‘Beauty be the Prey of the Strong’: Curation and Characterisation in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten at the Bavarian State Opera

CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG, Department of Music, University of York,

In the early years of his career, the Austrian composer Franz Schreker was regarded by the public as a progressive artist and a somewhat provocative figure in musical society. With their complex scores and controversial subject matter, his operas were surrounded by an air of scandal.[1] His 1918 opera, Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatised) draws upon a quintessentially Modernist subject matter, playing host to Freudian undercurrents of sexuality and self-reflection, and dealing with complex ideas such as the nature and function of art and the ideals of beauty in the decadent setting of Renaissance Genoa. In this sense, the opera is emblematic of the fact that, as John L. Stewart suggests, Schreker was [a] ‘daring artist, [who] belonged to the heart and soul of the fin de siècle.[2] Following its premiere in Frankfurt, the success of Die Gezeichneten ushered in the beginning of Schreker’s most fruitful years as a composer. Theodor Adorno notes that during this time, ‘every stage of any significance mounted productions of […] Die Gezeichneten, and between 1918 and 1930, the work was performed in twenty-two cities.[3] The great success of the opera was owed in no small part to the Frankfurt-based critic, Paul Bekker, who lauded Schreker as a credible successor to Wagner and a promising exponent of new music, writing that the composer had created ‘new, personal formulations of the old aesthetic ideal of “opera” from the vantage point and needs of a coming age’.[4] Nevertheless, as the notion of ‘degeneracy’ began to saturate the zeitgeist of the 1920s and 30s, Schreker’s music fell out of favour, and he was ostracised from the German musical community. The composer was posthumously included in the 1938 Nazi-sponsored exhibition of Degenerate Music in Düsseldorf, where he was compared to the Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfield. Schreker’s photograph was displayed alongside the caption ‘There was no sexual-pathological aberration he would not have set to music’.[5] The composer was eliminated from the narratives of the musical canon for many years, but the last decade has seen his operas return with more frequency to European opera stages.

In July 2017, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich mounted a new production of Die Gezeichneten, produced by Krzysztof Warlikowski with the collaborative efforts of Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set and costume design) and Denis Guéguin (cinematography). Arguably, the interpretation and presentation of Alviano and Carlotta in this production provided a platform for the exploration and articulation of the opera’s fundamental themes, particularly given the presentation of both protagonists as artists – Carlotta as a ‘portrait artist’ and Alviano as the curator of his aesthetic paradise. This paper therefore critically examines the characterisation of the ‘stigmatised’ central protagonists in Warlikowski’s production by unpicking various aspects of the original libretto and their reimagining and reinterpretation at the National Theatre. Particular attention will be paid to the concept of curation, with regards to both Alviano’s creation of Elysium (depicted in the Munich production as a museum), and the production itself, which presented itself as an exercise in the careful selection and exhibition of popular cultural references to form a complex network of imagery and metaphor.

Beginning with a consideration of Alviano from the perspective of disability studies, this paper firstly aims to uncover the extent to which Warlikowski’s production mirrors and manipulates his characterisation within the restrictive confines of archetypal disability representation. The subsequent consideration of Carlotta – who raises questions about gendered constructions of artistic and sexual autonomy – will illuminate the extent to which the binary notions of beauty and ugliness, victimhood and villainy, and violence and love hold sway over both protagonists. Finally, this paper will consider the extent to which Warlikowski’s production communicated the complexly self-reflective (and perhaps even self-indulgent) aspects of Schreker’s opera, which are brought to the fore in the 2017 production as a consequence of both characterisation and curation.


Die Gezeichneten centers around the love triangle between the hunchbacked nobleman Alviano Salvago, described as ‘Genoa’s Ugliest Man;’ the handsome Count Tamare, who kidnaps and rapes the young women of Genoa; and the beautiful painter Carlotta, whose outward appearance hides a hidden heart defect that ultimately proves fatal. The action takes place on an island created (or curated) by Alviano as a shrine of aesthetic beauty and an attempt to compensate for his inability to attract a sexual partner. The opera begins as Alviano discovers the misuse of Elysium by his noblemen friends, who have used the island as a ‘grotto’ of sexual misconduct, transforming it into a hotbed of depravity. The protagonist consequently resolves to gift his island paradise to the people of Genoa. The city officials visit the island to discuss arrangements with Alviano, and the Podestà is accompanied by his daughter, Carlotta. She rejects the romantic solicitations of Tamare, and instead, expresses an interest in Alviano. Alviano and Carlotta exchange a confession of love whilst she paints his portrait, but she ultimately gives in to the sexual advances of the hedonistic Tamare. Alviano initially believes that Tamare has raped Carlotta, but upon discovering that she gave herself freely, the broken-hearted protagonist stabs and kills the count. Carlotta is overwhelmed with horror and revulsion, and dies calling out for Tamare. The dissolution of his hopes for love drives Alviano to madness.

