Der Kreidekreis, Hamburg State Opera 1983, stage photo by Joachim Thode with Beatrice Niehoff and the ensemble.
The Opera Composer / III
Der Kreidekreis – uncompleted projects
„I'm reading like mad now, so as to be able to compose something new soon.”
Psychological character opera predominated in Zemlinsky's previous works but in his seventh opera Der Kreidekreis (1930-32) he distanced himself to a certain extent from this type. Klabund's play Der Kreidekreis based on the old Chinese fairy-tale and for which Zemlinsky himself wrote the libretto is not an emotional drama but a socio-critical parable. At the time everything Chinese was very popular and the work was a great success.
Musically Zemlinsky also reacted to current trends: he combined his own lyrical and expressive sound with Far-Eastern colour, stylistic means from jazz and „contemporary opera” and brought everything together in a form approaching epic theatre and singspiel with spoken dialogues between the scenes. The economy of means is admirable: Zemlinsky succeeds in precisely depicting the milieu and the wood-carving-like figures and at the same time in relating in a very personal way the story of Haitang, probably the strongest woman character in all his operas.
Der Kreidekreis brought about a tragic parallel between the events on stage and real life: the opera, which is about the inhumanity of a despotic regime, itself became a victim of political despotism. After the successful world premiere in Zurich on 14 October 1933 and the first performance in Germany in Stettin (1934) it was censored and abridged by the Nazis and then banned from stages altogether.
The opera was only performed again in 1955, in Dortmund. It had promised to be Zemlinsky's greatest success as in 1933 several stages had competed for the first performance rights. All in all, if we consider the eight complete, nine incomplete and countless other opera projects which he rejected while reading possible subject matter, Zemlinsky was preoccupied throughout his life with composing opera. Many of the projects failed because of a weak libretto, not for musical reasons. Although Zemlinsky was very open in stylistic questions, he was all the more unscrupulous in searching for subjects with a dramatic idea corresponding to his nature.