Opera Essentials: Wozzeck
A quick guide to Alban Berg's dark opera
The Story Begins…
Wozzeck, a poor soldier, is bullied by his superiors and tormented by visions. His girlfriend Marie and their child are the only things keeping him sane. When Marie proves unfaithful, Wozzeck loses his tenuous hold on reality…
Trapped in the Laboratory
In Keith Warner’s production Wozzeck is literally a human experiment, trapped for large sections of the opera in a white-tiled laboratory, while Marie and the child are equally trapped in a small room to the side of the stage. Warner thus highlights the misery of Wozzeck and Marie’s lives and Wozzeck’s slow descent into insanity.
From True Story to Operatic Drama
The libretto of Alban Berg’s opera is adapted from the incomplete play Woyzeck (a printing error on Berg’s edition rendered the title Wozzeck) by the 19th-century German writer Georg Büchner. Büchner in turn loosely based his play on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a barber and soldier who stabbed his mistress to death in a fit of jealousy. Arnold Schoenberg disapproved of Berg’s decision to write an opera about a seemingly sordid domestic tragedy, and told him that ‘one writes about angels, not batmen’. The tale has spawned a number of other adaptations, from ballet and film to promenade theatre.
A Lengthy Genesis
Berg began to composer Wozzeck in 1914, soon after he saw Büchner’s play; he wrote his own libretto but stopped work when he was conscripted in World War I, and took the opera up again in 1917. Wozzeck was completed in 1922. Berg spent some time searching for an opera house willing to stage it. Wozzeck was first performed at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber. It was an immediate success, and is acknowledged as a core piece in the 20th-century operatic repertory.
Emotionally Powerful, Structurally Complex
Wozzeck is a work of great structural complexity, but also of dramatic immediacy. Each scene is constructed according to rigorous abstract musical forms, but at the same time Berg brings the characters’ emotions and mental states – Wozzeck’s near-madness, the Doctor and Captain’s sadism, Marie’s tenderness and frustration – vividly to life. The regular use of folksong and popular music provides a vivid sense of place.
Listen to the score