IOpera in collaboration with The Orchestra Project
A concert performance of Ernst Krenek’s 1926 opera Jonny Strikes Up. Athenaeum Theatre, 4th October 2019.
The news that IOpera was presenting a performance of Ernst Krenek’s Johnny strikes up! (Jonny spielt auf) struck me as exciting and very unexpected. During my time as a voice student, I had never come across Ernst Krenek or his music. I was only introduced to Jonny spielt auf during the course of my research for my Honours Musicology thesis. In fact, this concert performance constituted the Australian debut of the opera written in 1926.
Jonny spielt auf marked an intriguing moment in opera history. It was a smash hit when it first premiered, with opera houses across Europe scrambling to program the new work into their upcoming seasons. One of the opera’s main characters is Jonny, an African-American jazz musician who plays the fiddle, who was originally performed by white opera singers in blackface. Krenek was very interested in jazz music and the culture associated with it, and while having performers in blackface is certainly not an accepted practise today, the opera itself was a manifestation of Krenek’s genuine respect for the music and culture. Jonny is not treated with tokenism or strangeness in the plot of the opera, as he simply takes part in the somewhat chaotic events taking place on stage, and has a love interest in the character of hotel maid Yvonne. Jonny spielt auf was banned by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933, as they saw it as being sympathetic towards a “degenerate” culture.
IOpera is a not-for-profit chamber opera society founded by Peter Tregear and Gert Reifarth. On their website, they describe their central ambition as mounting chamber operatic works which are on the fringes of the repertoire. I commend IOpera on this gutsy manifesto. I believe it is supremely valuable to stage works which are rarely performed. There is really no downside to the experience as an audience member, because in the best case scenario, you discover a hidden gem. In the worst case scenario, you have an uncomfortable two hours but will walk out of the theatre with an enhanced knowledge of rare operatic repertoire (which you can put to good use at dinner parties). In either case you’ll at least have avoided sitting through Madame Butterfly for the 400th time. (No disrespect intended towards Giacomo Puccini …)
The cast of this performance were supported by an orchestra made up of roughly twenty instruments (including a keyboard and banjo). Peter Tregear conducted the musicians with assurance, and they rose to the challenge of the score with great skill. During the opera, a series of slides were projected onto a screen behind the orchestra in style of the silent films of the 1920s.
The mood of the opera was bewildering at times, as it was certainly didn’t qualify as a sombre melodrama but wasn’t quite a slapstick comedy either. The plot sees uptight composer Max strike up a relationship with the beautiful opera singer Anita. She is slightly more relaxed in her attitude towards life, and has a night of passion with violin player Daniello while on tour. Various escapades ensue, with Jonny attempting to steal Daniello’s violin by placing it in Anita’s banjo case, Yvonne being accused of the crime, and a madcap police chase across Paris.
The cast were universally strong, with Fraser Findlay stepping in to sing the role of Max a week before the performance. Lee Abrahmsen was splendid in the role of Anita, showcasing her vocal agility and fabulously bright and powerful upper register. Raphael Wong lent a charismatic energy to the role of handsome violinist Daniello. Shoumendu Schornikow gave a balanced performance as the mischievous Jonny, playing off Rebecca Rashleigh’s sprightly energy and sparkling clarity of voice as Yvonne. The opera was sung in English, with a libretto by Jeremy Sams. The cast did a great job of enunciating the English words, always a challenge with an operatic voice, however it should be mentioned that I was sitting in the front row and cannot speak for those seated at the back of the Athenaeum (a venue with a particular acoustic not always suited to opera). The chorus of fifteen or so singers produced a warm and expansive sound in their featured scenes. A musical highlight was the scene in which the female chorus members supplied the serene voice of the Swiss Alps, as Max desperately (and a little illogically) consulted the mountains for wisdom.
In staging Jonny spielt auf, IOpera provided a rich and interesting musical night at the theatre. I look forward to hearing of their future efforts in bringing rarely performed operas to the audiences of Melbourne.