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The Lost Libretto

Explore the mystery of true beauty in The Birthday of the Infanta


A few years before his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was approached by a young man who was keen to cadge the composer for a few tips on writing symphonies.

“You are very young,” Mozart told the young tyro. “Don’t you think you should start by composing ballads?” “But you were composing symphonies when you were only ten,” the young man protested.

“Yes,” replied Mozart. “But I didn’t have to ask how.”

Some composers have all the luck. We tend to think of Mozart as only mildly tormented as far as composers go, a child prodigy who didn’t suffer overmuch for his art, at least until his declining years, because the gift he had he seemed to draw freely and continuously from some divine wellspring.

Contrast Mozart’s legacy with those of two future denizens of Vienna: composers Gustav Mahler and Alexander von Zemlinsky. As a child and young man, Mahler suffered under the tyranny of his domineering father, witnessed suicide and a brutal rape, and saw seven of his brothers and sisters die young. Simultaneously in love with life and terrified of death, he would stand transfixed outside the gates of country carnivals, completely enthralled by the babel of human voices, hurdy-gurdy, carousel and full brass band. Mahler’s assertion that the infinite tangle of sounds in the natural and human worlds formed the essence of true polyphony resulted in some of the most jarring, profoundly moving orchestral work of the early modernist period. Exhausted by a frustrating sojourn in New York, Mahler died at home in 1911, his music largely neglected in the United States until the late ’50s and early ’60s.

His wife, Alma, briefly considered marrying a contemporary and friend of Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky. She rebuffed his advances, however; whatever inner beauty or social station of Zemlinsky’s might have tempted her, she described his physical appearance in terms less than charitable. “A horrid little dwarf,” she called him, “chinless, toothless, and stinking of the coffee-houses.”

Perhaps driven by his personal identification with its central character, Zemlinsky set about to write a piece about “the tragedy of the little man” based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta,” an ornate fairy tale of a Spanish princess who receives a dwarf as a birthday present. Zemlinsky commissioned a libretto from fellow composer Franz Shreker, who had already composed a dance-pantomime on the same story. The resulting opera, known in German as Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”), proved to be Zemlinsky’s greatest success when it was first performed in Cologne in 1922, but like much of his contemporary Mahler’s work, it went largely unknown in the United States for decades.

Like Mahler, Zemlinsky was Jewish and forced to emigrate to the United States in 1938. According to violinist Felix Galimir, who knew Zemlinsky in Vienna, the composer at some point lost his sense of smell and died of blood poisoning in Larchmont, N.Y., after accidentally shaving with shoe cream and a straight razor. His most popular opera lives on, rechristened in 1981 with the title of Wilde’s work.
Hear Infanta at 7:30 PM in UM’s University Theatre. Tickets $12 adults and $10 students/seniors, available at all TIC-IT-EZ outlets, Worden’s Market and both UM box offices. Call 243-4051.

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