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From the page to the stage of the opera: Self-destruction in “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann and Benjamin Britten

“Page to Opera Stage” examines stories – real and fictional, old and new – that have inspired operas, and how these stories have been edited and dramatized to fit into a new medium. In this episode, Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” was the inspiration for a very different opera.

It is often said that all writers draw on their own lives, but the result is often not as disturbing as Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel. The German novelist was on vacation in Venice with his wife Katia in 1911 when he noticed a Polish family staying with them at the Hôtel de Bains – in particular their teenage son. Katia categorically says nothing happened – she recognized and noticed Mann’s fascination with the child, but they never interact. The couple left Venice quickly and prematurely, upon hearing of a cholera outbreak, but Mann’s spirit remained behind.

The short story which was released the following year imagines a vile and low end to the story of Mann’s alter ego – an older and widower, contrary to reality, but clearly preoccupied with beauty, artistry and loveliness. love against sex, death and degradation.

“Death in Venice” was a hit upon its publication and has remained one of Mann’s most renowned and respected works. The news had a mini resurgence in the early 1970s, when Italian director Luchino Visconti and English opera composer Benjamin Britten both approached the Mann estate for adaptation rights. To avoid copyright issues, Britten was advised not to see Visconti’s work, which would be published sooner; therefore, both draw exclusively from Mann. The film (1971) and the opera (1973) are therefore both faithful adaptations, but remarkably different.

Visconti’s languid shots and Mahler’s expansive soundtrack suit the cinematic medium well, and Britten’s more frenetic pace is created through the use of a large chorus and the relentless, restless voice of protagonist Gustav (von ) Aschenbach. Either way, Mann’s anxieties come to life.

As Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper illustrate the tiniest interactions Aschenbach faces, the end result finds new angles in familiar Mann’s territory.

Speech and narration

There isn’t a lot of dialogue in “Death in Venice”, but Mann’s narration, even in translation, is wordy, evocative, and rich in images.

Is there anyone who needs to suppress a secret thrill, arriving in Venice for the first time – or returning after a long absence – and boarding a Venetian gondola? This unique means of transport, descended unchanged since the days of ballads, black like nothing on earth other than a coffin – what images it conjures up of anarchic and silent adventures in the dazzling night; or even more, what visions of death itself, of the rites of beer and soleran and of the last silent journey!

Piper saves money, keeping the essentials in Aschenbach’s monologues. “Mysterious gondola, black, black coffin…” he sings after being dropped off at his hotel. The self-proclaimed aristocrat is always restless, never silent, singing the audience through his descent in great detail; the role is merciless for the tenor, who never leaves the stage. Perhaps even more so than with Mann, this constant flow of conscious storytelling marks him as both agent and victim.

The repeated lines and echoes – of Aschenbach and of the people he meets on his travels – overlap to create a hostile and hypnotic atmosphere. As Aschenbach reflects on his path on his journey and then his attraction to Tadzio and infatuation with youth, he captures and repeats the world around him (perhaps the creepiest, the old fool’s cry of ” Hello my beauty ”- comical in the first context, pathetic in the second).

The seven faces of ruin

Britten’s latest masterpiece is not just a tour de force for his tenor; the main baritone must play not one but seven obscure figures which guide Aschenbach towards destruction.

First there is the traveler in the English gardens of Munich, then the dishonoring old gentleman on the boat from mainland Italy. Upon arrival, he becomes the unlicensed gondolier who threatens to row wherever he wants, then he transforms into the hotel manager who sets up Aschenbach and makes his luggage disappear. Soon he’s the barber offering Aschenbach his backward glances, and then the leader of the players hinting at the plague in the streets of Venice. And throughout, he’s the voice of Dionysus – tempting Aschenbach to sacrifice art for sensual pleasures.

Each character marks a further step towards the fate and ruin of Aschenbach, showing him new ideas to which he clings. He desperately seeks salvation and inspiration, but at every turn – seeing the same face – he falls further into disaster.

Sounds from another world

While Britten avoided Visconti’s film, some accounts have argued that Britten’s friends didn’t – and shared their feelings that Aschenbach and Tadzio’s on-screen relationship was too salacious and sentimental. As that relationship grows again in each new production of Britten and Piper’s work, the opera crew takes Tadzio, his family and friends away from the beach by portraying them with dancers rather than singers. .

The music emphasizing their movements is based on Indonesian gamelan music, with a prominent xylophone and light percussion. This unusual homage to Western opera, combined with the ballet movements and lack of engagement with the sung cast, immediately casts Tadzio like from another world. It’s a more distant and more worthy representation of Aschenbach when Tadzio is so distant – maybe even imaginary.

The doubt about the unreality in which Aschenbach’s desire is rooted is dissipated with the appearance of Apollo and Dionysus.

The gods – the former a countertenor (his only role in the opera) and the latter a baritone (one of the aforementioned seven villains) – are an invention of Britten and Piper, not appearing in Mann’s short story. . While much can be done in the setting, the deities suggest a larger, almost cosmic struggle for Aschenbach’s soul, turning the tale into an allegory.

Musical disorders

“Death in Venice” captures the trapped hustle and bustle of Venice under the scirocco, illuminating Mann’s haunted world by alternating unusual harmonies and restful, almost sparkling moments. In Britten’s discreet score, Venice becomes a place of mystery, secrets, decadence and temptation beneath its classical beauty. The score avoids traditional romantic swells in favor of incessant dissonances and the rapidity of percussions inspired by gamelan, suggesting the terror and the unknowability of the underlying desire.

If the music stops or ceases, disaster awaits. Britten never allows that to happen. Even Aschenbach’s death is brief and the neurotic and dissonant harmonies of the music fade away.

A few minutes passed before someone rushed to help the old man sitting there, collapsed in his chair. They took him to his room. And before nightfall, a shocked and respectful world received the news of his passing.


Mann wrote “Death in Venice” relatively early in his career. Britten composed “Death in Venice” while he was dying. He delayed a critical heart operation to complete the score, and a stroke suffered during the operation ended his career as a performer and conductor.

Ben writes an evil opera, and it kills him», Confided his partner Peter Pears during the composition process. Yet “Death in Venice” – completed less than five years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK – is Britten’s only opera dedicated to Pears, the author of nearly all of his main tenor roles.

For an opera so terribly concerned with a vile and terrifying ending, and completed under destructive conditions for health, it retains a singular warmth and sympathy.

There are many English translations of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”; all quotes in this piece are from HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, first published in 1940. Britten’s score and Piper’s libretto can be found in music libraries.

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