The Aesthetics of Impairment and Stereotypes of Disabled Morality

The opera’s central protagonist, Alviano, is described in the libretto as an ‘ugly man of about 30 years, hunchbacked, big shining eyes, hurried’ (sslicher Mann von ungefähr 30 Jahren, bucklig, grosse leuchtende Augen, hastig). Throughout the work, he laments the fact that nature has given him ‘this grimace and this hump’ (dieser Fratze und diesem Höcker), and describes himself as ‘a fool, a cripple! A beggar, a monster’ (Ein Narr, ein Krüppel! Ein Bettler, ein Scheusal!).[6] In Schreker’s original libretto and in the 2017 production, Alviano is presented as being largely ‘able-bodied’ in terms of his mobility on stage, and in that the descriptions of his impairment more frequently refer to aesthetic qualities as opposed to physical pain and difficulties with mobility. On the one hand, theatrical considerations make this a more convenient choice when considering the practicalities of performing disability. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the distinctly aesthetic quality of Alviano’s disability bears more weight in the narrative than the practical implications of physical impairment. In light of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s understanding of disabled bodies as ‘magnets to which culture secures its anxieties,’ the appropriation of disability in the opera’s narrative can be perceived as a vehicle for sociocultural commentary regarding the aesthetic ideals of health and beauty, and illustrative of the preoccupation with the visibility of ‘otherness’ that was so ingrained in the public mindset at the time in which the opera was composed.[7]

Joseph N. Straus suggests that ‘the subtle narratives of disability […] intersect in complex and interesting ways with two other related cultural categories: the grotesque and the degenerate, which are themselves intertwined.’[8] The idea that disability (or, indeed, any visible manifestation of difference) is a signifier of internal, psychological or moral fault has long been found by disability theorists to be a prevalent theme in cultural representations of disability. This was a concept at the heart of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century degeneration theory, as degeneracy was thought to be visibly transparent, allowing the differentiation of the morally decrepit individual from the ‘healthy’ members of society. Max Nordau’s understanding of the degenerate artist as displaying the same ‘somatic features’ as ‘criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics’ encapsulates the typical association of the deviant body with the degenerate personality by those who subscribed to the idea of degeneracy.[9] Nordau’s reference to ‘somatic features’ calls to mind the then culturally prevalent pseudoscience of phrenology, which aimed to measure, calculate, and document the human skull with a view to documenting personality types and detecting ‘abnormalities.’ This historical context lends new meaning to the interpretation of Alviano’s disability in Warlikowski’s production, where the protagonist’s impairment is depicted as a facial deformity which he frequently hides with a burlap sack. Such a reading is further elucidated by the application of contemporary disability studies.

The disability theorist Paul Longmore points out the prevalence of ‘monstrous’ disabled villains within films from the horror genre, where extreme physical disfigurement (typically of the face and head) are connected to gross deformities of personality and soul.[10] In narratives featuring such representational stereotypes, disabled characters are often excluded from ‘normal’ society, whilst their disability is portrayed as a cause of or punishment for evil, and associated with the loss of humanity. Schreker’s opera documents Alviano’s place on the margins of society, with the protagonist’s fate reinforcing the stereotypical conflation of disability and danger; he eventually loses control and kills Tamare, subjecting Carlotta to danger along the way. This is an example of what Longmore defines as the ‘spread effect,’ whereby the disabled character is perceived as lacking in humanity and self-control, and thus represents a danger to society.[11] The murder of Tamare is a display of the formulaic ‘violent loss of self-control [which] results in the exclusion of the disabled person from human community.’[12] Alviano’s loss of sanity at the end of the opera can be interpreted as emphasizing his elimination from ‘normal’ society, thereby aligning his character with that of the conventional disabled ‘monster’. The 2017 production accentuated the idea of monstrosity through the projection of a montage of classic horror scenes featuring Frankenstein’s monster, Nosferatu, the Golem, and the Phantom of the Opera.

