Modernism, a major artistic movement of the first half of the twentieth century, is traditionally a classification of the visual arts, including such schools as Abstraction, Impressionism, and Expressionism. In architecture, too, was Modernism recognized, in the work of people like Frank Lloyd Wright. Even in literature, with the increasing use of symbolism, Modernism was an influence. Modernists in all of these art forms are consciously engaged in the expansion of the boundaries of their art, and in asking their audiences to reject the status quo, both of the art and of some aspect of society or culture the art form addresses. When faced with a discussion about the possibility of the existence of Modernist opera, classificationists around the world can be heard coughing quietly into their drink and muttering something vague about having somewhere else to be. Until recently, opera and Modernism were two terms rarely, if ever, heard together. The large amount of scholarship that has been devoted to the study of Modernism and its principles has not been extended with the same vigour to include its application to opera. Questions have been raised about whether it is even possible to define “Modernist opera,” and few have attempted such a feat. I confess some confusion as to why the issue raises such difficulties. An examination of just three of the operas written in the time period, Richard Strauss’s Salome, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, shows us that a categorization of Modernism is not inappropriate to the genre. Like the visual and literary arts of the time, these operas are attempting to redefine their genre and to bring public awareness both to the possibilities of the genre and to societal issues.
Perhaps I will begin my argument about the suitability of a category of Modernist opera with a small disclaimer. It is important to note that, as far as opera is concerned, there is no definite boundary between pre-Modernist works and Modernism itself. One can argue that Wagner’s attempts in the nineteenth century to make opera into something new are examples of an early Modernist inclination. Wagner had new ideas so immense that he had to build his own theatre to house them. His interest in revolutionary politics and in the philosophical ideas of great thinkers like Nietzsche is certainly unique for opera composers prior to the twentieth century.