Mahler, Roller und Wagner

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015

Alfred Roller
Today Roller is not so much underestimated as unknown, at  least outside a small circle of opera  devotees.
Yet in 1908 he was one of the most important figures on the Viennese artistic scene.
Max Mell’s brief 1922 biography of Alfred Roller tells us that when asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, Roller would reply, ‘someone who’s allowed to go backstage’.
It seems like an almost comically modest ambition for the artist-turned-stage-designer who would prove to be so significant a figure in early-20th-century Austro-German theater and opera.

Alfred Roller
Alfred Roller was born in Brünn, Mähren.
He at first studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under Christian Griepenkerl and Eduard Peithner von Lichtenfels, but eventually became disenchanted with the Academy's traditionalism.
In 1897 he co-founded the Viennese Secession with Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, and other artists who rejected the prevalent academic style of art.
He became a professor of drawing at the University of Applied Arts Vienna (Kunstgewerbeschule) in 1899, and president of the Secession in 1902.
In his early career Roller was very active as a graphic designer and draughtsman.
He designed numerous covers and vignettes for the pages the Secessionist periodical 'Ver Sacrum', as well as the posters for the fourth, fourteenth, and sixteenth Secession exhibitions.

He also designed the layout of the exhibitions themselves, and masterminded the Secession’s famous Beethoven exhibition, built around Max Klinger’s vast Beethoven Monument.
Another of the exhibition’s main features was Klimt’s Beethovenfries (still exhibited in the Secession building) and Roller’s own fresco 'Die sinkende Nacht' took up position behind Klinger’s Beethoven, its apparently explicit Wagnerian overtones undermined only slightly by the fact that opposite it was another, less overtly 'Tristanesque' fresco, 'Der werdende Tag' (‘The Dawning Day’), by Adolf Böhm.
There are contradictory accounts of the first meetings between Mahler and Roller, which took place around this time - one involving Roller sketching designs for 'Tristan' on a café tablecloth, another involving a 'Tristan' design Roller was supposed to have exhibited. 

Mahler (standing) Roller (center)
Gustav Mahler
Most likely is that the two men met at Moll’s house, and that the conversation led quickly onto Wagner in general, and 'Tristan' in particular.
It was the last of the great Wagner works that Roller had got to know, and he had been gripped by it like no other, never missing a performance at the Hofoper, even if, he claimed, he tended to sit through them with his eyes closed.
Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was a late-Romantic Austrian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. His family later moved to nearby Iglau (now Jihlava), where Mahler grew up. On 8 October 1897 Mahler was formally appointed to succeed Jahn as the Hofoper's director. Early in 1902 Mahler met Alfred Roller, an artist and designer associated with the Vienna Secession movement. A year later, Mahler appointed him chief stage designer to the Hofoper, where Roller's debut was a new production of 'Tristan und Isolde'. The collaboration between Mahler and Roller created more than 20 celebrated productions of, among other operas.
Roller expressed an interest in stage design and showed Mahler several sketches he had made for Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde'.
Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde, or Tristan and Isolda, or Tristran and Ysolt) is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Straßburg. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and premiered in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting. Wagner referred to the work not as an opera, but called it "eine Handlung" (literally a drama or a plot).
Wagner's composition of Tristan und Isolde was inspired by his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, Tristan was notable for Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension
Mahler was impressed and decided to employ Roller to design the sets for a new production of the piece.

In 1903, on the twentieth anniversary of Wagner’s death, he  and Gustav Mahler initiated a cycle of the composer’s works in fresh musical and visual interpretations. 
The production, which premiered in February 1903, was a great critical success.
Roller continued to design sets for Mahler's productions.
Eventually Roller left the Secession and his teaching post at the Kunstgewerbeschule to be appointed chief stage designer to the Vienna State Opera, a position he held until 1909.
He died in Vienna in 1935.

Both Mahler and Roller, it seems, were well versed in the writings of the Swiss theorist Adolphe Appia, who argued for a theater not of illusion but one of suggestion - an ‘Andeutungsbühne’ rather than a ‘Illusionsbühne’, which would rely on and exploit the viewer’s imagination rather than restrict and restrain it with literalism.
As with many of Roller’s designs, it’s difficult in our 'seen-it-all-before', post-Regietheater age to appreciate quite how revolutionary the Mahler-Roller Tristan was - each act, after all, showed the settings Wagner’s score specified (which seems right and logical - although it is a dictum rarely followed in 'contemporary' productions).

Cosima Wagner
However, only two decades after Wagner’s death it was almost unheard-of to create a production that didn’t take as its starting point Wagner’s own Munich production of 1865, or even the more questionably ‘authoritative’ Bayreuth staging of 1886, realized by his widow, Cosima.
It was also a production that sought at every point to reflect and complement the mood of the score, and one that used lighting as it had never been used before, as an expressive tool - even almost, in the symbolic use of color, as an expressive language in and of itself, rather than as simply a means of illuminating painted backcloths.
Props and scenery were, for once, three-dimensional, a fact that offered, through the possibilities of shadow, yet further expressive opportunities.
There were further innovations for a new 'Rheingold' and 'Walküre' - the former performed, for once, without an interval, the latter uncut, and with a design for the Walkürenfels that was strongly reminiscent of Appia’s own design for Act 3 of that opera. 
The simple choreography Roller encouraged showed once more the concern, shared by both men, that stage action should reflect primarily the music, creating opera performance not as a disconnected agglomeration of elements but, rather, as something approaching the ideal of the fabled 'Gesamtkunstwerk'.

Parsifal - 1934
Roller was also responsible for the design of the 1934 Parsifal at Bayreuth, which, after much wrangling, replaced Wagner’s own 1882 staging.
Politics bubbled around the new production with wholly predictable ferocity, with hard-line Wagnerians, determined to preserve the Master’s staging, coming up against Hitler’s own desire for a new production; and Roller eventually was given the responsibility.
Hitler’s reasons for choosing Roller were complex, but had their roots in the designer’s time in Mahler’s Hofoper (see below).
Adolf Hitler
One of the oddest events in Roller's life was when Roller received a letter from a friend declaring that a young man - nineteen years old - of her acquaintance was a great admirer of his.
The lad was an aspiring painter and loved opera; he would give anything, she wrote, to meet Roller to discuss his professional prospects, either in painting or in stage design.
Despite his heavy commitments, Roller generously agreed to meet him, take a look at some of his work and advise him on a career.
The young man was overjoyed, and a short time later, with Roller’s reply and a portfolio of his works in hand, went to the opera house.
On reaching the entrance, so he later said, he got cold feet and left.
A short time later he summoned up his courage, returned and this time made it as far as the grand staircase, when he again took fright.
On a third occasion he was well on his way to Roller’s office when an opera house attendant asked his business.
At that, he turned on his heels and fled for good.
Now young Adolf was not a naturally timid young man - so what was it that prevented him from meeting Roller.
Was there some force, that prevented him from taking the critical that would have decisively changed world history ?
But he never forgot the gesture, and when he finally met Roller in 1934, he told him the story.
The young man was now chancellor of Germany.

Much of Roller’s achievement is difficult to gauge today: the impressions of his productions that can be pieced together only from eye-witness accounts and extant sketches and photographs are inevitably imperfect and unsatisfactory, and the importance of design and the visual aspect of opera was not, a century ago, deemed as central as it is now.

Some, too, might regret the developments he helped pioneer, and the boundaries he helped break down.

It is, however, perhaps time to remember how important he was in revolutionizing the visual side of the multi-faceted art form that is opera.

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