Moreover, Alviano’s costume at the Bavarian State Opera, complete with facial prosthetics occasionally covered with a burlap sack, was a nod to John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in David Lynch’s Elephant Man (1980). Here, Merrick is the object of the ‘stare’ in both the freak show and the hospital, and in this way, Lynch’s film is concerned with the play between the observed disabled body and the stares of the non-disabled spectator.[13] According to Kenneth C. Kaleta, Elephant Man ‘focuses not on what is, but on how it is seen’, and his assessment is also applicable to the representation of disability in Schreker’s opera.[14] In that it is principally concerned with the visual impact of disability, Die Gezeichneten metaphorises impairment in order to articulate the theme of outsider identity. In the Munich production, Alviano’s elephant man costume also facilitates an understanding of the protagonist as a tragically-fated victim of society’s standards of conventional aesthetic beauty. In this sense, the production highlights the fact that Schreker’s opera is removed from the stereotypical tendency of disability narratives to utilise physical impairment as a visual or descriptive cue for the polarised character tropes of villainy or victimhood. Instead, Warlikowski’s production highlights the moral ambiguities of Alviano’s character: whether or not his outward appearance indicates internal depravity is open for interpretation.

In the opera’s opening scene, Alviano discovers the exploitation of the island by his friends, who regale him with sinister accounts of kidnap and rape in the so-called ‘grotto,’ which for them is ‘especially created for festivals of love’ (p. 131). Alviano rebukes the noblemen for their tales of corruption and sexual depravity and laments his role in creating the island, yet his words also cast aspersions onto his motivations for gifting the island. Covetous of his friends’ hedonistic ability to embrace ‘what life willingly offers,’ Alviano bemoans his appearance and goes on to curse being burdened with ‘such a feeling, such a greed!’ (p. 18). Thus, the altruistic intentions of Alviano’s gift to the people of Genoa are called into question, as the protagonist’s words imply envy rather than virtue. In addition to implying his possible role as the archetypal disabled criminal, this introductory scene encapsulates a central aspect of the protagonist’s moral ambiguity – his sexuality.

Moral Ambiguity and Disabled Sexuality

Literature considering the construction of images of and ideas about disabled sexuality – both in reality and in fictional representation – reveals the prevalence of two polarised stereotypes: asexuality (sexual lack) and hypersexuality (sexual excess). Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, for example, describe the linking of disability and sex as inciting ‘marginalization or marveling,’ whilst the depiction of disabled people’s sexuality is limited to contradictory notions of ‘tragic deficiency or freakish excess’.[15] The ambiguity of Alviano’s moral character in Die Gezeichneten can be partly considered to be a result of his indistinct adherence to any one of these archetypal categories of disabled sexuality. Schreker’s opera wades deep into the waters of eroticism, and is saturated with references to taboos, from orgies and ritualistic sexual violence to connotations of sexual ownership and the dangers of carnal desire. In the Munich production, the eroticism of the opera is personified by a voluptuous, burlesque dancer, who takes to the stage at various points in the production; and is occasionally accompanied by a troupe of androgynous yet decadently clad ballet dancers.

Throughout the work, Alviano’s pursuit of aesthetic beauty is surrounded by notions of depravity, sexual indulgence, and malevolence. At certain points in the libretto, however, the protagonist is beleaguered by his inability to attract a sexual partner. The narrative depiction of characters with disabilities as sexually disinterested or inept echoes the way in which, as Carrie Sandahl suggests, ‘the diagnostic gaze aimed at disabled bodies tends to negate sexuality.’[16] Whilst this might lead to people with disabilities being viewed as being deficient in sexual potential or potency, Alviano’s sexual lack is framed as a problem of desirability, rather than one concerning the existence of desires or their fulfilment. Moreover, his interactions with Carlotta suggest that his presumed inability to attract a sexual partner are partially self-inflicted (an issue which, in itself, draws upon another stereotype of disabled characterisation). In Act One, for example, as Carlotta expresses an interest in Alviano as a subject for a painting, the protagonist interprets her proposal (which is romantically and sexually loaded) as derisive:

Maybe as a fool in a painting,
amongst beautiful gentlemen and women,
effective as contrast –
with a cap and bells –
the humpback would not fit badly –
with the mockery of the people –
immortalised forever! (pp.85-86).

