The past may return to haunt him, but Ernst Krenek, the eminent Viennese-born composer whose “Johnny Strikes Up” lights the stage of the Long Beach Opera starting Saturday, neither resists nor embraces it.
“I wrote the piece 60 years ago,” says the sanguine, soft-spoken octogenarian, while sipping coffee in the green room of the Long Beach Convention Center, “so I can’t help feeling somewhat detached from it. Yes, I would say it’s good. But hardly on the level of my other, subsequent, operas. The fact is I’m disappointed that once again it is overshadowing the more important works.”
Indeed, the fates have dealt Krenek an ironic blow. When his pop satire “Jonny Spielt Auf” had its Leipzig premiere in 1927, it became an instantaneous hit around the world and was sung in 18 different languages by such vocal eminences as Lawrence Tibbett at the Metropolitan Opera and Kirsten Flagstad in Sweden.
Never again would the prolific composer bask in such concentrated, center-stage glory, albeit brief, even though his output amounted to something formidable--20 operas and dozens of works in every other musical category.
More the irony that Krenek’s later music, written primarily in the serial style and linked to the “Second Viennese School” of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, is regarded with special awe for its mastery of the 12-tone system. More the irony that, in addition to composing, Krenek also excels as an autobiographer, essayist and pedagogue.
But the fact that his career has stubbornly eluded wide public recognition is not a concern any longer, says Krenek. “I would have liked to be more appreciated,” he admits, “and actually was famous in the ‘20s. But then Hitler came to power.
“I was branded a degenerate in art and not one note of my music was played. I was denounced as an enemy because of my public anti-Nazi speeches. My face, on posters, had swastikas smeared across it. Finally, I had to leave Europe, and here I wasn’t well known. Schoenberg suffered the same disadvantage in this country, although he inherited the mantle of grand old man of music.”
It’s apparent, however, that the 85-year-old U.S. citizen and resident of Palm Springs--sporting an even, burnished tan--takes up the good life with an immediacy he does not waste on his past achievements.
When prodded, however, Krenek will put himself in context.
“I wrote ‘Johnny’ in a romantic fervor (see related story on Page 6),” he says, confessing with a laugh that he did not know the English language well enough then to spell the American name of his hero correctly. “As the son of Czech Jews who passed on to me their sense of social repression, I searched for its opposite.
“In my youthful idealism, I saw America as the symbol of freedom I struggled for. And so this opera is a confrontation of East and West. Johnny, the black jazz musician, stands for everything that is spontaneous and freewheeling. Max, the serious composer, is his inhibited Central European counterpart.”
Krenek acknowledges that his “happy idea of this country” bore little resemblance to the reality he encountered on arriving here in 1938, as far as life for blacks was concerned. But, as the author of the libretto, he still approves of his literary leap and even did the English translation that will be heard in Long Beach. (Ironically, the Met’s 1929 production was in German.)
As to the Long Beach staging, Krenek says he had some trepidation at first and was worried about “some peculiar ideas” as they were outlined to him. “But after seeing (the company’s) ‘Abduction From the Seraglio,’ my fears were calmed.” He was surprised, after noting that “Johnny” had languished in oblivion since 1930, to find someone interested in reviving it.
Randolph Mauldin, the company’s associate conductor, is perhaps a better spokesman for the opera right now than its composer/librettist. “It’s a wonderful period piece about the ‘20s,” he says, “and should not be disturbed anymore than one would want to disturb ‘Gone With the Wind.’ In fact, I see ‘Johnny’ as a cinematic work. The scenes flash from mountaintop to boudoir, almost defying a naturalistic approach.”
As for the score, Mauldin regrets--along with Krenek--that it has had to withstand the false label “jazz opera.” Mauldin says there are jazz motifs for the title character and that indeed there is a Charleston and a tango. “But the music is late Romantic, not jazz. It falls between ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Turandot.’ The vocal writing is extremely difficult, the orchestral parts not so.”
What Mauldin emphasizes is how cleverly the score and text are intertwined. He refers to the theme of separation that pervades the work, seeing the train station as a metaphor for “psychological comings and goings, arrivals and departures . . . with the cast of characters as world travelers.” The lesson of the piece, he says, is “the agony and humor of saying goodby.”
Krenek says he has always been bothered because he saw the public seizing on the work’s “gimmickry” and thus “raving about ‘Johnny’ for the wrong reasons.” This was the first opera to depict on stage, 60 years ago, such newfangled inventions of the Machine Age as the automobile, telephone, loudspeaker.
While “Johnny” is thought to be highly accessible, many critics pigeonhole Krenek’s oeuvre as forbiddingly intellectual--which, in his view, is “an unfair prejudice.” With just a mild show of scorn, he explains:
“I never managed to throw off the tag I fell heir to in the ‘50s, ‘a composer in the 12-tone technique.’ It earned me a bad reputation. But what those categorizers did not take into account is that music, regardless of the writing style, has many different characters. The ability to perceive a work’s emotional impact depends on musical literacy. And we don’t have much of that.
“When I was a young composer the blame was always put on the fact that old audiences didn’t understand new music. But now there are younger ones in the audiences and they don’t understand, either.”
If Krenek could have things his way, however, he would choose “to be as esoteric as Webern and as loved as Richard Strauss.” Barring that, he claims to want as many performances of his music as possible. “For the royalties,” he says, “only for the royalties.”