A Report On the Progress of the Opera

By Christopher Fulkerson


CF at the Grave of Arnold Schoenberg

"You may never get to touch the Master,
but you can tickle his creatures."
Proverbs for Paranoids, I
Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Quoted in CF's

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I have been working at all possible moments on a three-act opera about the trial of the major war criminals held in the German city of Nuernberg after World War II. It may be the sin of hubris to think I can do this, given my situation as a working man, but I have to have a reason to live don't I? This project exists in a well-worked out bullet-point scenario; an extensive prose scenario with hundreds of additional notes (actually, THOUSANDS of additional notes); and two scenes of the libretto that are complete. It was probably inevitable that I would find a World War Two theme appropriate, since one of the principal thematic trajectories of THE FESTIVAL is a progress through the Twentieth Century. Up until now, the chief World War metaphor within THE FESTIVAL has been THE CHILDERMASS.

Here is how the project began, and a report on the work's progress:

During the mid-1990s I began reading about World War II with an eye to determining a possible operatic subject. There were a variety of topics that interested me, for dramatic reasons mostly set in Europe: something about Werner Heisenberg; a piece about St. Maximilain Kolbe; and the Nuernberg Trial were the main pegs I hung ideas on. I make no apology for being a Germanophile, and anybody who thinks I can't also be a Francophile or Italophile or Judaphile, and pretty much an admirer of any or all of the cultures that were at each other's throats during the first half of the Twentieth Century, has a problem that I don't have.

That my mind was sorting through TNT as a possible topic is evidenced by a letter I wrote to the lexicographer David Crystal; he replied in a note of January 12, 1996 to certain of my inquiries about the defendants in the first and best-known of the dozen or so trials held at Nuernberg. A copy of this note is now in the "day book" I began keeping on February 14, 1997, in which I keep some of the correspondence this project has involved, and which I have also used as a sign-in book for public presentations of my music. (After experiencing the shock of having a lot of my literary reseach stolen by Francis Ford Coppola and used in his incorrectly titled movie "Bram Stoker's Drakula," I decided that from then on I would document any correspondence that could be important in the opera. THE DAY BOOK OF TNT has copies of correspondence of various artist's managements, music professionals, and even an email string with the Dean of a major American law school. This time, anybody who wants to steal my ideas will encounter a lot of obstacles.)

My TNT project got some important encouragement when I met the American tenor William "Bud" Cochran, who lives in Europe. I think it is fair to say that without this important singer's encouragement I would not have started the research in earnest. When Bud and I met - not at a musical function, but in my cab - I already knew his singing from his fantastic performance of Mephistopheles in Busoni's DOKTOR FAUST. Since he is a tenor I told him about my piece SCRITTI DI LEONARDO. He was very interested in my ideas for operas, and invited me to hear him sing Herod with the San Francisco Opera in January 1997 (the performance was in the Civic Auditorium, since the Opera House was closed for earthquake retrofitting). When I went back stage he gave me his summary recommendation: he felt that the Nurnberg Trial was the best of the ideas I had mentioned to him. He also introduced me to an old friend of his, James Sullivan, and since Jim lives in the Bay Area he and I were in touch for awhile. Jim gave me a copy of the Ann and John Tusa book The Nuremberg Trial; interestingly, this book given by a musician has suggested more musical ideas than any other single work on the subject. Jim thought that TNT should be similar in style to Ligeti, and though that's not exactly what I have in mind, I certainly like most of Ligeti's music enough that the notion was congenial to me. I suppose my TNT would be a different kind of "Grande Macabre."

In 1997 I wrote a prose scenario of a three-act opera and began to test this scenario against other research I conducted. Most of this stood the test of time until January of 2011, when the intensity of the research increased by several notches for about twelve months. More recently however I have had to set TNT aside to work on a theater piece for the Ensemble A Piacere in Amsterdam... but this is the kind of problem I want, isn't it?

The opera's gist in certainly not simply "the punishment of those bad Germans." There will be fights among the lawyers and the judges too, some drunk Russians and in general the perspective is sometimes more psychiatricly- than coutroom-oriented. In fact in a number of ways the simplistic "good guys vs. bad guys" interpretation will be mitigated. For example, despite the fact that the Nazis were guilty of many crimes, in their interrogations and testimonies they made it clear that the West was going to have big problems with the Soviet Union. Since the Nazis were right about this, my TNT will I hope not seem to be making them into mere wicked stick figures, at least not on this point. This was clear to everyone in the trial itself, when, from the beginning, the Soviets wanted to make a sham of justice with a mere show trial; to the end, when, upon leaving the city of Nuernberg, they absconded with everything in their residence: faucets, fixtures... they literally stole the kitchen sink! And then indeed the Soviets became the major American adversary in the Cold War. The Nazis had made it clear that this would happen... just because they were our enemies then does not mean they were completely wrong about all things. Also, some convicted Nazis will nevertheless have their own things to say, and these will be as true to events as I can make them. For example, when Jodl is interrogated by the Russians, they asked him "If you had been given the Commando Order, would you have signed it?" To which he replied in quite reasonable frustration, "If my grandmother had wheels, would she be a bicycle?" At this the Russians thought for a time that his grandmother had been in the war. The American soldiers will do some mildly crude things - exactly the things they did at Nuernberg - tormenting the prisoners. Mildly crude, but indicative of their crude American culture. The guilt of the "very guilty" is not disputed, but the "rightness" of the victors is not automatic, though it will not defy the facts.