Longmore outlines a trend in disability narratives whereby disabled characters ‘spurn opportunities for romance because of a lack of self-acceptance, a disbelief that anyone could love him or her with their “imperfections.”’[17] In Act Two, during the atelier scene, the protagonist repeatedly rebuffs Carlotta’s advances, believing them to be scornful and sarcastic. On the one hand, Carlotta’s earnestness contradicts the impression of Alviano’s stigmatisation and the associated binary representation of disabled sexuality as either lacking or excessive. Yet Alviano can be understood as undergoing a process of self-inflicted Othering, as a result of which his disability is framed as an individual struggle, as opposed to a matter of societal prejudice. This allows the inversion of social reality as well as the abandonment of the audiences’ anxieties about disability.[18] In this sense, only Alviano can be to blame for his inability to accept his physical appearance and the associated negation of Carlotta’s affections and advances. His marginalisation is presented as being somewhat self-imposed, whilst the opera’s non-disabled characters, as well as audience, are granted freedom from the responsibility for his stigmatisation. This is a wider issue where stories about disability are concerned, since, as Lennard Davis observes, the ‘narrativizing’ of impairment tends to ‘link it to the bourgeois sensibility of individualism and the drama of an individual story’.[19]

Whilst Alviano’s eventual acceptance of Carlotta’s affection may represent a kind of ‘overcoming’ narrative on the one hand, Schreker’s stage directions as the protagonist embraces the idea of a relationship with Carlotta reinforce another negative stereotype of disabled sexuality on the other. The representation of Alviano’s sexuality shifts from the tragically lacking to the dangerously excessive, as he is described as ‘devouring her figure with burning glances’ (p. 125); and becomes ‘gripped by violent desperate passion’ (p. 135). Here, the characterisation of Alviano brings the stereotypical association of disability with deterministic assumptions of sexual deviance and excess into play, thus aligning the protagonist’s behaviour with that of the stock disabled ‘monster.’ Nevertheless, Alviano’s simultaneous portrayal as a tragic victim of fate calls his villainy into question, and highlights the moral ambiguity of his character. Alviano is brought back into line with the dramatic conventions of victimhood when he is framed and wrongly accused of kidnapping and abusing Ginevra Scotti in Act Three. This misinterpretation of his character by the people of Genoa, along with his abandonment by Carlotta in favour of the physically healthy Tamare, can also be understood as a means by which Schreker critiques the cultivation and celebration of conventional aesthetic ‘norms’ and the associated demonization of those who fail to meet society’s standards of normality.

The words ‘beauty be the prey of the strong’ (Die Schönheit sei Beute des Starken) feature at various points in the libretto as the protagonist’s personal motto; and are bound up with the ideological binaries of beauty and ugliness and eroticism and violence that are at the heart of the opera. With Alviano at odds with the constructions of aesthetic convention, the island of Elysium can be interpreted as a projection of his desire to possess (or make prey of) aesthetic beauty, and a loaded attempt to fulfil his yearning. More specifically, as Peter Franklin suggests, the island may represent a paradoxical attempt for redemption, in Freudian terms, as ‘compensation for Alviano’s inability to attract a sexual partner.’[20] The multifaceted conceptual framework of the Munich production begins to unpick some of the complex messages at the heart of Schreker’s opera, whilst the wealth of accompanying cultural references also allow it to raise questions of its own. Here, complex notions of responsibility, the nature of art, the ideals of beauty, and the nature of creative autonomy are brought to the fore.

Artistic Autonomy and Female Performance

Whilst the title of Schreker’s opera is most commonly translated into English as ‘the stigmatized,’ another possible interpretation might be ‘the drawn.’ The idea of artistic agency is a central theme in the libretto, and appears to play a comparably substantial role in Warlikowski’s production. Allusions to recent art history – and popular performance art in particular – foster themes of creative identity and autonomy; and raise questions about the relationship between artist and subject, and artwork and performance. Such questions are articulated most clearly in the presentation of the artist, Carlotta.

