It could have been worse Walter Benjamin as operaBrian Ferneyhough/Charles Bernstein, Shadowtime, Prinzregententheater, Munich, 25 May 2004.
Something about Walter Benjamin − the life, his theory − makes him an obvious candidate for representation or ﬁctionalization. He has been the subject of one novel and has played a walk-on part in a couple more. There are art ﬁlms that take his Pyrenees ﬂight as thematic, and he is intimated as a presence in the Staatsbibliothek Berlin in Wim Wendersʼ Wings of Desire. Paintings and collages using his face crop up now and again, echoes of the book covers that inevitably sport his phizog. There is even a building − Libeskindʼs Jewish museum in Berlin − constructed according to themes derived from his writings. Now Benjamin has had an opera written about him, premièred in Munichʼs Prinzregententheater at the Munich Biennale on 25 May 2004. The composer is Brian Ferneyhough, a professor at Stanford and well known as a composer of complex and uncompromising late modernist music, who emerged at a time when the banal simplicities of minimalism were conquering concert halls with a promise of a populist revival in ʻclassicalʼ music. The librettist is Charles Bernstein, professor of English Literature at University of Pennsylvania and a main force of ʻlanguage poetryʼ, an experimental US strain of poetics.
Ferneyhough and Bernstein insist that Shadowtime is not about Benjaminʼs life but about ideas, Benjaminʼs ideas and the ideas of others, sundry others. Indeed the opera opens with some Heideggeriana penned by Ferneyhough: ʻUnderstanding of Being reveals itself as the innermost ground of our ﬁnitude. Ontology is an index of ﬁnitude.
Once grasped, the ﬁnitude of existence brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate.ʼ
The operaʼs libretto swirls with gestures towards Western philosophy, metaphysics and theology, especially in relation to time. But as much as it wants to argue that it is about ideas, the opera still needs to hang itself off the hook of a life, or more accurately a death.
It begins biographically, in the hour of Benjaminʼs death in the Hotel Fonda de Francia in Port Bou, on the border between France and Spain. Walter Benjamin and his travelling companion Henny Gurland are told that their further journey to Lisbon (and thence to the USA) is impossible because they lack the requisite visa. They must return to France. A doctor advises Benjamin to rest as his health is impaired. That night Benjamin takes his own life. Many writers have made Benjaminʼs suicide emblematic of other things: the greater tragedy of the fate of the Jews, the dashing of political utopias, the end of European culture. Preparing to ﬂee Europe, his life in danger as a Jew and as a Marxist, he spoke about himself as ʻthe last intellectualʼ; he feared a culturally impoverished existence in the USA or Palestine. And so he represents for some the model of arcane intellectualism, an inept character at home only among his books, embedded in a European culture that is literally being bombed and dismantled around him. In the ﬁrst scene of the opera, as Benjamin slips towards death, scenes from his life ﬂit by. Here the libretto attempts to condense the essence of his philosophy in staccato lines. In a scene set in Berlin in 1917 with his future wife, he has the words: Only for the sake of the hopeless have we been given hope.… It is not just women who prostitute themselves.… We all arefor we are allobjects and subjectsof culture.
Each line can be traced back to a comment of Benjaminʼs, and yet here in the context of the libretto all meaning evaporates from them and they seem to mark positions without any meaningful articulation. These are the types of things said by Benjamin. These words mark the spot of his thought, but fail to make it articulate, for they are empty slogans that take no account of their existence in a post-modernist libretto, in an opera by a notoriously ʻcomplexʼ composer, in a theatre happening now.
The words remain just words. Later Benjamin chats with Gershom Scholem:
If we canʼt convict GodThen letʼs indict the bourgeoisieFor they promise a utopiaThat never comes, exploitingEach according to their abilityTo be exploited, making commoditiesOf all that could have been Sparks of hope.
Here we see addressed the ʻriftʼ in Benjaminʼs thought between ʻmetaphysics and materialismʼ, named by the librettoʼs Scholem as ʻthe peasʼ in the ʻshell gameʼ of the ʻAdventurer King of Ambiguity and Obscurityʼ. It is, inevitably, this very lack of commitment to one or the other side, this straddling in the middle, between religion and Marxism, between comfort and the cause, that is said to bring about Benjaminʼs death.
This line has been often peddled in the ʻcriticalʼ literature. There must be something consoling in it. WB: I know my vacillations Janus facedMake strange connectionsI go full throttle in one directionThen arc my thoughtAgainst itself, a bow foreverWaiting for an arrow. Scholem: Self-deception can lead only to suicide. WB: Better a bad revolutionaryThan a good bourgeois.
The third section of the opera is titled ʻDoctrine of Similarityʼ. Thirteen short pieces for a 48-piece choir with various instruments are designed to ʻreﬂect the nature of history, time and the process of translation and transformationʼ (Bernstein). Set in play are various formal games on both lyrical and musical levels. Musically, Ferneyhough notes that each of the thirteen pieces is concerned with Nachbildung, imitation in some form, whether using repetition, recombination or the mimicry of canonic musical structures. The texts of the libretto are derived also from experiments with Nachbildung. There are anagrams of the name Walter Benjamin. ʻIʼm a lent barn Jew/A mint bran jewel/A barn Jew melt inʼ, and so on. There are variations on the last line of a Mallarmé poem. There are homophonic transpositions (or translations), such that the line ʻThereʼs no solution to the question if the question becomes the solutionʼ is repeated homophonically as ʻTears sole dilution chews the winsome impʼs affectionʼs freedomʼs sheer incursionʼ. The texts are structured according to relationships between prime numbers. All these parameters draw the text away from engagement with Benjaminʼs mode and means of thinking, and Nachbildung opens the way to repetition, rather than the more characteristically Benjaminian motif of reproduction. The composer and librettist cite Benjaminian notions such as mimesis and reproduction, but, in effect, they evoke different notions, listed by Ferneyhough elsewhere as repetition, variation, refraction and similation. Are these not rather the terms of an idea-voided minimalism?
