Neuwirth – The Outcast & Die Stadt ohne Juden

Neuwirth – The Outcast & Die Stadt ohne Juden

On the occasion of her 50th birthday, two large projects by Olga Neuwirth were premiered in November at the Vienna Konzerthaus in the framework of Wien Modern: Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews), a new film score for the recently restored silent movie by H. K. Breslauer, as well as a revised version of Neuwirth’s musicstallation-theatre piece The Outcast.

This new production of her homage to Herman Melville pushes the concert-format boundaries with an elaborate multi-screen video installation by the British director Netia Jones. For the premiere at the Vienna Konzerthaus under the baton Ilan Volkov, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra was joined by top-flight soloists including Andrew Watts, Susanne Elmark, Otto Katzameier and the actor Johan Leysen. In March 2019, Melville’s bicentenary year, the work will receive its German premiere at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie.

Olga Neuwirth’s music for Die Stadt ohne Juden was premiered by the PHACE ensemble under the direction of Nacho de Paz in a live performance accompanying a screening of the classic film in the main auditorium of the Vienna Konzerthaus. The same forces presented the new work a week later at London’s Barbican Centre, with the German premiere taking place at the end of November as part of the Greatest Hits Festival at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. In the new year, Die Stadt ohne Juden will be given further premieres in Tel Aviv by the Israel Contemporary Players and at the Philharmonie de Paris, presented by Ensemble intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher.

Picture of The Outcast by Olga Neuwirth at Wien Modern
The Outcast, WP at Wien Modern

The Outcast (2008-2010/2012)

Homage to Herman Melville. A musicstallation-theater
Revised version
With monologues for Old Melville by Anna Mitgutsch
Libretto by Barry Gifford and Olga Neuwirth

A co-production between ORF RSO Wien, Wien Modern, Wiener Konzerthaus and Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. With the kind support of the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung.

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Duration: 90'
WP: 14.11.2018, Vienna


14.11.2018 (WP)
ORF RSO Wien, Ilan Volkov (cond.); Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna

4.3.2019 (NP)
ORF RSO Wien, Ilan Volkov (cond.); Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

Picture of The Outcast by Olga Neuwirth at Wien Modern
Olga Neuwirth at the world premiere of The Outcast (Wien Modern, 2018)

Press quotes

Neuwirth has written great roles, and singers such as Danish soprano Susanne Elmark as Ishmaela, Otto Katzameier as Captain Ahab, the countertenor Andrew Watts as Queequeg and the boy soprano Joel Beer as Pip took full advantage of them. Neuwirth fully grasps the possibilities offered by solo voices, two choruses, speaking roles and orchestra, piling up powerful and effective music in rising, cresting waves while also interspersing smaller effects – for example, working the strains of an electric guitar through the swelling material or evoking the voice of Klaus Nomi. This is intelligent music, confident in its effects and whetting the appetite for the composer’s Orlando, commissioned by the Vienna State Opera and announced for December 2019.
Salzburger Nachrichten, 15.11.2018

The music suggests a collage: there are gleaming surfaces of sound underlaying vocal writing of siren-like beauty as well as naturalistic birdsong; the church musical sound of boys’ choirs brings an element of innocence. Organ, accordion and electric guitar add dashes of colour and trigger associations. There are comic touches, both discreet (muted trumpets) and knee-slapping (Stayin’ Alive). At times the sea is brightly sunny and silvery, at others dark and threatening, even sharply metallic.
Der Standard, 19.11.2018

Has the political feminist Olga Neuwirth produced a Gesamtkunstwerk? The critic and film composer Hanns Eisler once polemically asserted that this Wagnerian concept required the audience to leave their brains in the cloakroom. Olga Neuwirth, on the other hand, requires them to think. One should have read the libretto beforehand in order to understand her and gain a real impression from her music-installation in the darkened space – and from the white whale that plunges the ship into the ocean’s depths at the end.
Falter, November 2018

Picture of The Outcast by Olga Neuwirth at Wien Modern
The Outcast, WP at Wien Modern

Score of The Outcast

Die Stadt ohne Juden (2017)

Musik zum Stummfilm von Hans Karl Breslauer (1924)
für verstärktes Ensemble und Zuspielung

A production by Wiener Konzerthaus, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Barbican Centre, Sinfonieorchester Basel and ZDF/ARTE in cooperation with Wien Modern and Filmarchiv Austria.
Duration: 88'


7.11.2018 (WP)
PHACE, Nacho de Paz (cond.); Wien Modern – Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna

15.11.2018 (NP)
PHACE, Nacho de Paz (cond.); Barbican Center London

28.11.2018 (NP)
PHACE, Nacho de Paz (cond.); Kampnagel K6, Hamburg

5.01.2019 (NP)
Israel Contemporary Players, Ilan Volkov (cond.); Cinemateque, Tel Aviv

15.03.2019 (NP)
Ensemble intercontemporain, Matthias Pintscher (cond.); Philharmonie de Paris

PHACE, Nacho de Paz (cond.); Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin

PHACE, Nacho de Paz (cond.); Alte Oper Frankfurt

27.10.2019 (NP)
Studio for New Music, Igor Dronov (cond.), Karo Kino, Moscow

Ensemble Klang, Christian Karlsen (cond.); Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam

Die Stadt ohne Juden by Olga Neuwirth at Barbican Center
Die Stadt ohne Juden by Olga Neuwirth at Barbican Center
Die Stadt ohne Juden, UK premiere in London

