Mahler Intermission

A compelling essay in the May issue of Opera News by the Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott persuasively addresses the vexing question of Mahler’s vital yet fraught relationship to opera:

[…] Opera-lovers tend to think of song and symphony as the rudiments of opera, as if opera were the natural apotheosis of two lesser forms. But the nineteenth century proved otherwise. Mastering both song and symphony seems almost to have been a hindrance to mastering opera, if one considers the careers of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Perhaps it is more remarkable that Mahler managed to elaborate song into symphonic structures than that he never wrote an opera.

Opera-lovers may not be comfortable with the inevitable conclusion to this query, that for Mahler, writing an opera would have been a step backward. Wagner elaborated musical works over vast arches of time through essentially dramatic means, textual and narrative. Mahler elaborated equally impressive fusions of word and music, but through essentially musical means. Listen to his greatest symphonies. A narrative arc, anything so mundane as a story, would diminish them. For Mahler’s voices to elaborate characters would be ridiculous, because they speak with a distilled power that can’t be limited by the usual parameters of the theater. The lack of a great opera from Mahler wasn’t a failure; it was a sign that he had transcended the form.

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