Dietfried Bernet (14 May 1940 – 23 May 2011) was born in Vienna and studied at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts there with Hans Swarowsky and Dimitri Mitropoulos. He became a leading guest conductor of major orchestras and opera houses around the world, with permanent appointments in Vienna, Mainz and Copenhagen. Bernet was a passionate advocate of neglected neo-Romantic repertoire such as Erich Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” and he was instrumental in the revival of interest in the work of Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker.
The following interview with him was done in late October 2003 during the Royal Swedish Opera’s production of “Die Tote Stadt,” which he conducted that season. The interview was first posted around December 2003. Click here for a published obituary of Mr. Bernet.
Q: Mr. Bernet, how difficult is it for the Orchestra to perform “Die Tote Stadt”?
Very. It needs the full concentration of every single musician in every single moment to fulfill the composer’s indications.
Q: What do you think are the virtues of the opera?
It is wonderful MUSIC! A great symphony for singers and orchestra!
Q: Are the roles for the leading singers demanding? I am not talking only technically but also emotionally.
The demand is that in this opera every singer has to be a real MUSICIAN . Here the-making-music-together is especially important.
Q: Do you prefer a “modern” or “classic” performance for the opera?
I prefer that an opera is performed like it is written.
An opera is written by a musician. And we performing-musicians are taking care diligently and with very great honesty and responsibility towards the composer, gauging the smallest indications in the score to discover the composer’s wishes and intentions.
And there is no need for stage directors – who nowadays are often far from being musicians, or even loving music at all – to encumber a masterwork with their own private ideas, which obviously very often destroys the delicacy of the intentions of the composers.
Of course we have also wonderful modern stage directors, but you asked me about a modern performance and I tell you my general experience.
It is absolutely ridiculous and horrible, when, for instance in Don Giovanni, you see rockers in leather jackets on stage, taking heroine while from the orchestra in the pit you hear a Menuetto being played.
The music the composer has written ONLY fits to the story and the ambience he has written this music for. When Wagner’s “Lohengrin” plays in a modern staging, it is like going into the Louvre and painting a mobile phone on Mona Lisa. Nobody would allow this! Police would come if you do it.
Why is it allowed and considered fashionable to do this with music masterworks?
Q: What is your approach to the score of “Die Tote Stadt” (musically speaking)?
Study it. And study it again. And study it again. X-ray every note in the score to find out the composer’s ideas and intentions, and to be able also to read between the lines.
Q: I would like to know your thoughts on all of Korngold’s opera’s from “Violanta” to “Heliane” to “Katrin”.
I was plannig to perform “Katrin” at Volksoper Wien next season, but because of “Die Tote Stadt” at Staatsoper, this idea had to be changed.
Q: Why was Korngold forgotten for so long ? Was his “style” old fashioned at the time he lived?
Not at all old fashioned. I believe that 12-tone music originally had led public interest in a certain direction, and had made much public noise, so that other composers had to suffer. But later, fortunately, began a great interest in how the musical developement had gone on parallel to, sometimes in the shadow of, the 2nd Wiener Schule and their successors.
By the way, 20 years ago I had started the Zemlinsky revival in Germany with “Kleider machen Leute” as I did with Schreker, and in 2002 I conducted Martinu’s “Julietta” at the Bregenz Festival. And I am happy that I was asked now already two times for Korngold.
Prof. Dietfried Bernet — 20 October 2003
Interview : Eleftherios Neroulias // Correction : Troy Dixon (23 Okt 2003)
Originally posted March 2001 — reformatted and updated April 2012