as singing like an ensemble, with character, intention, and humor.

The gorgeous production, using a framed room and a double of the room within the set, completely supported the contrast of past and present and the reflections of dream and reality. The orchestra, under the baton of Donald Runnicles, was lush and passionate. It is mind blowing to think that this piece was composed by a young man of 21.

All of the above are simply component parts, however. This production achieved a holistic success as well: the creation of a world that, however fantastical, seemed real. My response as an audience member was to be swept into this world and let it dance around with my own life and my own subconscious. I attended the dress rehearsal and five of the six performances, and I wish the run had been extended. Each time was a different experience. Sometimes, it seemed so dreamlike that I felt woozy, could barely stay awake, and felt almost dizzy. Other times it would prompt intense emotion and reflection about my own life and relationships and how my own patterns are repeating themselves. Still other times, the beauty of it seemed to hold me in a sort of caring embrace.

As a singer, I still marvel at the accomplishments of the cast, especially Emily Magee as Marie. She made no false steps, allowed no emergence of a singer’s personality out of character, and made absolutely no visible accommodations for the sake of technique. Her movements as a dancer, lover, and comedienne were completely alive and the sound just poured out of her. The best word I can think of to describe her performance is “pure,” or maybe “uncompromised.” Every sound, every movement, every pause, every expression was in the moment and for the character. It was never the same twice, and yet she was spot on every time.

Seeing and hearing her performance, I resolved to let go of and work past whatever might be in my own way as a performer, any physical tension, emotional baggage, or insecurity. Whatever is in my way, I want to root it out and let it go, because I think that is what it takes to achieve something such as she achieved. Her performance was unblocked, like a mad river rushing downstream.

The experience of theater is a subjective and delicate thing. I imagine many people were unmoved by this performance. Every time I went, I saw people leaving at intermission. I think it’s like a good book. It not only has to be a good book, but a good book for the right person at the right time. This certainly was the right production for me to see this fall.

So—for this time and for me, anyway—all of the parts worked together, the performances, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, and the direction. If the production drops any one of those balls, the illusion is shattered, or at least diminished. Perhaps that is why opera, despite its reputation for divas, is an extremely humbling art form for its practitioners. It certainly takes a village to make a good show.

Seeing a show this good did two things for me. First, it showed me how I had been compromising my standards as an audience member, making allowances for opera as theater. And second, it inspired me to step up my own game and to feel that more is possible as an artist than I previously thought. I am always hearing singers say “I can’t sing that fast,” or “that high,” or “that long,” or “move that much while I’m singing,” or “express that much emotion while singing.” But these are just ideas we have of what is possible. A shift might come if you add one word to some of those self-limiting sentences. For example, “I can’t sing that fast, yet.”

How do we know something is impossible? If a given thing hasn’t happened, all we can know is that it hasn’t happened yet—and it might be our own thinking that keeps it from happening.

This production has come and gone, but I now have a role model in Emily Magee and a new template in my memory reminding me that in opera, we don’t need to sacrifice any of the drama. Singers and the audience can indeed have it all. And just as the character Paul makes his choice at the end of the opera to leave “Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City) so do we, as singers, have the opportunity every day to leave behind the past. We can find a new technique, a new inspiration, and a new emotion. Isn’t that what living a creative life is all about?

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at