In reference to Schreker’s friend and contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, in the original libretto, Carlotta claims to be able to ‘paint souls,’ and her works feature human hands.[21] The Munich production maintains yet modernises the association of Carlotta with a well-known artist, as her character is interpreted as the ‘grandmother of performance art,’ Marina Abramović. Given the prevalence of her work in the extravagant programme book, Abramović’s influence seems to have loomed large over the dramaturgical vision for the Munich production. The atelier scene of the second act is staged as The Artist is Present, an extended performance that took place at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) in 2010. For three months, Abramović sat motionless for the entire day in the museum’s atrium, where she was positioned at a table across from a stream of audience members. The artist described the way in which, for ‘maybe six, seven, eight minutes – they would enter this zone where sound disappears. I disappear. They become mirrors of themselves. And these incredible emotions surfaced.’[22] In Die Gezeichneten, Carlotta speaks of her preference for painting souls, revealing her desire to depict her subjects’ innermost self – a creative vision that appears somewhat aligned with that of Abramović, at least in this production. In Act Two of the Munich production, Carlotta and her subject (Alviano) sit across from one another at a small table, and like Abramović, the opera’s female protagonist exists in this moment as both artist and artwork.

Questions about the relationship between art and gender are raised at various points in the libretto, for example, in the inclusion of the words ‘Woman – you do not understand: that is “art”’ (p. 203). The programme for Warlikowski’s production includes a short excerpt from an article published in Der Zwischenakt for the Munich premiere of the opera in 1919. Here, Hermann Swoboda asserts that ‘if the term feminine genius has justification at all, then it is valid only in relation to performing artists, and not in relation to creative artists’ (Wenn die Bezeichnung weibliches Genie überhaupt Berechtigung hat, dann kann sie nur von der darstellenden Künstlerin, nicht aber von der schaffenden gelten).[23] The author further proposes that the principle difference between the genius of man and woman is that whilst ‘the man produces works, the woman produces herself’ (Der Mann produziert Werke, die Frau produziert sich).[24] Given the decision to include this (somewhat contentious) excerpt in the programme, Warlikowski’s depiction of Carlotta as Abramović might be interpreted not only as an effort to align the opera’s female artist with a comparable contemporary, but also to emphasise her place on the borderline between artist and performer, and to detach her from traditional (if outmoded) connotations of ‘serious’ art. For Sherry D. Lee, Schreker’s endowment of Carlotta with artistic ability emboldens and empowers her, especially given her designation as a portrait artist – which suggests her appropriation of the gaze – and in light of the contemporary policy debates regarding the admission of women into esteemed art schools.[25] From Swoboda’s perspective, however, the craft of portraiture arguably only grants Carlotta mimetic ability, as opposed to ‘true’ artistic genius, whilst her depiction as a painter of souls places her at odds with the notion of ‘serious’ art. In this sense, her role as both creator and performer renders her autonomy as an artist compromised.

Arguably, certain parallels can be drawn between Carlotta’s treatment and fate as an artist and as a sexually independent woman. Whilst in the studio with Alviano, she reveals that she has an illness that renders her unable to act upon her sexual desires. The two protagonists profess their love, but Carlotta’s fears of the dangers of sexual arousal exacerbate her condition, and she collapses from exhaustion upon completion of her artwork. Nevertheless, a change of heart leads to her rejection of Alviano and surrender to the amorous advances of Tamare in Act Three. Upon discovery of their tryst, Alviano’s initial assumption that Tamare has raped Carlotta seems to upset the protagonist less than the revelation that she gave herself freely. Her death at the end of Act Three can therefore be understood as neutralising both her artistic and sexual autonomy, an idea that, in Warlikowski’s production, is expounded by the dramaturgical nature of her death. Carlotta climbs into a glass case shortly before her demise, engendering an image reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s performance piece The Maybe, which took place at MoMA in 2013, and of David Lachapelle’s painting Lonely Doll (1998), both of which are pictured in the production’s programme.

Tilda Swinton and Joanna Scanlan describe the ‘elision of Swinton as the author’ of The Maybe in light of her attribution in the mainstream art press as playing a strictly performative (as opposed to conceptual or creative) role in the piece.[26] This, they suggest, is ‘partly as a consequence of her willfully presenting herself in a vitrine as an “object” or fetish (like an artwork), The Maybe provides a case study for […] the shift of the “author” to a position of objectification.’[27] Carlotta’s placement in the glass case in the 2017 Munich production of Die Gezeichneten might be similarly interpreted as purging the female protagonist of her artistry, whilst the sustained exhibition of her body after her death consigns her to the status of morbid installation in Alviano’s Elysium. Indeed, the island paradise might be more accurately described (in this production, at least) as a gallery or museum, particularly given the extent to which the production centres around artistic references (as evidenced in the programme). In this sense, Carlotta’s fate as an artefact of the island implies the distorted realisation of Alviano’s desire to possess beauty, which is articulated through the creation/curation of the island. Moreover, when considered in conjunction with the aforementioned debates about female attendance of art institutions around the time of the opera’s composition, alongside gendered discourses about creative genius such as Swoboda’s, Carlotta’s death implies the re-establishment of the hegemonic norm featuring Alviano as an archetype of ‘true’, masculine, creative genius.

