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Long Beach Opera to perform 'The Good Soldier Schweik'

The satiric story of a bumbling draftee during World War I is sporadically performed in the U.S. This production places the work in a circus environment.

January 17, 2010|By David Ng
  • Matthew DiBattista, with Suzan Hanson, plays the title role of Schweik in "The Good Soldier Schweik" at the Long Beach Opera.
Matthew DiBattista, with Suzan Hanson, plays the title role of Schweik… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

There are operas whose scores are hummable and whose tunes have worked their way into popular culture. And then there are operas that resist any sort of easy packaging -- operas that are, for lack of a better phrase, musical oddballs.

Robert Kurka's "The Good Soldier Schweik" is considered by some opera scholars to be one of the oddest ducks ever to grace a stage. Those who prefer their operas to color within the lines should take heed: The spastic, constantly shifting style of "Schweik" is bound to keep even the most experienced listeners on their toes.

First performed in 1958, "Schweik" combines elements of musical theater, vaudeville, jazz and Kurt Weill-esque oompah melodies into an idiosyncratic operatic experience. Infrequently produced today, the work will have a rare West Coast staging by Long Beach Opera on Saturday and Jan. 30.

Based on the comic novel by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek -- in English translation, the book comes in at more than 700 pages -- "Schweik" tells of a buffoonish young man who gets drafted into the military and who subsequently pratfalls his way through World War I. (The original novel was left unfinished by the author's death from tuberculosis in 1923.) Consisting of loosely connected episodes, the English-language opera is a military satire, slapstick comedy and bildungsroman rolled into one.

Kurka, an American composer of Czech heritage, scored the opera for an orchestra comprising only brass, woodwinds and percussion. The libretto, written by Lewis Allan, condenses the original novel into a work that runs about two hours, but the opera still remains textually dense.

"It's a very wordy libretto. Sometimes it seems like the writers were just trying to fill space," said Ken Roht, who is directing and choreographing the Long Beach production.

The director said he "wasn't a fan" of the opera when he first listened to it but added that since then he has come to respect the work for its complexities.

The Long Beach production will situate the opera in a colorful, big-top environment -- "a circus version of an Army surplus store," according to the director -- that emphasizes the surrealist elements of the work, especially the zany sense of comedy and its extremely cynical view of human nature.

Tenor Matthew DiBattista plays the title role. "The satire can feel aggressive at times," he said. "But I think audiences will accept it once they understand why it has to be that way."

He added that the role is demanding because of the wide vocal range and "the ambiguous nature" of the protagonist, who is neither heroic nor traditionally sympathetic.

Two lives cut short

The back story of "Schweik" is almost as interesting as the opera itself.

Kurka initially used the Hasek novel as an inspiration to compose an orchestral suite. Later, working with the librettist, he expanded the work into a full-fledged opera.

But like Hasek, the composer would not live to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In 1957, Kurka died of leukemia at age 35. The opera had its world premiere at New York City Opera the following year.

"Schweik" had its local premiere in 1966 at UCLA's Royce Hall by a fledgling company called the UCLA Opera Theater.

Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote at the time that the work "is a splendidly well-rounded creation in which words, drama and music are irrevocably, even sensitively, meshed."

Of the music, the critic wrote that the orchestra provided "color, constant percussive propulsion, and a good deal of sophistication" in the vein of Sergei Prokofiev. He also noted that the musical idiom "is complex in terms of texture and execution, but at the same time, it is endearingly accessible."

Since then, "Schweik" has been sporadically produced in the U.S. In 2002, the Chicago Opera Theater released what some say is the first recording of the work, conducted by Alexander Platt.

In 2003, the Glimmerglass Opera festival mounted a production starring Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role. In a tepid review, Times critic Mark Swed called Kurka's music "lightweight" and said the composer pays tribute to Weill and Darius Milhaud while sharing "little of their melodic inspiration."

Defenders of "Schweik" like to highlight the opera's antiwar message.

"The opera is about how the main character undermines a troublesome government by doing what it says to such a degree that it becomes problematic," said Rhoda Levine, who has directed "Schweik" at Glimmerglass as well as in Amsterdam and San Francisco.

She said the absence of string instruments from the score is intended to give the music a deliberately harsh, militaristic sound.

Scholars have compared the opera's satirical plot to that of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." In Eastern European countries, Hasek's original novel is still widely read and has become ingrained in the popular culture.

"We were all very familiar with the story growing up," said Andreas Mitisek, the Austrian-born artistic director of Long Beach Opera. "In the U.S., not many people know the story."

"Schweik" continues Long Beach Opera's tradition of producing offbeat works that tend to be neglected by major opera houses. Recent productions include Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen," Vivaldi's "Motezuma" and Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus & Euridice."

Mitisek, who is conducting "Schweik," described it as "a great piece of musical theater -- a cross between opera and a Broadway show." He added, "I think the opera has lost little of its bite and sarcasm. Listening to it today, you get the sense that we've learned some things about war, but not a lot."

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