“You Saved a Stranded Ship”

Mozart wrote three operas with one librettist, da Ponte; Ludwig van Beethoven needed three librettists for one opera, Fidelio. It took nine years and three premieres until its final version reached its place in the opera repertoire throughout the world. Here is part 2 about the origin and language of Fidelio with excerpts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.

The first librettist, Joseph Sonnleithner, translated the original libretto from French into German, but did little to keep it short and concise. After the premiere in November 1805 fell through, Beethoven immediately went to work revising the opera with another librettist, Stephan von Breuning, a court official and like Beethoven an expatriate from Bonn. Von Breuning decluttered the text and condensed the libretto from three acts to two. The opera premiered again six months later under the title Leonore, before an excited audience and more enthusiastic critics. Only this time, Beethoven and the theater management were at odds with each other. The reason for their argument is not clear. Joseph Röckel, who sang Florestan, claimed Beethoven had accused the theater management of cheating him of his fees. When the management denied the allegation, Beethoven asked for his score and left.

Leonore, a.k.a. Fidelio, would have remained a faint memory as Beethoven’s sole attempt to write an opera, had there not been three Inspizienten (stage managers) at the Viennese Theater am Kärntnertor who at the brink of poverty chose it for a benefit performance eight years later. At that time, in 1814, Beethoven was at the height of his success, and performing his music would attract a huge audience—and with it good money for the Inspizienten. Beethoven happily agreed to donate the opera, but not without major changes. He asked the manager of the Theater an der Wien, Georg Friedrich Treitschke, to work on the libretto. As playwright and director, Treitschke had a better dramatic instinct than his predecessor. He rewrote the dialogues, shortening them. Beethoven duly “tore from the score” what Treitschke considered handlungsleer (devoid of action) and kalt, as he later recalled. He objected to Beethoven’s idea of turning Florestan’s opening piece into a grand aria. A starved prisoner who is close to death would not exhibit such an outburst of energy, Treitschke argued. He changed the text and in the final lines added an angel, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich, “so similar” to Leonore, who leads Florestan to heaven. Beethoven, grateful for this solution, improvised for hours on Treitschke’s piano to work out the right music. Later he wrote to the librettist that the opera would have earned him, Beethoven, “the crown of a martyr” had Treitschke not “put into it so much effort and useful editing. You saved the stranded ship.”

The theater insisted on calling the opera Fidelio, not Leonore, as Beethoven had intended. The libretto now focused on liberation and on the struggle against tyranny. The opera itself, first performed on May 23, 1814, has been used by singers and directors as a political statement ever since.

Read soon part 3: The Language of Joy and Murder

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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