Mirror Images: The Artist is Present

The suggestion of Alviano’s role as an artist was most strikingly communicated in the Munich production following the interval, before the resumption of the opera with the third act. Here, John Daszak (as both Alviano and Schreker) recites the composer’s self-deprecating and deeply ironic description of himself and his art. Mein Charakterbild (A Sketch of my Character, 1921) is comprised of incongruous judgements levelled against the composer, which he expresses with bitter irony, and which seemed to foreshadow his denunciation as a ‘degenerate’ composer by the Nazis in the coming years.

I am an impressionist, an expressionist, an internationalist, a futurist, a musical verist, a Jew, a Christian [..] a sound artist […] I am (unfortunately) an erotomaniac and have a corruptive influence on the German audience […] I am also an idealist (Thank you God!), symbolist, on the left wing of modernism (Schoenberg, Debussy), not standing too far left […] I am an antipode of Pfitzner, the only successor of Wagner; a competitor of Strauss and Puccini; I appeal to the audience; write only to make people angry, and recently I seriously considered to emigrate to Peru. What – for heaven’s sake – am I not? I am not (yet) crazy, no megalomaniac, not bitter; I am no ascetic, no bungler or dilettante; and I have never written a critique.[28]

The inclusion of this material alludes once again to the relationship between performance and artwork, as well as artist and subject. The material itself draws upon some of the deeply self-reflective aspects of the work. Its narration by Daszak whilst in character as Alviano – which one can read as a not-so-subtle nod to the title of Abramović’s performance piece – sheds light on some of the similarities between Schreker and his protagonist. Certain quasi-biographical aspects of the opera were observed (perhaps unintentionally) by one reviewer of its 1919 Munich premiere, which was conducted by Bruno Walther. The critic A. Albert Noelte describes Schreker as ‘an artistic individual blessed with real creativity, a personality with the purest passion for beauty who will never give up his artistic convictions for a safe success,’ and proclaims that ‘a few scenes […] bring to life an emotive world of strongest intensity’ which can only ‘originate from a passionate, overflowing soul of a musician.’[29] Arguably, these descriptions of the composer and his work ally Schreker with Alviano, particularly given the so-called ‘passion for beauty’ with which the composer is credited, and which he also bestows upon his protagonist. The use of the word ‘soul’ draws an additional comparison with Carlotta’s artistry.

The creation of the protagonist’s outsider identity can be understood, in light of such a reading, as a form of self-portrait on behalf of the composer, particularly given his sardonic summary of the criticisms levelled against him. Disability, then, is appropriated as a powerful marker of difference, and as a vehicle through which to emblematise a form of estrangement from the expected aesthetic norm. This sheds light on Franklin’s description of Die Gezeichneten as a contribution ‘to discourses about art and degeneracy in the spirit of the times in which it was written.’[30] That the work can be seen as a form of cultural commentary, most notably with regards to its engagement with the emphasis placed on the conventions of aesthetic beauty, is evidenced in Schreker’s own comments on the creation of the work:

I succumbed – miserable, unpatriotic, un-German fellow that I was, under the spell of my work – to the ruinous influence of Southern magic, and gave Italianate colouring to the Italian setting! The war came, and popular feeling carried over destructively into art. So I became an ‘Internationalist’. Even in 1913 when I began the work I foresaw, like a second Nostradamus, with the prophet’s speculative eye, the coming events. Already – unconsciously considering the situation with regards to rates of exchange – I have an eye still open for the borders. The collapse of Germany, even the decline of our culture, is clearly presaged in the music and in the degenerate character [degenerierten Charakter] of this work, like [the] writing on the wall.[31]

The ‘popular feeling’ to which Schreker refers might be the notion of degeneracy that had forged a path from the scientific to the cultural, saturating the spirit of the times with ideas about the potential for works of art to be ‘degenerate.’ Ideas about degeneracy began to appear in music criticism from the closing years of the nineteenth century and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to World War II. At this time, medical vernacular was frequently appropriated to condemn certain musical works as ‘sick’ or ‘unhealthy.’ In 1912, for example, the music critic Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again.’[32] In this light, Alviano’s outsider identity serves as a grim foreshadowing of Schreker’s fate under the creeping anti-Semitic regime that would lead to the demise of his career and his early death in 1934 – less than a year after Hitler’s rise to power.

