• 5 Things to Know about WOZZECK

    By COC Staff

    Alban Berg’s unrelenting account of one man’s descent into madness brought forth a new musical language that captured the hopelessness, absurdity, and cruelty of a broken world. The story of a hapless soldier despised and exploited by his superiors, betrayed in love, and ultimately driven to murder, Wozzeck was the first opera by the Austrian composer and remains one of the most famous examples of 20th-century musical modernism. 

    Experience Berg’s masterful tragedy when it arrives in a bold new production from William Kentridge at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts next spring!


    Woyzeck, you say?

    Berg’s opera is based on Georg Büchner’s play, Woyzeck, which the composer attended at its premiere in Vienna in 1914. The outbreak of World War I briefly delayed Berg’s progress with an operatic retelling of the drama, and most of his work on it had to wait until a period of regimental leave in 1917-1918. Finally completed in 1922, Wozzeck premiered at the Staatsoper Berlin in 1925, where it provoked mixed reactions before finding wide success in productions mounted across Germany and Austria.

    A most peculiar chorus

    The music of Wozzeck offers an excellent example of musical expressionism—featuring dissonance, extreme dynamic contrasts, melodic distortion, and atonality. It nevertheless remains more accessible than other 12-tone compositions (popularised by composers such as Schoenberg and featuring all twelve tones of the chromatic scale), thanks to lingering Romantic elements. Vocal parts alternate between ordinary speech and Sprechgesang (literally, “speak-singing”—a blend of speech and song without precise pitch intonation) and conventional singing. Berg’s other innovations included incorporating elements of folk music as well as word painting, drawing on sounds ranging from Austrian army bugle calls to soldiers snoring in their barracks (in Berg’s words, “the most peculiar chorus I've ever heard…like some primaeval music that wells up from the abysses of the soul") to create a score that is both startling and highly evocative.

    Musical motifs

    Berg makes frequent use of motifs (short, recurring musical ideas or melodies) to reflect his characters’ inner lives. The Captain, the Doctor, and Marie all have distinctive motifs (for instance, military music that plays towards the end of Act One makes it clear that Marie is thinking about the Captain), as does Wozzeck himself. In the opening scene with the Captain, his line “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor folks”) traces a minor chord with a major seventh and is echoed throughout the opera to indicate a sense of hopelessness and despair.

    Shifting fortunes

    Wozzeck had its American premiere in 1931, by which time it was already well on its way to becoming an established work in the repertoire of many European opera houses, allowing Berg to live off the royalties while travelling to attend performances across the continent. This came to an abrupt end in 1933, when the Nazis classified Wozzeck as subversive and “degenerate” art. Berg’s financial situation steadily worsened after this point, as fewer theatres were willing to produce the work that had made him famous. He died two years later from blood poisoning, leaving his second opera, Lulu, incomplete.

    An immersive experience

    A century after the opera’s premiere, Wozzeck arrives at the Canadian Opera Company in a breathtaking new production from renowned South African multidisciplinary artist William Kentridge. Featuring animations and projections, painting, archival footage, film, and puppetry, the opera unfolds across a set evoking an apocalyptic hellscape, dominated by barbed wire, magnified images of battle maps, charcoal sketches of maimed soldiers, and a proliferation of characters in gas masks. Described as “more art installation than traditional opera” (The Guardian) and “dense and dazzling” (Financial Times), this is a production to match the towering achievement of Berg’s boldly innovative score.”

    Wozzeck runs from April 25 - May 16, 2025 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
    Posted in 24/25 Season


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