News |“Zemlinsky & Exile Composers”

On the occasion of the historic LA premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf at the LA Opera on February 24, 2024, Maestro James Conlon, Richard Seaver Music Director at the LA Opera, convened a conversation about Zemlinsky, the fate of other exiled composers, and the quest to make their voices heard again. The event took place on Sunday afternoon, February 25 at the Villa Aurora Los Angeles, the former exile home of writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta.


The LA Opera’s and Colburn School’s “Recovered Voices” initiative brings well-deserved attention to composers silenced by the Nazi regime, a mission shared by the “Musica Non Grata” program by the National Theater Opera and the State Opera in Prague. Maestro Conlon engaged in conversations with Jan Burian, Director General at the National Theater, Prague, and Per Boye Hansen, the Artistic Director at the Prague State Opera and Opera of the National Theater. The discussion was moderated by UCLA musicologist Joy Calico and accompanied by musical performances of works by Alexander Zemlinsky, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Bohuslav Martinů, and Erwin Schulhoff, performed by musicians of the LA Opera and the Colburn School of Music.

In attendance were Jaroslav Olša, Jr., Consul General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles, as well as Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, the daughter of exiled Austrian-American composer Eric Zeisl, and a delegation of members of the German Parliament’s subcommittee on cultural and educational policy abroad, led by representative Michelle Müntefering. Müntefering also delivered a welcoming address at the event:

“Dear friends of Villa Aurora and the Thomas Mann House,

when Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger made the Villa Aurora a – or perhaps even the – meeting ground of Exiles here in Los Angeles, they never asked for a passport. Were their guests Germans? Austrians? Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian? Really: This was not the question at all.

Back then, Villa Aurora was the meeting ground of “Europe in Exile”. More precisely: Mitteleuropa – “Middle” or “Central Europe”. And when we look at today’s program, we reflect the musical spirit of “Mitteleuropa” once again. So it is only natural that the close connection between Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic becomes ever closer here at this house, dear Consul Olša. It is time again to re-acquaint us with this part of German and European transnational cultural history.

Most of the composers we will listen to today were silenced by the Nazis, many of them even deported and murdered. And some of them came here, to the US, to the West Coast. They have become part of the US cultural history – and yet, luckily, they also remain an important part of cultural history in Germany up until today. They have become some of the founding figures of what we could call a “transatlantic” cultural history. One of the fascinating stories I learned here in L.A. is that when Thomas Mann was writing his “Doktor Faustus”, it was Theodor Adorno and Arnold Schönberg who taught him the art of composition. What a delightful thought, imagine all these gentlemen together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year, we celebrate 100 years of the Kroll Oper in Berlin. Destroyed in the war, a century ago it was the pioneer house of radical approaches in Germany to re-invent Music Theatre. Bauhaus Masters like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy created the stage designs. And none other than Alexander Zemlinsky was chosen to be its Music Director. Zemlinsky is widely seen as an Austrian composer and conductor. He ran the “Neues Deutsches Theater” in Prague, making it one of the most avantgarde houses in the world.

But for most of his life, he worked in Berlin and Prague – as such, his biography reflects the distinctly transnational character of European intellectual life at his time; Zemlinsky was constantly showing new operas, and rethinking the way opera was presented. And of course, he also presented his own works, pushing the art deco sound to the limits of tonality. The Kroll Opera, we know, stood directly across the Reichstag, and after the Reichstag was burnt down it was infamously abused by the Nazis as a functional substitute Parliament Building and one more of the many pretexts to establish unmasked Dictatorship in Germany was set.

It was mostly members of my party, the social democrats, who voted against Hitlers “Ermächtigungsgesetz” [Enabling Act] and risked their life in 1933. Among them, my predecessor Berta Schulz – who came from my constituency, the Ruhr, and was one of the first impressive women elected to the German parliament. Today: Almost forgotten – just like so many women in history.

Therefore, I am all the more glad to hear that Villa Aurora and also the Thomas Mann House have recently set up a series on “Opera and Democracy”. Because re-discovering musical works from a time when democracy was in danger in Europe – just as it is around the world in our times, also here in the U.S. – is an important and worthwhile undertaking!

Not only that music brings together people from all continents. Sounds do not stop at borders, they continue to resonate even in places where all voices have long gone. And just as music is universal language, sound can be dialogue you may say – and democracy is all about dialogue and exchange.

Exactly this is the goal of the “Musica Non Grata” Program! When I was State-Minister for International Cultural Diplomacy at the German Federal Foreign Office, about three years ago, together with our Czech friends, we initiated “Musica Non Grata” to commemorate 75 years of the end of World War II.

We thought that instead of having a one-off memorial concert, we wanted to create something more powerful, something more lasting and more impactful. A four-year program to revisit, relive, and recover the Mitteleuropa-Music-World before 1938. I am proud, dear Mr. Hansen and dear Mr. Burian, that you at the Prague Operas took on that task. And: I am especially glad to see that the works of female composers have been a distinct area of focus – for example the important female Czech composer Viteszlava Kapralova.

Speaking about female composers:

If you are interested in the many yet untold stories, I recommend you turn to Kai Müller and Sabine Meine. They will soon edit a volume which finally sheds a light on these fascinating creative women. This, too, is an achievement of places such as Villa Aurora and Thomas Mann House: To give scholars – brilliant intellectuals and artists of our time! – space to reflect, to work on their projects, and to cooperate.

Today we will learn even more about “Musica Non Grata” and I’m very excited to listen to the input of such distinguished experts as Prof. Calico from UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music or Mr. Hansen, who has himself – as I understand – a very close personal relationship with the city of Berlin, having served as Director of the Komische Oper Berlin (directly across the Spree River, so close I can almost see it from my office windows...).

And last not least: Maestro Conlon! You are known on both sides of the Atlantic as a tireless promoter of what is called “Verfemte Musik“ in German. Back in my home state of North Rhine- Westphalia, you put an emphasis on this topic, most notably during your time as Music Director in Cologne which is still fondly remembered.

Dear friends of Villa Aurora and the Thomas Mann House! I will be frank with you: It is an emotional moment and place for me here, as I feel these walls became almost a personal story – and now also Musica Non Grata comes close to an end right here.

In my capacity as Chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Cultural Policy/Diplomacy, I would like to thank you all – also in the name of my colleagues from the German Bundestag Delegation, Prof. Grütters and Mr. Hacker – for your contribution and engagement! The artists and composers in exile among Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger remind us of an important lesson to keep in mind today: Democracy is not a given. More than that, it can be destroyed – but also, difficultly, built and rebuilt – by humans.

The history is on us now. Let’s fight for our common values, for human dignity and democracy!

Thank you very much.”

The sold-out event was a collaboration between Villa Aurora, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Colburn School.

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