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Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

July 17, 2005

A Secular Messiah Gets His Own Opera

ON Sept. 26, 1940, in the small Spanish town of Portbou, Walter Benjamin's desperate flight from Nazi-occupied Europe came to a tragic end. After being turned back just beyond the French border, within sight of his freedom, he committed suicide. Historians have long considered the death of this German-Jewish philosopher a grievous intellectual toll exacted by the Third Reich, and now a new opera tries to register the loss through a fractured avant-garde prism. Its opening scene takes place on Benjamin's final night.

Entitled "Shadowtime," the work, with music by the British composer Brian Ferneyhough and a libretto by the American poet Charles Bernstein, is loosely based on Benjamin's life and ideas. It will receive its first American performances on Thursday and Friday at the Lincoln Center Festival, directed by Frédéric Fisbach, with Jurjen Hempel leading the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam.

Benjamin's posthumous reputation soared as his writing became more widely available. Today, he is lionized in the academy, where his dense prose and seminal essays on art and technology perplex a new crop of students every year. He is the subject of countless seminars and scholarly studies. But an opera about an arcane cultural philosopher? The very premise seems puzzling, like a Zen riddle about the sound of one man thinking. Yet Benjamin's thoughts resonate boldly, often with a lyricism all their own.

Raised in a wealthy Berlin family at the turn of the 20th century, he worked as a critic and essayist, noting with acute sensitivity the emerging modern moment in art and politics, literature and society. He read the facades of cities as if they were poems that contained the secrets of history and ideology. He had a penchant for angels and dreamed of completing a work entirely of quotations. He responded to the rising fascist movements of the 1920's and 30's by zigzagging between a committed Marxism and his own curious brand of secular messianism. His essays likewise shuttled between revolution and revelation.

As the situation worsened in Europe, his friend Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, urged him to move to Palestine, and émigré colleagues beckoned from the United States. But Benjamin clung to Europe with a combination of naïveté and a principled refusal to concede defeat. He once described himself as a castaway "who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling," but from which he might signal for his rescue.

"The drama of ideas is played out in his life and his works in a strikingly dynamic manner," Mr. Ferneyhough wrote in an e-mail message, explaining his choice of subjects. "I don't see him so much as a literary critic but as a sort of magus-historian, a perplexed archangel, presiding over the sublimely catastrophic demolition of Enlightenment values taking place around him as he wrote."

The work's creators describe "Shadowtime" as a "thought opera," but listeners need not fear any direct translation of Benjamin's ideas: no arias about mechanical reproduction or dialectical duets about Baudelaire. In fact, Mr. Bernstein has almost entirely avoided quotations from Benjamin's essays. Rather, the libretto takes general Benjaminian themes of history and loss, mourning and memory, and interweaves them like musical motifs. It is mostly in English, with a bit in German and a few lines in an invented language based on a systematized transposition of English letters.

Benjamin's biography is also avoided, as is any kind of linear narrative. The only exception is the first scene, which takes place on Benjamin's final night and draws from the actual events. It's followed by strictly instrumental guitar concerto called "The Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel." The rest of the opera suggests a free-associative journey through a crepuscular netherworld stocked with figures from Benjamin's past and through various fantastical scenarios.

In this vein, the central scene envisions Benjamin traveling to the underworld, which takes the form of a Las Vegas nightclub, with a Liberace-esque pianist spinning around the stage and singing of Plato and palimpsests. Benjamin is later questioned about the future of memory by three giant disembodied mouths and a figure with two heads, one Karl Marx, one Groucho. Mr. Bernstein's libretto has long stretches of experimental poetry, including a canon based on anagrams of Walter Benjamin's name.

As you may suspect by now, the score of "Shadowtime" does not make any concessions either. At 62, Mr. Ferneyhough, who teaches at Stanford University, is an unreconstructed high modernist. His music routinely probes the extreme limits of technical and notational complexity. His scores are excruciatingly detailed, dense Gordian tangles of refracted sound and texture. (A program of his chamber works will be performed by the New Juilliard Ensemble tomorrow at the Juilliard School.)

"Shadowtime" is his first opera, and an advance rehearsal CD promises fantastically intricate music, with nothing as old-fashioned as a tune in sight. Mr. Ferneyhough also avoids traditional styles of setting text, treating Mr. Bernstein's libretto as simply another musical layer to be manipulated as one would an instrumental line. Like notes in a chord, sections of the text are stacked on top of one another and sung simultaneously, so listeners will have to rely on titles to make out the words.

The work ends with a radiant swirling elegy delivered by the Angel of History, a Benjaminian creation, who sings of failed time turned to stone, and of a restorative task: "To imagine no wholes from all that has been smashed."

"Shadowtime" had its premiere last year at the Munich Biennale, and critical reaction ranged widely. The Süddeutsche Zeitung hailed it as "an apex of modern operatic artistry," but The Sunday Times of London described it as overly cerebral, "an abstract idea of an opera rather than the thing itself." The truth may well depend on one's definition of modern opera.

Mr. Bernstein, for his part, readily concedes the many difficulties of "Shadowtime," and argues that they arise not only by design but by necessity. "Clarity is valuable in many situations, but not necessarily in art," he said in a recent interview at his Manhattan apartment. "Many will no doubt be befuddled, just as a work that seeks to be clear risks boring people. These are the risks you have to take."

Yet more seems to be at stake than simply keeping an audience challenged. When pressed, Mr. Bernstein echoes Benjamin's friend and colleague Theodor Adorno, who defended difficult music as having its own social value precisely because it teaches us how to withhold understanding and therefore helps us resist the allure of false clarity in the world beyond the concert hall. Complexity, in other words, is a worthy ideal in art because reality is even more complex and dissonant than the thorniest work of modernism, even if politicians and the commercial culture reassure us that everything is simple, clear and harmonious.

Listeners will be able to judge for themselves the effectiveness of the difficulty of "Shadowtime." Mr. Bernstein insists that its ambiguity and often impenetrable surfaces are all the more crucial because of its subject matter. At the opera's center is what he describes as "the blank space of what happened to Europe between 1940 and 1945." Attempting clarity would be futile, or simply false.

"There have been a lot of very clear books written on the subject of this catastrophe," he said. "But can anyone say that they truly understand what happened?"

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company