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Erwartung: An allusive, psychologically wracked fable in a single continuous span

The Music Director and The Woman:

A candid conversation with Jonathan Khuner and Soprano, Mary Evelyn Hangley of Erwartung.

Erwartung is a rarely performed work. What did this opera mean to Schoenberg? And why do you think that it is rarely done?

ME: I think Jonathan is the Schoenberg expert more than I. So I will –

JK: That’s not true -

ME: It's true -

JK: And I'll tell you why she’s the person to answer this question: This opera is deliberately difficult. Schoenberg wrote it because he felt compelled to write music that was hard to grasp. Music that didn't have any logic to it. Music that came out of some place in the inner consciousness that we couldn't control … it doesn't wrap up evenly. It makes detours, and it goes places you don't expect it to…into feelings of terror and anger and murderousness and helplessness and loneliness – it goes so far out that it's almost deliberately out of control. It's also just technically difficult to perform. It's extremely complicated.

Do you agree with that, Mary Evelyn?

ME: Yes, because not only do you need a voice that can handle singing in the basement and then jumping up to the tippity-top, but you also need a musician who can hear where they need to be at any moment. And make sure they're in the right place at the right time. I like to think I'm that musician, but it is so hard even for me.

Mary Evelyn Hangley, The Woman

JK: That's why we chose you!

ME: Thank you. You know, I'm doubting myself a little bit in this process, because it's probably the hardest thing I've ever done.

Without a spoiler…What is the situation of this opera? Who is this woman?

ME: She is a woman, in the woods, looking for her lover. And I don't want to give anything else away. I feel like if we say more… What do you think, Jonathan?

JK: I might put a little differently. I might say that it's a woman who goes into the woods, looking for her lover and finds herself mixed up in a terrifying situation both externally and internally.

ME: Yes, especially internally. She finds herself in a mental situation that is difficult and out of control and painful and unmanageable.

Is there a climax?

JK: There's nothing but climax!

ME: Hahahaha, Jonathan you are selling this! And that's true. It's just that it's one thing after the other, and it doesn't give up until it's over.

There was some debate internally about whether this character is called ‘Woman’, or ‘The Woman’ or ‘A Woman’ –

JK: Okay, Okay Schoenberg titled her a woman in the score but later in letters to the director, he called her the woman. We’re looking at this woman. She is the subject.

ME: I'm happy you're not saying that this is women in general…

JK: No, no! The score here just says Die Frau. It's not like a story that stands for a larger general story, like:

ME: Myth?


JK: No, no, there's another word...


JK: No no… I can't think of the word – it’s - when you have the subject of a thing, but anybody is capable of having the thing – providing the sense that we all have some place inside us…it’s not metaphor…

Soprano Carole Sidney Louis in “Arnold Schönberg’s ‘Erwartung’: A Performance by Robin Rhode,” in Times Square. Credit: Richard Termine

You can keep thinking on the word while I ask Mary Evelyn: How is preparation for a solo opera different from other productions where you are one of several? If I might ask, what are you most hungry for in taking on in this role? And what makes you just a little bit terrified?

ME: Musically it is just a beast. It is testing my capabilities to the max. I don't feel like it's out of my grasp but…I just know that this is not Mozart. This is not like: ‘Oh, look at it once, great. With Erwartung: not happening. And then there’s stamina. This opera takes stamina.

What I am hungry for is performing. I'm still trying to get back from COVID – getting momentum going. This opera has been on my radar for 10 years now. When Jonathan asked, I jumped at Yes!

What I'm terrified about?… Hmm…the first time we put it with piano. With any other opera, you learn it, you put it with piano. Great. Not so hard. You put this with piano and it is like someone trying to push you off of a life raft. And then once I get it with piano and it’s time for orchestra…that’s going to be like 50 people try to push me off this life raft. I'm thankful that Jonathan and I have been working on this since December.

Have you come across a favorite section?

ME: I'm partial to the ending. But I also really liked the beginning, because we haven't gotten anywhere yet. I don't know… I'm not sure there's going to be a singular section, because it's just so moment by moment.

JK: I think what we haven't talked about yet, and something that is really important, is that the music has this kind of complication…as opposed to most music in which you have relative degrees of dissonance. Normally you go from very dense, complicated and disciplined towards something that’s easier to hear or more restful in terms of harmony. But this opera is as deliberately dissonant as possible. When you get used to the difficulty, eventually you hear that there's variety, a kind of a pecking order. Each chord has its own tensions, its own problems of assimilating and understanding what's just gotten wrapped up: like 10 people talking to you at the same time and you have to follow all the conversations at the same time.

I want to say one thing about the favorite spots. It's like when you're working on an opera, and somebody asks, What's your favorite opera? Oh, of course, it's X, because I'm working on X right now.

ME: Exactly! My favorite opera is always the one that I'm working on right then.

JK: It's whatever phrase you're working in. In this opera, you think, Oh, that's so true, that's so interesting, that’s so beautiful in some way…in the same way a very complicated mathematical formula might be in any given moment to a mathematician, or very, very complicated plant in any given place is to the botanist. Well, this is a complicated piece of the human mind being explored in musical terms that is continuously favorite to the open-minded musician.

Jonathan, you have been waiting to conduct this opera for a long time. What compels you to it?

JK: Well, I've always been interested in this opera because it clearly was the one-of-a-kind thorny piece that sits right in the middle of this composer’s development. And it's a challenge for anybody who loves challenges. And it’s a rare challenge - like the opportunity to climb Mount Everest.

First image, 1934) The Kolisch Quartet (L-R): Felix Khuner, Eugene Lehner, Benar Heifetz, Rudolf Kolisch. (Second Image, 1936, L-R) Gertrud Kolisch-Schoenberg, Arnold Schoenberg, unknown, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Lucca Lehner, Felix Khuner, Rudolf Kolisch, Eugene Lehner, Benar Heifetz.

My family history is that my dad was a member of the Schoenberg circle because, as a young man, he got involved in a string quartet that was interested in Schoenberg. My dad was very interested in modern music. And that carried over to me.

Musicologists were always talking about Schoenberg's music in the 1970s, trying to analyze it in a mathematical way. I found that this piece was the one that would explode all those pretentious ideas that you could map Schoenberg into mathematical patterns, because I knew that the basis of his whole art was this unmanageability, an expression leaping out.

You know he wrote a whole opera, Moses and Aron, about that - about the fact that there's the ineffable word. That if you actually compose it, you're destroying its ineffability. Schoenberg’s whole ethic was that music is always beyond what you can grasp - because what comes into somebody's creativity is just beyond what you can nail down.

A scene from Romeo Castellucci’s production of Schönberg’s Opera "Moses and Aron." Credit...Bernd Uhlig/Opéra national de Paris

And now you both are going to perform Erwartung. The uncontrollable. So what do you want audiences to know before they come into this ineffable, uncontrollable piece?

ME: I would want them to know that this could be any one of us, having this moment happen to us. Opera can be super silly, ‘who's hiding behind the bush’, you know. But this opera is very real. Look for a connection. Find that connection. Find a piece of yourself in what you're seeing.

JK: That underneath the incredible complexity this is something which is directly expressive. It's really no different from any other opera. The music and the voice are just trying to put you inside that person's mind, inside that person's psyche.

Ah hah! I thought of the word!

What’s that?

JK: The word I was looking for is allegory. This opera is very much its own, definite, one-of-a-kind portrayal. But at the same time, it’s an example of intense emotional turmoil that applies to all of us.

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