‘Wozzeck,’ the 20th Century’s Most Influential Opera, Turns 100

Theodor Adorno had to commiserate with Alban Berg late into the night on Dec. 14, 1925, after the premiere of “Wozzeck” at the Berlin State Opera.

The problem was not that Berg’s first opera had been a disaster, that this unknown student of Arnold Schoenberg’s was poised to be sent back into his former anonymity and abject poverty.

The problem for Berg was that his musically abrasive, politically unsparing work — based on a Georg Büchner play that he had seen in 1914 and immediately thought of setting to music — had been such a triumph that he started to question the work’s true worth. Adorno later recalled “literally consoling him over his success.”

A success “Wozzeck” has remained in the 100 years since Berg finished revising the manuscript on July 16, 1922. The most radical opera of its time, still sounding strikingly modern in its centenary year, it became one of the most influential operas of the 20th century, along with works like Strauss’s “Salome” and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

With its taut, swiftly scene-changing cinematic structure and its omnivorous stylistic appetite, not to mention its use of fleeting, devastating moments of tonality amid the precise constructions of its largely atonal score, the argument could easily be made that “Wozzeck” turned out to be, in fact, the most influential of them all.

Right on cue come a range of performances, in celebration of an opera perhaps too dire to think of celebrating. A William Kentridge staging that played at the Met in 2019 runs through March 30 at the Paris Opera, with the conductor Susanna Malkki at the helm, before it arrives in Barcelona in May, with Matthias Goerne as its Wozzeck. A new Simon Stone production with the baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role opens at the Vienna State Opera on March 21. And on Tuesday, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra give a concert performance at Carnegie Hall, with Christine Goerke as Marie.

Part of the overpowering force of “Wozzeck” comes from its plot. In 15 short scenes, Berg recounts the degradation and demise of Wozzeck, a destitute soldier abused by his captain, experimented on by a doctor, and wracked with suspicion that his partner, Marie, is being unfaithful with a drum major. Driven mad, Wozzeck murders Marie, then drowns himself. The curtain falls on their son rocking on a hobbyhorse. Whether he will escape the fate of his parents — and the general forces that bear down so ineluctably on what Wozzeck calls “we poor people” — is left unclear.

What might explain the lasting power of Berg’s opera? And what has its influence truly been? Here are edited excerpts from interviews with artists who hold the work dear.

“Wozzeck” was the first opera that made me believe in opera as a viable art form. It is this huge musical expression of the lives of really disempowered people. Thinking that opera could tell stories that are not just the stories of a privileged position, but could truly represent another point of view, and do it with incredible imagination, opened up the possibilities of what opera can still be.

It’s one of the most compassionate operas that I know. It’s not the Beethoven model. It’s not speaking to that aspirational quality that some of us think music captures so well. There is no salvation in the piece, and that is precisely what is so powerful and urgent about it. It’s not going to be the horns that herald a miraculous overcoming of tyranny, like in “Fidelio.” It’s going to have to be us, in the audience, that will need to speak up for Wozzeck.

Büchner was much earlier than Karl Marx in his ideas, but they were similar. Büchner was not the founder of communism, but he was honest about the difficulties poor people face in creating a normal life. This is touching, without being too ideological.

You have a work which deals with a horrific subject. What is going on is terrible, but the point as a singer and also in the audience is that you have this wonderful joy to see thoughts put into words and music in such a precise way. It is with practically no doubt the masterpiece of the 20th century. Nothing is decoration; nothing is neglectable; every tone is important; every word is important. It’s the essence of a quickly moving world, which is modernity.

What always struck me about “Wozzeck” was that although it came out of a score full of compositional thought which in itself was revolutionary in the history of music, Berg was the one who married process with engagement, married the head with the heart — or the stomach.

Despite the strictness of studying with Schoenberg, he realized that you have to go where you need to go. The fact that, for example, in the interlude just before the end, he ingeniously reverts back to this early piano sketch in D minor, and realizes that’s what we need, right here, right now. From the point of view of a modernist, expressionist language, he’s able, willing and happy to embrace everything that he needs at the given time.

People talk about how difficult it is, and it’s not entirely untrue, but I think it’s mostly a question of it being incredibly dense, and rich, and profound. You have several layers that make it interesting every time you hear it. I have been personally surprised, since I finally got the score and started to study it, to see how much warmth and beauty and even humor there is. The piece is scarily perfect.

Berg is incredibly smart, of course. But when the story becomes unbearable in its sadness near the end, he actually simplifies the music, which gives us room to really feel the pain, and the destiny, and all of that. He gives us time to digest everything, and then of course the fi
nal hit comes. It’s just absolutely awful.

It was the first piece that I had encountered that I felt was really looking at the tougher parts of life, and not looking away. I had always been drawn to the idea of opera, but looking at Mozart and Verdi, it felt like we were dealing with characters who were not real people, at least not to me, with my background. When I first saw “Wozzeck,” these were ordinary people dealing with extraordinary things, and in the case of Wozzeck, a world that is really bearing down on this character.

I remember being shaken by that big, unison B crescendo near the end, just the sense of it being so inescapable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 12-minute crescendo at the end of my opera “Dog Days” is a B quarter flat; it’s a homage or reference to that moment. There’s life before that piece, and life after it.

What Berg has made out of Büchner’s play, I think it’s the most perfect piece we have, in terms of story, the characters. Everybody is completely in shape in their character and you immediately find out what kind of person it is, and about their relationship to all the others.

You have two different levels. You have this very depressing underdog, Wozzeck, who is in this position of slavery. He constantly needs money. He can feel that something in his relationship is not right. He becomes more and more crazy, and out of control. On the other side, it’s a tragic love story. He becomes a murderer. You have empathy, you feel something for him — but in the end he is killing a human being.

I find Marie to be such a complicated and conflicted character. Like so many of us right now, she tries to find the joy in simple things in what seems like an uncaring world. She doesn’t have much, so she tries to do the best with what she has. She grasps at her moments of joy, and then feels guilty for them later. She feels that she should do better, she should be better, she should be content with what she has, and if she can do that — perhaps it will help her to avoid judgment. She is a mother who struggles to keep her own identity as a woman. I have been this woman. Depending on the day, I am this woman.

What Alban Berg did in making the story so compact and emotionally so intense — I think to this very day, people are just totally gripped with the story, especially at the end. We always have an enormous empathy with children, and when that boy comes out and sings “Hopp, hopp!” that’s the latest point, if you have any human emotions, when you start crying in that opera.

Schoenberg, when he wrote 12-tone music, never broke the rules that he set up. Berg did, because Berg was such a genius in the theater that he knew, like Mozart, that sometimes you have to break the rules to be more impactful.

This was the first opera I saw live, at the Met in 1999, when I was 18. It awakened me to this idea that I now see as one of opera’s superpowers, which is to show us the darkest sides of human nature. In that 90 minutes I had this visceral experience of recognizing my own dark side, and allowing myself to go there because I was in the safe, velvet box of the theater.

In a way, I’m shocked that it’s not more influential. I wish that opera had continued on this experimental path. “Wozzeck” was not an outlier; it was celebrated and performed everywhere. Berg lived off it for a long time, and had the honor of being denounced by the Nazis. Now opera has retreated — for the most part; there are many exceptions — into a safer, more palatable space. Part of me wishes we could bring back that momentum of the “degenerate” art.