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Ruzicka’s HÖLDERLIN to be premiered in Berlin

To cease that eternal conflict between our self and the world, to bring back that peace of all peace that is higher than all reason, to unify us with nature to form an eternal unity – that is the goal of all our striving, whether we agree with each other on this or not.

(Hölderlin, Hyperion)

Composers have made literary source material into the subjects of their operas a number of times. Verdi’s Shakespeare-Operas “Macbeth” and “Othello,” Bizet’s “Carmen” based on the French novella by Prosper Merimée and Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” based on Georg Büchner’s play are just a few examples. The invocation of a poet himself, on the other hand, as the source material of an operatic plot, is a rare occurrence.

Peter Ruzicka, who celebrated his 60th birthday this year on 3 July, has so far written two operas and, in both cases, focussed on poet personalities. The world premiere of his new opera HÖLDERLIN in Berlin on 16 November is now forthcoming.

CELAN was the name of Ruzicka’s first opera to a libretto by Peter Mussbach, premiered on 25 March 2001 at the Semperoper in Dresden. The subtitle “Music Theatre in Seven Sketches,” as the composer then commented, refers to an open, process-like structure. CELAN is not a musical biography about the Jewish poet Paul Celan, who was born in Czernowitz in Bukovina, experienced the persecution of the Jews there and emigrated to Paris via Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna and – driven by feelings of guilt at having escaped – searched for a language to express the unforgotten, incomprehensible aspect of the Holocaust. Ruzicka himself met the poet in 1970, shortly before the latter’s suicide. The fate and the motives of this poet and his unique oeuvre have never lost their grip on Ruzicka. “Paul Celan described a wound of the twentieth century: spiritual shock by the Holocaust and the identity of our society which we are trying to find, precisely after this twentieth-century event.”

Hölderlin, too, the great puzzling hymn poet of a period of upheaval, is an author who was broken by the contradictions within himself and in his environment. On 16 November 2008, Peter Ruzicka’s opera HÖLDERLIN will receive its world premiere at the State Opera Unter den Linden in Berlin. Who was this poet, who lived from 1770 until 1843, was descended from the thought and poetry of the Enlightenment and who accompanied the Romantic era with his hymns, created under the impression of an intensive experience of nature with a completely individual poetic language? Hölderlin’s encounter with Friedrich Schiller in 1794 was decisive for the course of his life. Hölderlin, who hailed from Lauffen am Neckar and had completed theological studies in Tübingen, received a post as a private tutor for Charlotte von Kalb in Weimar, thanks to Schiller. In 1796 he became a private tutor in the household of the Frankfurt banker Gontard, to whose wife Susette he soon developed a deep attachment. The critical opinion of Goethe and Schiller concerning the young Hölderlin can be gathered from a letter written by Schiller to Goethe in 1797. It reads as follows:

“I would like to know if these Schmidts, these Richters, these Hölderlins would have remained so subjective, so eccentric, so one-sided, absolutely and under all circumstances, whether this unfortunate effect is due to something primitive or simply to the lack of aesthetic nourishment and outside influences, and the opposition of the empirical world in which they live against their idealistic inclination. I am very inclined to believe the latter, and if a powerful and happy nature immediately triumphs over everything, I think that some good talent is lost in this way.”

Hölderlin wandered restlessly from one European city to the next, was a private tutor for a short period in St. Gallen and Bordeaux and, in 1802, set out on a strenuous hike home from France. His mental state darkened during these years. In 1807, Hölderlin was discharged from the sanatorium in Tübingen as incurable and spent the remaining four decades of his life in the custody of a local carpenter family. Numerous poems were created in the isolation of his existence in the “Hölderlin Tower” in Tübingen. Hölderlin died in Tübingen on 7 July 1843.

Peter Ruzicka has responded as follows to a series of questions concerning his new music theatre HÖLDERLIN:

After CELAN, your second opera is also dedicated to a poet. Was this pure chance or is there a programme behind it?

Ruzicka: At the premiere celebrations of CELAN in April 2001 in Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, my friend who unfortunately died much too soon, asked me what the subject of my next opera would be. I replied “Hölderlin,” completely spontaneously, without being able to explain it in more detail at the time. But it is clear to me that these two poets have in fact become decisive fixed points in my thinking. They appear to me as two focal points of an aesthetic ellipse over the centuries.

With CELAN you expressly pointed out that no stations in the life of the poet would be arranged chronologically. Do you pursue a similar concept in HÖLDERLIN?

Ruzicka: I certainly did not want to write a biographical opera. The idea of a Hölderlin singing in the Tübingen tower would have been rather bizarre. Peter Mussbach, who created the textual basis, and I are far more concerned with the history of a collective of 13 persons who have the possibility, after an unspecified catastrophe, to begin their lives a second time. And Hölderlin’s philosophy may be represented here as an intellectual compass in this second life; the point is mankind’s eternal longing for unity with himself and nature, with himself and the world.

Why do you call the opera an “expedition” in the subtitle?

Ruzicka: The starting point for the 13 individuals who are starting their lives over again, but who are also thrown back into it, is a common starting point. They experience scenes which are adventurous and dangerous, sometimes reminiscent of a freefall. These are scenes which are absurd, crazy and without any guarantee of survival.

Are the poet Hölderlin and his work as relevant today as they were then? Do people read Hölderlin nowadays?

Ruzicka: I don’t know any other poet who is as relevant and significant for us today, at the beginning of a spiritually marked 21st century!

What is Hölderlin’s most important text, in your opinion?

Ruzicka: This text is at a hidden spot. It is the fragment “Das Werden im Vergehen” (Becoming in Passing Away) and is about the downfall or the transition of the “fatherland.”

What role do Hölderlin’s original texts play in the libretto?

Ruzicka: I did not want to actually dramatise Hölderlin texts in the opera. However, there is a series of Empedocles fragments which is given the significance of the aforementioned “compass” at central points. Then there is a series of fragmentary texts which are primarily recited by actors as an “inner voice.” I hope that these texts will be perceived by the spectator as realisations from the subconscious.

How should we imagine the music of HÖLDERLIN? Is it similar to that of CELAN?

Ruzicka: It has a different basic sound – darker, but also more flowing, more of a stream. Before I began the score of the opera, I wrote a preparatory orchestral piece entitled VORECHO (Pre-Echo), which has meanwhile been performed in Madrid, Berlin, Vienna and Hamburg. My impression is that the sound space is at any rate deeper, more expanded…

In what ways do your operas HÖLDERLIN and CELAN essentially differ, aside from their subjects?

Ruzicka: In the CELAN project, I completely dispensed with the inclusion of original texts because their language has always seemed to me to be imbued with music, one could also say “composed.” CELAN is an opera about the Holocaust and reflects this largest, probably never-healing wound of the twentieth century with the help of fictitious life-situations of the poet. HÖLDERLIN, on the other hand, is an opera which attempts to pose questions about our present and future: is there Hölderlin “in us?”

There was a surprising change of producer. What were the reasons?

Ruzicka: After Peter Mussbach left his post as Director of the State Opera Unter den Linden, a new production team also had to be found, which was not easy due to the late point in time a few months before the beginning of rehearsals. I am glad that the producer Torsten Fischer could be found for the project; he has a great deal of understanding for the special intellectual dimensions of the project and has found an approach of great scenic imagination. From the very outset, he has gone into the special musical parameters of the score and yet developed his own concept as a completely independent interpretation. So there will be 13 actors at the side of the 13 singers who will symbolise Hölderlin’s idea of a dichotomy of gods and human beings. Since I shall be conducting the premiere, I am greatly looking forward to an exciting collaboration in the sense of giving and taking…