Repetition becomes pastiche as, in the next scene, a romantically accented piano dominates. Benjamin has entered the underworld, which is also a Las Vegas piano bar.
Las Vegas, the programme notes state, ʻis the paradise of the culture industry with an open channel to its hellʼ. With this observation Ferneyhoughʼs immersion in Adornian musical aesthetics comes to the fore. Ferneyhough led the summer programme at Adornoʼs old stomping ground Darmstadt between 1984 and 1994. The pianist tinkles and twitters at his piano in staccato lines of monosyllables and contextless prepositions.
In this place Benjamin will be assailed by a phantasmagoria of ﬁgures, subjecting him to eleven interrogations, just as in the myth of the Sphinx who demanded the same of those who were to enter the realm of the dead. As eight hundred years of musical history in the West from 1000 to 1825 is recapitulated rapidly, Benjamin meets a three-headed Cerberus, two of whose heads are Karl and Groucho Marx. He encounters Hitler, Pope Pius XII, Joan of Arc, the Golem, Baal Shem Tov dressed as a vampire, and Einstein. Two-dimensional cut-out ﬁgures are wheeled on to ask questions about past and future, memory and forgetting. They are as inert as are the words that they utter via the choir. They sing lines that seemingly bear no meaningful relation to the singer. For example, Hitler sings:
Can you go nowhere?
Be no place?
Come into nothing?
Can you hold air?
Can you be transﬁxed by transitions alone?
Bernstein and Ferneyhough want to resist realism and representation, but is there not some responsibility to historical detail to be observed? In this evocative swirl it would seem that anyone can say anything. Unsurprisingly Benjamin disappears from the opera at this point. The libretto in the penultimate scene plays more word games using permutation and homophony from Heineʼs German into an English unrelated in terms of meaning. The ﬁnal scene ﬁzzles out into melancholy.
For now time is lostnow time is gainednow time is emptynow time is fullnow time is livednow time is hollownow time is madenow time is stone.At one point in the libretto the words estrangement and engagement are mentioned, as part of a list of questions: Is aversion better than engagement? Is engagement better than detachment? Is assimilation better than estrangement? Is estrangement better than allegory? These terms derive from Brecht, and they make sense in a Brechtian dramaturgical and political universe. Here, though, they are just odd words from arguments once had, ﬁligree from the surface texture of European politicized culture. Although absent in the opera, Brecht was a crucial inﬂuence on Benjamin, in particular in relation to questions of staging and poetry. Signiﬁcantly, Ferneyhough refuses the term ʻoperaʼ and prefers to call Shadowtime ʻmusic theatreʼ. Music theatre has, like opera, a European pedigree, born in the 1960s in Germany and Italy and associated with experimentalism, for example the work of Hans Werner Henze, Györgi Ligeti, Sylvano Bussotti. Music theatre was an attempt to reinvent an exhausted operatic tradition.
Music theatre also harks back to Brecht/Weill and Brecht/Eisler collaborations in the 1920s and 1930s and indicates the possibility of introducing politics, or reintroducing politics, into the operatic form. It is therefore all the more perplexing that Brecht leaves his traces only in a couple of words in the libretto and that his musical collaborators,
Weill, Eisler and Dessau, offer no musical suggestions. If the name music theatre signals an ambition to experiment formally and to have some sort of political impact, both these aspects have been, in the event, severely compromised. There is no irony, no political spleen, and most of all there is no fun or enjoyment − only the alienating absurdity of trying to carry mock-philosophical arguments in atonal singing. However, on the night of the performance few of the words could be discerned. And the swirl of inaudible words, together with the scamperings of a choir of ginger-haired angels and the cardboard cut-outs, distracted from the music. The musicians were sunk into an orchestra pit, making all of their gymnastic exertions on their instruments invisible and, thereby, denying the audience one of the main pleasures of a Ferneyhough performance.
It could have been worse. It could have been sentimental. It could have anchored itself to the romance and tragedy of the death. But here the error of sentiment was replaced by an ideologically driven commitment to experimentation. The dense musical score, the layered and playful libretto, add up to no more than a muddle of parts that do no more than allude to Benjamin. Benjamin becomes an impulse, a motive, but is not found again in the opera. Is it possible to turn his, or anyoneʼs, philosophical ideas into musical form? In Benjaminʼs case, at the very least, one would need to think more consequentially about the critical and theoretical issues that he dealt with, instead of the predictable motifs of angels, melancholics, suicide, which all become an external matter of representation. Integrated not simply in a thematic sense but also in a practical sense could be the Benjaminian themes of reproduction, aura, commodiﬁcation of culture, the relationship of aesthetics and politics, the political implications of the construction and handing on of tradition, and the Brechtian theses on technology, authorship, reception and the demands of the moment. Shadowtime has four further runs over the next eighteen months: in Paris, the Ruhr,
London and New York.