Elysium and the Death of Socrates

Ernst Krenek’s opera Pallas Athene weint: A musical megaphone for our political times.

Does music amplify the uproar of the world around us, or does it soothe it? Is opera a pacifying opiate, or can it be a medium of provocation or insight? Pallas Athene weint by Ernst Krenek – with four performances this month by the Neue Oper Wien (NOW) – might well be a megaphone for our troubled times.

Born in Vienna in 1900, Krenek was already famous by the age of 27, when his “jazz” opera Jonny spielt auf premiered at the State Opera. Later denounced by the Nazis as a “degenerate” artist, he went into political exile, arriving in the United States in 1938. After the war he declined a vague invitation to return to Austria, remaining in the US until his death in 1991 in Palm Springs, California: A not uncommon 20th-century European artistic trajectory.

Pallas Athene weint was commissioned for the 1955 re-opening of the Hamburg Opera, a joyous occasion ten years after the end of WW II. Yet Krenek’s opera begins with Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, civilization, law and justice, weeping in Elysium, weeping over the death of the philosopher Socrates and the loss of the freedom of Athens. The war against Sparta has just been lost, and Socrates’s three pupils Alcibiades, Meletus and Meton have turned and become masters of calumny and subversion. Socrates’s principles of democracy are being dragged through the mud.

In 1955, Krenek was living in Los Angeles, at the height of anti-communist McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklists. It was a period of rash and unsubstantiated accusations, of inflammatory attacks on the character and patriotism of political rivals. Krenek, nearly as prolific a writer as composer, wrote his own librettos, including Pallas Athene. It was a reflection of the world around him.

History repeats itself

This production of Pallas Athene is coming on the eve of the postponed re-run of Austria’s presidential election, in a climate marked by sharp divisions and distrust. Tenor Franz Gürtelschmied describes the opera as “a highly political work,” and believes that “the election [situation] will certainly have an influence on its reception.” He will sing the role of Alcibiades, whom he sees as the absolute opportunist, “the type who struts around, immediately blasting his opinion on everything, with a very aggressive undertone.”

Piss Pallas Athene // © Neue Oper Wien


“The relevance of this opera,” says Walter Kobéra, artistic director of NOW, “can be seen quite clearly in Austrian current affairs. Although we theater makers often deal with works from the past, they have lost nothing of their explosive force. The past catches up with us or even overtakes us.”

It will be a contemporary staging, the action taking place in the Austrian Parliament’s peristyle, its central hall, with the hall’s 24 majestic Corinthian columns in ruins. Production director Christoph Zauner says that it is “not today, but a potentially very near future. Something that is not here yet, but could happen any time if we are not careful.”

Relevance of the Now

And the music? It is a twelve-tone serial composition, a technique that is often “notoriously unemotional,” as Gürtelschmied describes it. But “Krenek’s work is very listenable, with even erotic tone colors.” Lorin Wey, who will be singing Meletus, points out that the melodic lines of his character, “a scheming, power-hungry guy,” are often “long cajoling phrases that end quite aggressively, showing his real character.” The sentiments revealed in this 60-year-old “modern” piece are absolutely clear.

Kobéra has accomplished something remarkable over the last 25 years – consistently exciting productions of 20th- and 21st-century opera that attract the broadest opera-going audience in the city. It is music theater that touches our times. As Krenek himself wrote in 1952, “The importance of music depends not only on what is in it, but also on what importance public opinion is willing to attach to it.” This is an invitation to decide for yourself.

Pallas Athene weint

Opera in 1 prelude and 3 acts

Oct 25, 27, 28 & 29 at 19:00

MuseumsQuartier Halle E
7., Museumsplatz 1

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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