Maschinist Hopkins : Surrealism in opera

Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins, which premiered in Duisberg in 1929: an opera where the music functions like a giant machine, an “industrial” opera inspired by the futurist, modernist expressionism of the Zeitgeist of the 1920’s. Think of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) about which I’ve written here.

The Prelude to Maschinist Hopkins whirrs ominously, at first tentatively, then builds up a head of steam and bursts into life.   We’re in the Proletarierviertel of a huge city, in “Bondy’s Bar”. Jim, a foreman, is with Nell, his wife. Note the vaguely Anglo names,  a typical construct of the period, frequently used by Bertolt Brecht.  Think The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny,  and “psychological” films like Nerven and Dr Caligari.  Next, we’re in the Maschinenhalle at night. The machines are still operating but the voices of the choir are strangely unnatural, as if they’ve been hypnotized in robotic motion. The different parts of the chorus interact, like cogs in a wheel, churning together. Individual voices rise above the murmur “Schweiget ! Wartet!”, some voices vocalizing at top pitch, like vapours of steam.  then the music jerks and chunders. Nell can hear the voices of the wheels. “Schwester Welle, schnell, schnell, quelle, quelle”.  Jim’s silhouette appears in a window: he’s upset because Nell isn’t at home where she should be. He and Bill, a machinist can’t comprehend why Nell is wailing.  Time passes.  Bill the worker has become a capitalist, sitting in a snazzy modern  office, conducting business all over the world.  But all is not well. Maschinist Hopkins warns that the workers will strike. Bill kicks him out, but Nell sympathizes.

Suddenly, bizarrely, we’re in a pleasure garden with a jazz band singing skat about “Turkestan”. The text and music were by George Antheil,  a bona fide American, though a leading figure in the Paris avant garde at the time. (Lots more on him on this site.)   A long tango, where dancers in eccentric dress strut their stuff.  The shock of the surreal !  “I’ll buy that!” says Bill.  The orchestra plays a mysterious, bluesy tune. Are Nell and Bill under a spell?  On the terrace they sing a love duet “Stille, schweigen”, the sounds of a saxophone weaving around the strings.  Imagine the love duet from Die tote Stadt, edges blurred and smoky.

Just as we drift off in reverie, the machine intrudes. We’re back in the Maschinenhall, all systems in motion. Wild, circular lines, suggesting mad frenzy, interpolating with violent stark chords, then a wild climax with sirens, wind machines and cymbals. Almost  Edgard Varèse.  the choirs sing sotto voce, with menace. Tension builds up again: jagged percussion. Hopkins cries “Die Maschinen sollen stehen”! Ellipses of brass, crashing cymbals.  Another sudden, disconcerting change. Nell is putting on makeup in the dressing room of a theatre. “Mirrors are mysterious things” she muses.  Hopkins materializes behind her. She offers him money to get out. He won’t be bought: he thinks she’s killed Jim (who hasn’t appeared for a while). They tussle.  Chords like the “curtains” in  Wozzeck.  Outside, the Kappellmeister and Regisseur remain busily unaware. “Hahahahaha….” Nell turns up, arms full of flowers   But is all well ? Hopkins knifes Bill in the darkness. Bill’s final cries include the word “Nell!” In an empty street by a long, forbidding wall, a scene straight out of the movies.  Nell meets Hopkins.  “Why, why” she cries. But Hopkins knows  “Es kann nichts sein”.

Switch! Back to Bondy’s bar, packed with workers on a night out. Bill, in grubby clothes, sits with a glass of schnapps, looking forlorn. The orchestra strikes up a manic, whirling dance.  Young girl sings a ditty about youth. An out-of-tune electric piano plays a foxtrot. Men pour into the bar, teasing Bill, mocking Nell.  Bill can take no more and leaves, but, outside in the alley, he hears Nell, telling him she’s nearly home.  Is it a dream? the music builds to a frenzy. There’s a scream and repeated blows are heard. Cut back to the Maschinenhalle at night, where the machines churn and the workers’ voices chant, drone-like. Who can Bill turn to?   He goes to the switch which powers the machine. It sings, with the voice of Nell “In my womb, you will be reborn”, which makes sense if you remember the Female Figure in Metropolis.  Screams all round, “Stop him ! Stop him”. Hopkins appears and knocks Bill out.  But dawn is breaking, and the machines rev up once again. “Ein neuen Tag der Arbeit jetzt an!” he sings. The workers join in, chanting mechanistically “Arbeit ! Arbeit ! Arbeit !”

If ever an opera begged to be remade as film, it’s Maschinist Hopkins where scene changes are so sudden and drastic, angles so skewed and awry that  they’d probably need to be shot in black and white.  Great chorus scenes, lines of workers, dancers, robots moving en masse and in formation.   Musically, Maschinist Hopkins captures the frantic spirit of the Jazz Age as defined in a grim, industrial, Middle European context.  Just as Max Brand’s later experiments in electronic music and synthesizers came – just – after the pioneers in the field, so does his opera connect to other operas and films of its time. But a jolly romp it is and fun.  And it’s much better to look ahead than to be clueless.  I’ve been listening to the recording from ORF where Peter Keuchsnig conducted the Radiosymphonie-Orchester Wien, the ORF-Chor, Cynthia Makris, Günther Neumann and Bodo Brinkmann, recorded in the Musikverein in 1988.

Original Source: Maschinist Hopkins : Surrealism in opera

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