Theater Review: Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary)

“Suggested by actual events,” writer/director Steven Carl McCasland’s Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary), produced at New York City’s Clarion Theater last month, is a compelling portrait of German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the controversy that dogged her career. One of the great stars of Vienna and Salzburg in the post-World War II era, Dame Elisabeth (as she became) was celebrated in the operas of Mozart and Strauss and as an interpreter of German lieder. She was also a prodigious recording artist in the early years of LP records. Being married to Walter Legge, artist and repertory director at EMI, certainly helped (he surrounded his wife with the finest colleagues and some of the recordings he produced for her have become classics). Rumors, however, persisted of ties to the Nazi party were during the war.

Anna Kirkland is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary)

Anna Kirkland is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary)

McCasland begins with “Madame” (Anna Kirkland) living in retirement. During an interview, uncomfortable questions arise about her past political affiliations. The scene flashes back to the late thirties. Here, the ambitious young soprano enters into a liason with no less than Joseph Goebbels (Levi Morger). Can she remain a mere “singing bird” and not share responsibility for the horrors unfolding around her?

This is the second play in this series reviewed here and one thing is obvious: McCasland loves actors. He writes bold characters in heightened situations and directs them to bring out surprising contradictions. Particularly fascinating is David Gautschy as Adolf Hitler (yes, that Adolf Hitler). Gautschy plays him with an urbane largesse that gives credibility to his bemused tolerance of Schwarzkopf as she asks impertinent questions about where all those Jews are going on those trains. He also demonstrates real political savvy as he balances the vulgar brute Göring (Orlando Iriarte) with the refined Goebbels, a man increasingly unnerved as he tries to stay focused on the big picture. Goebbels and Schwarzkopf, meanwhile, demonstrates genuine affection each other. Kirkland delivers a veritable tour-de-force, morphing from aging diva to young comprimario with no make-up changes and only the slightest costume adjustments. She also delivers credible Puccini and Strauss musical numbers (at a 1:00 PM matinee, a trial for any singer.)

There are several fascinating audio samples of Schwarzkopf from the years covered in the play. In 1941, she recorded Weber’s “Abu Hassan” on one of the world’s first tape recorders (the Nazis and their technology!). On a 1943 German radio broadcast, she sings songs with pianist Michael Raucheisen, the dean of German lieder accompanists. The voice on these is pert and soubrettish. By 1945, she is in Vienna and can be heard in an Austrian radio broadcast of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Here, she is brilliant and florid with the womanly bloom on her voice familiar from her great years.

Schwarzkopf actually appeared in several films for UFA (the Nazi film studio) including Das Madchen von St. Coeur and Three Non-Coms in which she is evidently singing “Carmen” in a scene set in an opera house. These appear hard to track down.

Anna Kirkland is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Levi Morger is Joseph Goebbels in Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary).

Anna Kirkland is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Levi Morger is Joseph Goebbels in Der Kanarienvogel (The Canary).

Her most important videographic legacy is a film of her signature role; the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier directed by Paul Czinner (The Rise of Catherine the Great). It features the Vienna Philharmonic under her frequent conductor (and fellow party member and rumored lover) Herbert Von Karajan along with outstanding co-stars. It deserves its classic status. It was as the Marschallin that Schwarzkopf made her belated Met debut in 1964. With her arrival, Met manager Rudolph Bing felt the war was finally over (irony noted). Ethan Mordden in a reminiscence of the Bing years (Opera News, Feb. 2004) wrote: “The time I speak of was a great one for Marshchallins, but Elisabeth Schwarzkopf stood out.” The highest praise Mordden and his friends could lavish on an opera star at the time was the term “demented.” Of Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin: “…demented at its best.”

After retiring from opera in 1971, Schwarzkopf continued to appear in concert and recital. Video documentation was becoming more sophisticated and she can be seen on Youtube and the ARTS channel demonstrating potent glamor and interpretive skill albeit with diminished voice.

One final note. McCasland effectively counterpoints Schwarzkopf’s career rise with slide projections showing composers whose music was banned by the Nazis because they were Jewish (or some lesser offense).They include Victor Ullmann, Ernst Krenek and Pavel Haas (who continued to compose even after being confined to Teresienstadt concentration camp). Their work was labeled “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music) and using that title, Decca has produced an excellent series of recordings bringing, one hopes, a measure of musical justice: top-drawer performers, superb production and excellent documentation; standards which Schwarzkopf and Legge would have expected for themselves.

About David

David Leopold is an actor, writer and videographer who would take a Sherpa ride up a Tibetan mountain to see an Edwige Feuillère movie.