Closing Thoughts

Just as the opera’s central protagonist creates (or curates) the Island of Elysium as a shrine of art and aesthetic beauty, the 2017 Munich production of Die Gezeichneten presents itself as an exercise in the careful selection and presentation of popular cultural artefacts in an effort to hone in on a pertinent set of questions or messages. The opera is a product of the zeitgeist that brought about Expressionism, psychoanalysis, and modernist art and literature, yet also provided a backdrop for the development of medically-imbued discourses of degeneracy and decline that contributed to the rising social and cultural anxieties that eventually became the central premises of Nazi-era fascism. In the programme for the Munich production, the dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck wrote:

We do not live in times when we needed intoxicating fantasies, even less do we need to realize utopian world designs. In a present where realities are manipulated, a back reference to the complexity of our world would be more important than ever in the spaces of theatrical experiences, such as galleries, museums, or opera houses.[33]

Given Die Gezeichneten’s fall to obscurity under the implications of ‘degeneracy’, Hakenbeck’s words seem similarly pertinent to the time in which Die Gezeichneten was composed. Serving as a kind of cultural artefact, the opera is bound up with the spirit of its time, whilst its fate at the hands of the Nazis’ take on cultural degeneracy and its subsequent rediscovery echo many of its most complex themes. Within the microcosm of Schreker’s opera, complex notions of creativity, truth, obsession, eroticism, destruction, and abnormality are encapsulated in the words ‘Beauty be the prey of the strong,’ but as Hakenbeck’s comments suggest, these themes transcend the historical context in which the opera was composed.

The curtain rose to reveal Szczęśniak’s stage design consisting of a large conference table, a well-stocked bar with plush red leather stools, and vast mirrored panels in which the audience of the National Theatre is reflected on the stage. Whilst a brief perusal through the programme before the performance would have provided most audience members with several clues, this opening moment clarifies the fact that we were not in the Italian Renaissance setting of Schreker’s original, but in the present. Therefore, the imposing mirror image serves as a harbinger of the fact that the artificial, fragile world of Alviano’s Elysium is closer than we think.


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Lee, Sherry D., ‘“deinen Wuchs wie Musik”: Portraits, Identities, and the Dynamics of seeing in Berg’s Operatic Sphere’ in Alban Berg and His World, ed. by Christopher Hailey (Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2010), 163-194.

Longmore, Paul, ‘Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People’ in Social Policy 16, no. 1 (Summer 1985), 31-37.

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McRuer, Robert, and Anna Mollow, Sex and Disability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

Mogk, Marja Evelyn (ed.), Different Bodies: Essays on Disability in Film and Television, (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 2013).

Noelte, A. Albert, ‘Die Gezeichneten’, c.1919, trans. by Mirjam Galley. Review of the Munich premiere of Die Gezeichneten (1919) held at the Deutsches Theatermuseum (Munich). No date or publication name is provided.

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Sandahl, Carrie, ‘Queering the crip and cripping the queer: Intersections of queer and crip identities in solo autobiographical performance’ in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9, no. 1-2 (2003), 25-56.

Schreker-Bures, H., H.H. Stuckenschmidt and W. Oehlmann, Franz Schreker (Vienna, 1970).

Schreker, Franz, Die Gezeichneten, vocal score ed. Walther Gmeindl (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1916).

——, ‘Mein Charakterbild’ in Musikblätter des Anbruch (April 1921), reprinted in Paul Bekker, Franz Schreker: Studie zur Kritik der modernen Oper (1918) (Aachen: Rimbaud Presse, 1983), 11-12.

Straus, Joseph, and Neil Lerner (eds.), Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

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Walsh, Maria, Art and Psychoanalysis, (London: IB Tauris, 2013).

Ziegler, Hans Severus, Entartete Musik – Eine Abrechnung (Düsseldorf: Der Völkische Verlag, 1938), quoted in Christopher Hailey, Franz Schreker, 1878-1934: A cultural biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1993).