Press quotes

Neuwirth, herself of Jewish background, dealt with the overall ambiguous and haunting nature of the material through frequently dichotomous music that strove to be “both touching and harsh, warm-hearted and open, amusing and furious, involved and distanced, humorous and sad all at once.” In complex combinations of tape and instrumental layers that often meticulously and extensively commented on the film, the Ensemble PHACE brought to life an impressive hybrid of the most diverse musical realities: liturgical hymns met citations from the popular music of the “homeland,” the deceptive coziness of which turning into pure horror at any moment. 
neue musikzeitung, 05.2019

What one experiences on this evening in the concert hall is not a silent film, nor even a silent film with music. From the very first moment, sound and image are amalgamated into a breathing organism. The noises are enough to draw the observer without further ado into this nearly 100-year-old world full of frock coats, hats and dramatic eye make-up. At first, electronics set the whole space vibrating with a deep grumble; in the synagogue service, circling ethereal sounds create the impression of distant, lamenting voices, like a premonition of the horrors to come. Neuwirth virtuosically quotes from various styles: the saxophone alludes to Debussy, the clarinet to shtetl melancholy, and of course Alpine folk music isn’t far away. Neuwirth’s individual style and her refined timbral sensibility remain unmistakable, shining through the film’s sometimes ribald humour, where the laughter is likely to stick in the craw of today’s viewer. The effect of some of this on us coming from subsequent generations is like slapstick being delivered on a razor’s edge, as when the staunchly anti-Semitic Councillor Bernart, played by the unforgettable Hans Moser, attempts to open the garden gate with a cigar while completely inebriated. “The Viennese drinks in order to forget,” said Neuwirth the day after the premiere. “And when he forgets, he will also repress a lot. Especially the Nazi past.”
Hamburger Abendblatt, 2.11.2018

In her artful but never obtrusive new soundtrack for the silent film, Neuwirth establishes a variety of political and cultural connections. She creates a balance between the knowledge of later real-life tragedy that underlies her score’s constantly menacing tone, the bitter irony that drives the plot, the unintentional humour that is inherent in the silent-film aesthetic’s emotionalism for today’s viewers, and the awareness that the ghosts of the past are at this moment more alive than they have been for a long time. The fragility of idyllic middle-class domesticity and the latent aggression of emphatic folk culture, which can turn violent at any time, are unmistakably worked into the composition and were finely realized by the PHACE ensemble under conductor Nacho de Paz. The live sound material was supplemented by audio feeds recalling the Jewish culture nearly wiped out by the Nazis, depicted in the film, for example, in synagogue scenes or as literally resurrected by [the popular Viennese actor] Hans Moser.
Tiroler Tageszeitung, 08.11.2018

The Austrian composer uses the PHACE ensemble winds, conducted by Nacho de Paz, in a humorous commentary to the tavern guests’ quarrelling. She underscores the drunkards’ anti-Semitic outbursts with yodellers. Into the menacingly seething synthesizer carpet, she strategically weaves in sounds that comment on points in the plot – such as when chairs topple down in the tavern and gongs are sounded. Olga Neuwirth imbues the black-and-white film with colour by accompanying scenes of Jewish communal life with oriental sounds and Klezmer music or by her unusual treatment of the instruments. In one instance she has the trumpets literally screaming, then has trumpeters blowing their instruments to suggest the puffing of a steam locomotive.
Salzburger Nachrichten, 09.11.2018

Picture of Die Stadt ohne Juden by Olga Neuwirth at Hamburgs Kampnagel K6
Die Stadt ohne Juden, German premiere in Hamburg

About the work

The film – thought lost but discovered in 2015 in a Parisian flea market and digitally restored thanks to a crowdfunding campaign – is a dramatisation of a bitter satire of antisemitism by a Jewish journalist called Hugo Bettauer. His 1922 novel is set in a contemporary Vienna humbled by defeat in the first world war and collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Inflation and unemployment are soaring and politicians are looking for a scapegoat. “The people,” the chancellor announces in the film adaptation, “demand the expulsion of all Jews.” And Vienna’s 200,000 Jews are forced to emigrate.
“One of the most powerful scenes for me is of the Jews walking out of Vienna as it’s gathering dusk,” says Neuwirth, who is herself Jewish. “When I was writing the score, I had to suppress my rage or else the film would have had music which is just an expression of my fury.” Another unbearable scene shows trains loaded with Jews heading off to other European capitals and to Palestine. It’s hard not to see these trains as prefiguring other trains that would, within 20 years, take millions of Jews to Nazi death camps. For all that Die Stadt ohne Juden is 94 years old, its revival in 2018 is resonant in an age of rising racist populism. “The parallels are plain: toxic language is begetting hatred, now as then,” says Neuwirth. “The chancellor is not initially an antisemite, but when he sees how well hating Jews plays with the masses, he seizes on the plan to throw them out.” She recalls what Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi said of the Holocaust: “If it happened once, it can happen again.”

The Guardian, 13.11.2018

Read the complete interview

Die Stadt ohne Juden by Olga Neuwirth at Barbican Center
Die Stadt ohne Juden, UK premiere in London

Score of Die Stadt ohne Juden

Photos: Markus Sepperer (The Outcast); Mark Allan (Die Stadt ohne Juden, London), Daniel Dittus (Die Stadt ohne Juden, Hamburg)