Die tote Stadt

Die tote Stadt (German for The Dead City), Op. 12, is an opera in three acts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold set to a libretto by Paul Schott, a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, Julius Korngold. It is based on the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach.

Die tote Stadt
Opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Die Tote Stadt 4886-Peralta.jpg
Scene at the Graz Opera in 2015
LibrettistPaul Schott
Based onBruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach
4 December 1920 (1920-12-04)


Rodenbach's novel Bruges la Morte had already been adapted by the author into a play. The play was translated into German by Siegfried Trebitsch under the title Die stille Stadt (The Silent City), which he later changed to Das Trugbild (The Mirage). Trebitsch was a friend of Korngold's father, Julius. The two met in the street one day and got into a conversation about a possible operatic adaptation. Trebitsch later met Erich, who was enthusiastic about the project. Trebitsch recalled "[I] met the young master Erich Wolfgang Korngold in search of a scenario or, even better, a mood or operatic background that could be dramatically elaborated. I urged him to take up Das Trugbild."[1] Julius commented on the way the project evolved:

As soon as Erich read the play, he drafted a scenario for a one-acter, but Hans Müller urged him to get away from one-act operas and he sketched the first of three acts in prose. However, his work on two of his own plays prevented him from getting much further, and since his prose was wordy and unsingable anyway, we gladly excused him from the task.[1]

Father and son decided to adapt the play themselves, and co-wrote the libretto, using the pseudonym Paul Schott. Julius decided to change the plot so that the murder occurs in a dream, rather than in actuality, as in the original. Korngold started the composition in 1916. He left it for a year to take up military service before resuming and completing the score.[1]

Performance historyEdit

Libretto cover published in 1921
Opera notes with dedication

When Die tote Stadt had its premiere on December 4, 1920, Korngold was just 23 years old with two short one-act operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, already to his name. The success of these earlier works was so great that Die tote Stadt was subject to a fierce competition among German theatres for the right to the world premiere. In the end, an unusual double premiere was arranged and the opera opened simultaneously at the Stadttheater Hamburg and Cologne (Glockengasse). In Cologne, the conductor was Otto Klemperer, and his wife Johanna Geisler [de] sang Marietta. In Hamburg, Korngold himself was in the theatre, and the conductor was Egon Pollak. The opera's theme of overcoming the loss of a loved one resonated with contemporary audiences of the 1920s who had just come through the trauma and grief of World War I, and this undoubtedly fuelled the work's popularity.

Die tote Stadt was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s. Within two years of its premiere it had circled the globe, including several performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The Berlin première was on 12 April 1924 with Lotte Lehmann as Marietta/Marie and Richard Tauber as Paul, conducted by George Szell.

But the work was banned by the Nazi régime because of Korngold's Jewish ancestry and after World War II it fell into obscurity. The key postwar revivals of the piece were at the Vienna Volksoper (1967) and the New York City Opera (1975). In recent years, however, the work has enjoyed notable revivals, among others at the Theater Bonn, the Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera and at the Vienna State Opera.[2]

The French premiere of the opera took place in a concert performance in 1982 at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The first French staged performance was in April 2001 in Strasbourg under the baton of Jan Latham-Koenig with Torsten Kerl [de] (Paul) and Angela Denoke (Marietta).

The opera received its UK premiere on 14 January 1996 in a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with Ian Caley (Paul) and Christine Teare (Marie/Marietta). The first UK staged performance was on 27 January 2009 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The opera was first performed in Latin America at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on September 19, 1999, with Carlos Bengolea as Paul, Cynthia Makris as Marie/Marietta and David Pittman-Jennings as Frank; Stefan Lano was the conductor.

In Australia, the work was first premiered by Opera Australia on 30 June 2012 at the Sydney Opera House, with Cheryl Barker as Marie/Marietta, and Stefan Vinke as Paul, conducted by Christian Badea, directed by Bruce Beresford.[3] In 1986, Beresford directed the episode "Glück das mir verblieb" of Aria.


Die tote Stadt, Graz Opera 2015
Role Voice type Premiere cast in Hamburg,
4 December 1920,
(Conductor: Egon Pollak)
Premiere cast in Cologne,
4 December 1920,
(Conductor: Otto Klemperer)
Paul/Gaston/Victorin/Albert tenor Richard Schubert Karl Schröder
Marie/Marietta soprano Annie Münchow Joanna Klemperer
Juliette soprano Maria Jeritza Joanna Klemperer
Brigitta/Lucienne mezzo-soprano Maria Olszewska Katherina Rohr
Frank-Fritz baritone Josef Degler Karl Renner
Chorus: party goers


Place: Bruges, Belgium, called the Dead City (die tote Stadt) for its pious gloom
Time: End of 19th century
Background: Paul lives in his house in Bruges where his young wife, Marie, had died some years before. Paul has not come to terms with the reality of her death. He keeps a Kirche des Gewesenen (Temple of the Past) in her honor, a locked room including keepsakes, including photographs, a lute, and a lock of her hair. Until the action of the opera begins, no one had been in the room except himself and his housekeeper Brigitta.