[1] Peter Franklin, ‘“Wer weiss, Vater, ob das nicht Engel sind?” Reflections on the Pre-Fascist Discourse of Degeneracy in Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten in Music, Theatre and Politics in Germany: 1848 to the Third Reich, ed. by Nikolaus Bacht (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), pp. 173-210 (pp. 174-175).

[2] John L. Stewart, ‘The Composer Views his Time’ in Ernst Krenek, Horizons Circled: Reflections on My Music (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 98-120 (p. 103).

[3] Theodor Adorno, Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London and New York: Verso, 1998), p. 130, and Marc Moskovitz, Alexander Zemlinsky: A lyric Symphony (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010), p. 171.

[4] Paul Bekker, Neue Musik (Stuttgart and Berlin: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1923), p. 76, quoted in Christopher Hailey, Franz Schreker, 1878-1934: A Cultural Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 98.

[5] Hans Severus Ziegler, Entartete Musik – Eine Abrechnung (Düsseldorf: Der Völkische Verlag, 1938), quoted in Hailey, Franz Schreker, p. 326.

[6] Franz Schreker, Die Gezeichneten, vocal score ed. Walther Gmeindl (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1916), p. 19, 289. (All translations from this source are my own. All further page references to this work will be in brackets in the main text.)

[7] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 2.

[8] Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, ed. by Joseph Straus and Neil Lerner (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p. 262. (Original emphasis).

[9] Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: William Heinemann, 1895), p. vii.

[10] Paul Longmore, ‘Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People’ in Social Policy 16, no. 1 (Summer 1985), 31-37 (pp. 32-33).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For an overview of the concept of the ‘stare’ in relation to disability theory, see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ‘Staring at the Other’ in Disability Studies Quarterly 25, no.4 (Fall 2005).

[14] Kenneth C. Kaleta, David Lynch (New York: Twayne, 1993), p. 49.

[15] Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, Sex and Disability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[16] Carrie Sandahl ‘Queering the crip and cripping the queer: Intersections of queer and crip identities in solo autobiographical performance’ in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9, no 1-2 (2003), 25-56 (p. 46).

[17] Longmore, p. 36.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London and New York: Verso, 1995), p. 4.

[20] Franklin, p. 177.

[21] See Hailey, Franz Schreker, pp. 65-66.

[22] Marina Abramović, quoted in Maria Walsh, Art and Psychoanalysis, (London: IB Tauris, 2013), p. 123.

[23] Herman Swoboda, ‘Die darstellende Künstlerin’ in Der Zwischenakt (Feb. 1919), quoted in Programme for Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, 2017, p. 90. (My translation)

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sherry D. Lee, ‘“deinen Wuchs wie Musik”: Portraits, Identities, and the Dynamics of seeing in Berg’s Operatic Sphere’ in Alban Berg and His World, ed. by Christopher Hailey (Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 179.

[26] Tilda Swinton and Joanna Scanlan, ‘The Maybe: Modes of Performance and the “Live”’ in Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, ed. by Amelia Jones, Adrian Heathfield (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books, 2012), p. 471.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Franz Schreker, ‘Mein Charakterbild’ in Musikblätter des Anbruch (April 1921), reprinted in Paul Bekker, Franz Schreker: Studie zur Kritik der modernen Oper (1918) (Aachen: Rimbaud Presse, 1983), pp. 11-12.

[29] A. Albert Noelte, ‘Die Gezeichneten’, c.1919, trans. by Mirjam Galley. Review of the Munich premiere of Die Gezeichneten (1919) held at the Deutsches Theatermuseum (Munich). No date or publication name is provided.

[30] Franklin, p. 177.

[31] H. Schreker-Bures, H.H. Stuckenschmidt and W. Oehlmann, Franz Schreker (Vienna, 1970), p. 22, translated and quoted in Franklin, p. 176. [The original source for this quotation was a short biographical study in Spanish by Schreker’s daughter, Heidi Schreker-Bures, El caso Schreker (Buenos Aires, 1968), the majority of this text was translated in her subsequent collaboration with Stuckenschmidt and Oehlmann (cited above)].

[32] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsätze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), pp. 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, ‘Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival’ in On Mozart ed. by James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 204.

[33] Miron Hakenbeck, ‘Anstelle eines Guides durch Alvianos Elysium’ in Programme for Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, 2017, p. 90. (My translation).