It is fascinating to think that Die Soldaten, a vast, experimental opera by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, was written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the same time during which the AMC’s popular hourlong television drama Mad Men is set. Mad Men is about the advertising world in New York just before America’s decorous lid got blown off with rock ‘n’ roll, be-ins, the Vietnam War, and all the rest. Zimmermann’s opera tried to blow the lid off of opera; his goal was “opera as total opera theater! In other words: architecture, sculpture, painting, musical theater, spoken theater, ballet, film, microphone, television, tape and sound techniques, electronic music, concrete music, circus, the musical and all forms of motion theater combined to form the phenomenon of pluralistic opera. In my Soldaten, I have attempted to take decisive steps in this direction.”
Die Soldaten was first performed in 1965 in Cologne, Germany, in a scaled-down production because it was considered “unperformable” the way Zimmermann had originally envisioned it. It has not had a lot of productions during its lifetime, so it’s always an event when anybody tries to stage the thing. The plot is based on Jakob Lenz’s play Die Soldaten (1775), which is very similar to Buchner’s Wozzeck (which also skips around in time and place). It calls for multiple stages—twelve of them, I believe—that show past, present, and future all at once. The music incorporates twelve-tone techniques, Gregorian chant, Bach chorales, a rock band, and lots more. The production coming this July to New York courtesy of Lincoln Center Festival is from the David Pountney’s 2006 staging at the Ruhr Triennale Festival in Germany, where performances took place in a large former gas power plant of a steelworks factory, with the audience seated on platforms placed on a system of railroad tracks, so they could move in and out of the action. The performances this July in the Park Avenue Armory will be part of a showcase to demonstrate the scope of what can be performed in that space.
Die Soldaten was described as “unremittingly bleak” in Peter Davis’s review of New York City Opera’s 1991 production of the opera. Its 1982 U.S. premiere, by Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, drew a review from music critic Michael Walsh that described Zimmermann (1918-1970) as a “latter-day Wagner gallantly reaching for the twentieth century’s Gesamtkunstwerk” and falling far short. The 2006 staging that New York audiences will see received better reviews.
Postscript: The publication in which Michael Walsh’s 1982 review of Die Soldaten appeared was Time, which back then still had a classical music critic on staff. It’s hard to imagine a weekly news magazine with that sort of cultural coverage today.