Act 1Edit

Brigitta is showing Frank, an old friend of Paul's, in Bruges on a visit, the locked room, explaining that only the day before, Paul had unexpectedly announced the room could be open again. Paul arrives, excitedly insisting that Marie still lives. He tells Frank that the day before he met a woman on the streets of Bruges who exactly resembles Marie (indeed, Paul wants to believe she is Marie resurrected) and has invited her back to his home. Frank leaves, promising to return shortly. The woman, whose name is Marietta, appears for her rendezvous with Paul. She is in Bruges as a dancer in an opera company performing Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Without explaining his motivation, he gives her a scarf to put on and a lute, recreating a photograph of Marie. He asks her to sing a song that Marie used to sing (Lute Song,"Glück das mir verblieb"), joining in on the second verse, which ends with the words Glaub, es gibt ein Auferstehen (believe, there is a resurrection). They hear some of her opera company colleagues pass by in the street. Marietta wants to go wave at them but Paul stops her, fearing scandal if the neighbors should see her in his rooms. She dances for him ("O Tanz, o Rausch"), but breaks off with the excuse that she must leave for rehearsal, hinting that he might seek and find her again. Paul meanwhile is driven into a state of extreme anxiety.

Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his interest in Marietta he collapses into a chair and begins to hallucinate. He sees Marie's ghost step out of her portrait. She urges him to admit he is tempted by the other woman.

Act 2Edit

From this point in the story until almost the end of the opera, the events are all part of a vision taking place in Paul's mind.

It is a moonlit evening. Paul is standing alongside a canal, outside the solitary house where Marietta lives. The door is locked. He has given in to his passion for her, though he views it as a sin. A group of nuns passes, among whom is Brigitta dressed as a novice. She tells Paul she has left him because of his sin and passes on. Frank appears and Paul realizes that they are rivals for Marietta's affection, when Frank shows him he has the key to Marietta's house. Paul seizes the key from him and Frank passes on. Paul retreats to watch from a distance as boats come down the canal, bearing members of the opera company, among them Viktorin (the stage manager), Fritz (the Pierrot), Count Albert (a wealthy hanger-on) as well as others who all come off the boats. Viktorin sings a serenade to the still-unseen Marietta. Marietta herself then appears and explains she missed the rehearsal because she was not in the mood for it and had slipped away. She flirts with the Count. On her request, Fritz sings a nostalgic song ("Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen"). Marietta proposes that they rehearse the notorious ballet from Robert le Diable in which nuns rise seductively from their graves, with herself as the head nun Helen. As they begin the enactment, Paul can bear it no longer and comes out of hiding to confront the group. Marietta defuses the situation by sending the others away. They have a tense quarrel during which Marietta finally realizes that Paul's obsession with her stems from her resemblance to his dead wife. She insists he love her for herself and they go together to Paul's house where she intends to break the hold of the dead Marie.

Act 3Edit

Paul's vision continues. Back in his house, where he and Marietta have spent the night, it is morning on the day of a religious festival. Paul watches the festival procession from a window in the Temple of the Past, but doesn't want Marietta next to him in case someone outside should see them together. His preoccupation reaches the point where Paul imagines the procession is passing through the room. Marietta is increasingly fed up and starts to taunt him by dancing seductively while stroking his dead wife's hair. In a rage, Paul grabs the lock of hair and strangles Marietta with it. Staring at her dead body he exclaims "Now she is exactly like Marie."

At this point Paul's vision ends. As Paul comes back to reality, he is astonished that Marietta's body is nowhere to be found. Brigitta enters and informs him that Marietta has come back to pick up her umbrella which she left at the house when she departed a few minutes earlier. Marietta comes in to take the umbrella and leaves as Frank returns, as he had promised. Paul tells Frank he will not see Marietta again. Frank announces he is leaving Bruges, and asks if Paul will come too, to which he replies, "I will try". The opera ends with a reprise of "Glück, das mir verblieb", with however the last words now "Here, there is no resurrection". He gives the room a farewell glance as the curtain falls.



  1. ^ a b c Carroll, Brendan G.; Pauly, Reinhard G., The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Amadeus Press, Portland, 1997, pp. 121–3.
  2. ^ Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Die tote Stadt". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  3. ^ "No forgotten masterpiece but this city is worth a visit" by Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 2012
  4. ^ Schott, Paul. The Dead City : Opera in Three Acts Founded on G. Rodenbach's Das Trugbild. Program Publishing Company, New York, no date.
  5. ^ Die tote Stadt Archived 2008-05-11 at the Wayback Machine, Opera Today site with synopsis and MP3 recording (there it is said to be a live performance, but no trace of auditorium noise or applause can be heard).
  6. ^ "2013/2014シーズンオペラ「死の都」|新国立劇場". www.nntt.jac.go.jp.


  • Palmer, Christopher, "Erich Wolfgang Korngold", Die tote Stadt, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Opera) (Accessed May 4, 2007) (subscription required)

External linksEdit