The Protagonist, Op. 14 (1925)

By. Bryan Gilliam, Duke University

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Der Protagonist (1925), Weill’s first significant operatic undertaking, is inseparable from its context of post-Wagnerian operatic reform. Though Wagner had been dead for decades, challenges to the aesthetic world of Bayreuth–in both word and deed–did not take place to any significant degree until the years following the First World War. True, as early as 1911 Busoni had criticized the Wagnerian orchestra for its superficial illustration, for creating a thunderstorm in the opera pit when there is already one on stage. But it was not until the aftermath of World War I that a younger generation of composers mounted an effort toward significant operatic reform. One of the most important of that group was Kurt Weill, whose views were informed by the theories of his mentor Busoni, but unlike Busoni would more effectively put them into practice.

Echoing his teacher, Weill criticized the German operatic orchestra of the Wilhelmine era for absorbing far too much of the action,” which was better served on stage. Such an ensemble, according to Weill, should not merely suggest scenic events but have its own formal and structural integrity. Der Protagonist represents the culmination of a careful step-by-step process whereby Weill first explored the realm of purely instrumental music, then pantomime and ballet, and finally opera. Indeed, such a gesture would always be central to the theatrical world view of Busoni and Weill, the former who, in 1922, envisioned opera that would be little more than “sung pantomime.” That year Weill produced his first theatrical essay, the pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night), which, though a piece of children’s theater, was considered by Weill to be his first mature work. Georg Kaiser, author of the play Der Protagonist (1920), was greatly impressed. Indeed, Kaiser and Weill soon collaborated on a pantomime of a larger scale, but the composer grew weary of the “silence of the figures” and decided to take the next step toward actual opera.

The result was the one-act Der Protagonist, a Literaturoper based upon Kaiser’s play of the same name. In both instances, whether musical or spoken theater, the structure centerpiece remained the same: two pantomimes-one comic, the other tragic. The setting is Shakespearean England, where a strolling troupe of players (in a kind of commedia dell’arte style) are asked to play a comedy for the Duke and his court. After a rehearsal, the major-domo announces that the Bishop will be in attendance, and the comedy (based on a light-hearted treatment of marital infidelity) must be transformed into a tragedy. At the end of the second rehearsal (which covers parallel events, though viewed through an expressionistic lens) the Protagonist, unable to break his character as the deceived husband, stabs his own sister when she introduces him to her lover the Young Gentleman.

Comparison with Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, with its juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, is inevitable, but it is only part of a broader revival of commedia dell’arte in the early twentieth century. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) appeared the same year as the original Ariadne, and Busoni’s Arlecchino appeared in 1917. In their various ways, each work sought to offer an alternative to Wagnerian aesthetics. Equally inevitable is the urge to draw parallels with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), but there is a less obvious, yet more potent, connection with Hindemith’s Cardillac (1926), a work that–like Der Protagonist–deals with the theme of artistic obsession, even to the point of self-destruction and violence.

Nonetheless, there is another aspect of an early twentieth-century fascination with pantomime that has often been over-looked, namely the booming popularity of silent film in Germany. Weill recognized great potential for film in the 1920s and would even include a cinematic segment in his next opera, Royal Palace (1926). The filmic aspects of Der Protagonist‘s two pantomimes, especially the second, quasi-expressionistic one with its “Caligari-irrationalism” (according to one commentator) are powerful indeed. One critic who attended the Leipzig premiere of Der Protagonist could not help observing that “we have long witnessed the commercialization of mime; even longer the discovery of the film actor, of which this Protagonist reminds us a bit.”