The American stage premiere of The Distant Sound (Der ferne Klang) opens Friday at Bard SummerScape. Franz Schreker’s twentieth century opera tells the tragic story ofFritz, a composer who forsakes his beloved, Grete, for the sound that is a distant echo of her presence. During a rehearsal break, internationally acclaimed director Thaddeus Strassberger shared his thoughts about the staging and design of The Distant Sound.
Q. In what time period is the opera set?
A. At the beginning of the opera we are in 1919, just as World War I is ending in Western Europe. The plot is structured to take place over about 15 years.
Q. How does the time period influence the look of the production?
A. The time period opened up a whole world of visual references for us to use, including the emerging language of film. Celluloid, plastics, and film-developing technologies were beginning to forever alter the world these characters inhabit. The very first image that you’ll see, in our production, is a huge photograph of a forest scene. Right away, we see a natural world that is filtered through man-made machines. As we move through the first act, common household objects collaged in unexpected ways let us know that any vestiges of 19th- century romanticism have been consigned to history’s dustbin.
Widespread war, industrialized and on a scale like never before, brought about scathing depictions by artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix and the filmmaker Fritz Lang, all of whom had firsthand knowledge of the battlefield. We reference these artists not only in the look of the sets and costumes, but also in their depiction of human interactions that they convey in their commentary on the absurdity of their times.
The Act II scene that takes place at a Venetian “cabaret”—which is also a bordello— logically lands us in the late 1920s. It was the height of the era’s uncertainty: governments and militaries were reorganizing, creating an atmosphere of unpredictability that manifested itself in a chaotic hedonism. In our staging of Act II the rear of the stage is a huge mirror, and the stage is covered with mirrors that reflect the bordello workers and their clientele. The shifting sparkle of mirrors dazzles as well as confuses, creating a sense of wealth and possibility that you somehow know, in your gut, is nothing more than a distorted reflection of an ugly reality. No matter how hard we wish to evade them, glimpses of the hardship underneath emerge through the cracks.
In Act III, as Fritz’s world collapses around him, it also begins to fade into something more sinister and isolating. The clarity of the previous pictures begins a slow entropic dissolution into oblivion.
Bard SummerScape 2010 presents Franz Schreker’s opera The Distant Sound in the Sosnoff Theater at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, July 30 – August 6. For tickets call 845-758-7900, or go to fishercenter.bard.edu.