With regard to obvious questions about the use of Hollocaust imagery in the opera, I feel very strongly that the Holocaust itself is not material for an artwork of this kind, but I am obliged to use some of it because the Nuernberg Hall of Justice Room 600, in which the trial took place, was in fact redesigned as a cinema for the express purpose of showing the Holocaust footage. There will therefore be a film-showing of this material, but it will not be more than a very few minutes and I will have preferences about the non-realistic, collage use of the original footage, not to compromise its message, but only to keep its banality from settling too much into the mind of the audience.

At the time of this writing the music for the opera is beginning to take shape in my mind in generalized and archetypal ways. I am most concerned with writing the libretto for the opera, which is in three acts, in about twenty scenes, not all of which are seperated conventionally. Of these, two scenes are completed: Justice Jackson's opening speech, and a trio scene for Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, and two psychologists. This latter scene was given in a private reading on June 12, 2011 in Alameda, California, a landmark first appearance of any part of the opera. I also gave Justice Jacksons Speech in a S.H.A.R.P. Community talk in 2011.

One unusual thing about the opera is that some of the scenes in Act Two, of the psychiatric interrogations of some of the Germans, will be seperable music theater pieces for chamber ensembles.

Believe it or not, the opera has a lot of dance, both in chorus and small ensembles, and as it turned out, these will be mostly in Act Two. For example, in the scene of Rudolf Hoess and the Two Psychiatrists, Hoess's wife and children will use more of the stage to dance their observation of him than he, standing with his feet in a bucket of cold water to fight frostbite, uses to give his testimony.

The chief theatrical influence is, so far, Samuel Becket - not because he was that conspicuous to me along the way, but because once I began writing the libretto, I was astonished at how very much his theater is completely in step with the mood and archetypes in TNT - especially his inventiveness within severity, and carefully crafted word-smithing. The theater of TNT will be more realistic than Becket, who often did not seem to have reality in mind, and the music will NOT be conventional. By the time I wrote the scene in which Hoess never takes his feet out of a bucket I thought this is somehow as absurd as Becket seems, with people in garbage cans and vases. Becket's seems to me to be an avant-garde of my "realism." But he will not be the only influence!

I will post more about this project as it progresses... and I certainly welcome inquiry from any interested persons!

Christopher Fulkerson, Ph.D.

The Frontispiece of the libretto, in its "bullet-point" version, contains as mottos of the work these quotations from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Alexis Leger Leger, better known by his pseudonym Saint-John Perse:

"Thus, for us, by his total adhesion to that which is, the poet creates a tie between permanence and unity of Being.  And his lesson is one of optimism.   For him, one single law of harmony controls the entire world of things.   Nothing can happen which by its nature exceeds the measure of man.   The worst disruptions in history are but the seasonal rhythms in a vaster cycle of progressions and repetitions.   And the Furies who cross the stage, torch high, illuminate the instant of the very long theme in its course."

It should be noticed that every line in these remarks about "the poet" contains terms about musical composition: Tie [Leger uses the musical word "Liaison"], Lesson, Harmony, Measure, Rhythms, Progressions, Repetitions, Instant (a word used as a technical musical term by musical modernists, especially of French influence, notably Xenakis).

"And you can say to me: Where did you prize that out?   Texts passed on in plain language!   Versions given in dual aspects! …  You yourself headstone and cornerstone! …  And for your latest deceptions, I muster you to litigation in your reclining chair,
Oh Poet, Oh bilingualist, double-pronged betwixt all things, and you yourself litigation betwixt all things litigious—man molested by god! Man speaking equivocally! … ah! like a man deceived in a melee of wings and bristles, amidst cockfighting rough-legged buzzards!"
From Part II, Canto 6
Translations c Copyright 2012 by Christopher Fulkerson

Posted March 18, 2011. Updated March 19, 2011. Updated July 2, 2012.
Saint-John Perse excerpts and comment posted September 20, 2012.