Shadowtime is a "thought opera" based on the work and life of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin is one of the greatest philosophers and cultural critics of the twentieth century. Born in Berlin, he died on the Spanish border while trying to escape the fate that awaited most of his fellow Central European Jews. In its seven scenes, Shadowtime explores some of the major themes of Benjamin's work, including the intertwined natures of history, time, transience, timelessness, language, and melancholy; the possibilities for a transformational leftist politics; the interconnectivity of language, things, and cosmos; and the role of dialectical materiality, aura, interpretation, and translation in art. Beginning on the last evening of Benjamin's life, Shadowtime projects an alternative course for what happened on that fateful night. Opening onto a world of shades, of ghosts, of the dead, Shadowtime inhabits a period in human history in which the light flickered and then failed.
II. Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel (First Barrier) (instrumental)
III. The Doctrine of Similarity (13 Canons)
IV. Opus Contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld)
V. Pools of Darkness (11 Interrogations)
VI. Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia
1. Laurel's Eyes (after Heine's "Die Lorelei")
VII. Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholia as the Angel of History)
Summary of the Scenes:
The prinary layer, "War Time," takes center stage.
The setting is just over the French border, in the Pyrenees, at the hotel,
Fonda de Francia, Portbou, Spain. The time is just before midnight, September
25, 1940. Benjamin has arrived at the hotel with his traveling companion
Henny Gurland. The trip had been made more difficult by Benjamin's bad
heart: every ten minutes of walking was followed by one minute of stopping.
Benjamin's plan was to continue on to Lisbon, and from there to America.
But the Innkeeper informs Benjamin and Gurland that their transit visas
have been voided and that they must return to France (and to the dark
destiny that would await them). At center stage, the cruel Innkeeper gives
the exhausted travelers the bad news, to Gurland's protests and Benjamin's
growing despair. The Lecturer, now in the guise of a doctor, enters the
scene. Having been called to the hotel because of the alarming state of
Benjamin's health, the doctor says Benjamin must rest.
Scene II -- "Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel" (The
Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel) is instrumental, scored for solo guitar
and thirteen players. The guitar suggests the just audible, transitory,
flickering, chimerical rustling of the wings of Gabriel, the angel of
Messianic time. This is Shadowtime's first barrier, marking the
beginning of the journey of Benjamin's avatar (shadow or dream figure)
from the represented historical times of Scene I to the nonhistorical
time of the unfolding opera.
Scene III -- "The Doctrine of Similarity" -- consists of thirteen short canons, sung by various groupings of the chorus of the Angels of History. Each of the movements reflects on the nature of history, time, and translation/transformation. The title comes from an essay by Benjamin with a similar name -- "Doctrine of the Similar" -- in which he considers the ways that the physical sounds of language echo or mimic the primordial structures of the cosmos. In the scene, various numeric patterns create reverberations within and between the text and music. The theme of temporality is explored musically by the use of canon forms throughout the scene. Canons 1, 5 and 12 are called "Amphibolies," suggesting mineral ambiguities, where "pricks are points on a map" and "where shadows are thickest at noon." Canons 2 and 11 have the same text, which ripples from one end of the chorus to the other: "The leaves turn dark before the trees are shot with light." Canon 3 is a lyric both lamentory and defiant. In canon 4, "Indissolubility," the concern with the temporal is represented by the choice of a multiple, palimpsestic parody of a late medieval motet from the Montpelier Codex. The libretto extends these investigations through the use of linguistic translations and displacements. While the text roams in time, space, and content, it returns to the knotted dead-end situations of life in extremity, as in canon 6, "In the Dark," and canon 7: "Sometimes / you burn a book because / it is cold / and you need the fire / to keep warm / and / sometimes / you read a / book for the same reason." Canon 8, "Anagrammatica," consists entirely of anagrams of Benjamin's name. Canon 9, "dew and die" is a homophonic (sound) translation of a poem by Ernst Jandl, while canon 10 refers to a key Benjamin concept: schein. The last canon, 13, is based on the final stanza of Mallarmé's "Salut."
Scene IV --"Opus Contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld)," a shadow play for speaking pianist, is the pivotal scene of Shadowtime, inaugurating the second half of the opera. "Opus Contra Naturam" is an alchemical term for work against, or beyond, the constraints of nature. The Lecturer from Scene I appears in guise of a Joker or Liberace-like singer in a Las Vegas piano bar (that suggests also a Weimar cabaret). He leads Benjamin's avatar, set adrift after the fateful events of September 1940, on the Orphic descent into a shadow world ("katabasis") of shock-induced paralysis ("kataplexy").
Scene V --In the darkly surreal "Pools of Darkness (11 Interrogations)," Benjamin's avatar is interrogated by a series of haunting, masked figures. Each interrogation is set to a distinct musical form. Three Giant Mouths (Canon/Heterophony) question the Benjamin figure about the nature of the future; a Headless Ghoul (Isorhythmic Motet) asks about dreaming; the two-headed figure of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx joined to the body of Kerberus (Hoquetus-Melodrama) taunts Benjamin's avatar about the nature of memory; Benjamin's contemporary Pope Pius XII (Dramatic Madrigal a Due) wonders if his fate is part of God's plan; Joan of Arc (Palimpsestic Chorale) worries about the fate of history; the Baal Shem Tov, disguised as a vampire (Rebus), poses a series of impossible comparisons, such as "Is assimilation better than estrangement?"; Adolf Hitler (Rondo) considers the nature of existence; Albert Einstein (Passacaglia cum Figuris in Eco) asks "What time is it now?," a Border Guard (Pastoral Interlude) makes the standard interrogation; Four Furies (Fugato) ask "What is to be done?" and receive the reply: "The light spills into pools of darkness. I can no longer find it." Finally, the Golem (Quodlibet / Abgesangszena) asks a set of menacing questions in an invented language; the final response is from a line of Heine: "Keine Kaddish wird man sagen" ("no one to say Kaddish for me").
Scene VI -- In the second and final barrier of Shadowtime,
the Lecturer reappears, in a new guise, to perform "Seven Tableaux
Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia." Both Scenes
VI and VII imagine Benjamin's Angel of History as the angel depicted in
Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving,
"Melencolia," which shows a dejected, winged figure, surrounded
by instruments of scientific inquiry. Tableaux 1 and 4 are reworkings
of two poems by the nineteenth-century, German-Jewish, post-Romantic poet
Heinrich Heine, a distant relative of Benjamin's. Both poems are standards
of the lieder repertoire, previously set by many composers -- "Der
Tod, das ist die Kühle Nacht" and "Die Lorelei." (Heine's
work was censored and banned by the Nazis.) Tableau 2, "Tensions,"
is a series of sound translations of ten-word propositions, as, for example,
"each ear's sly fiction a toy taboo which founds us." Tableau
3 is based on permutations of phrases from Benjamin's essay "Hashish
in Marseilles": "Seeing only nuances." Tableau 5, "One
and a Half Truths," takes its title from one of Benjamin's favorite
contemporaries, aphorist Karl Kraus; it is a set of imaginary epigrams,
concluding "Truth / Is a gun loaded with a parachute." Tableau
6 presents a full set of syntactic rotations of the sentence, "if
you can't see it it can still hurt you." The final tableau ends with
a play on negative dialectics, asking "whether what is is so because
/ Is so because it's not."
Scene VII -- "Stelae for Failed Time," the epilogue, is an elegiac solo by the Angel of History (imagined as the angel in Durer's "Melencolia"). The angelic chorus sings to and for Benjamin. For the Angel of History, the song has a single voice; in the historical time of the performance, this solo is splintered into the many voices --the angels -- of the chorus. "Stelae for Failed Time" has two overlapping layers. The first is a reflection on time and uncertainty in the context of historical recrimination and erasure: "I back away / helpless, my / eyes fixed. / This is my task: / to imagine no wholes / from all that has been smashed." In a lyric that echoes a lover's lament for her lost lover, the first layer ends with an evocation of one of Benjamin's central concerns, the radical break with historical time into "now time" (jetztzeit). The second layer is a reflection on representation: "The best picture / of a picture / is not a picture / but the negative" and ends on the theme of failed -- and falling -- time: "as now you fall / from my arms / into my capacious / insomniac forgetting."