“…admittedly Only as a Principal Bass”
A Letter to the SZ from Thomas Bernhard
regarding His Career as an Opera Singer 1
Dear Features Section,
Two or three days ago Mr. Otto F. Beer from Vienna reported that at the so called artists’ house the Vienna State Opera was about to give the world premiere of the opera The Final Edition by Peter Ronnefeld. Here Mr. Beer is mistaken…The world premiere of this opera took place in 1957 at the Salzburg Regional Theater during the Salzburg Festival, and I myself played the only speaking role in it, although I probably would have sung better than any of the other performers; at that time my bass voice was at the very pinnacle of its development, and that same year I sang at the festival at the Mozarteum in the world premiere of an oratorio by Gnechhi with Teresa Stich-Randall, one of the most famous female singers ever and girlfriend of the then president of the Mozarteum, Paumgartner. So I believe that in that single year I participated in two world premieres in the setting of the Salzburg Festival.
Probably I did not sing in the premiere of The Final Edition because I had already sung in the Gnecchi oratorio; and in tails no less, an article of clothing that I had never worn before and have never worn since. And it occurs to me that in that year I also sang in Mozart’s C-minor mass, admittedly only as a principal bass2, but for all that alongside the famous Maria Stader, who was no less famous than she was short and who had to stand on a stool the whole time, because otherwise nobody would have been able to see her at all.
The performance of The Final Edition that is going to be given in
in March is
therefore not going to be a world premiere but a repeat performance. I could have imagined anything in 1957, anything,
that is, except that this opera would be performed yet again thirty years later
and in horrible old Vienna of all places. Vienna
Peter Ronnefeld was one of my best friends during my days as a student at the Mozarteum; in all my life I have never laughed as much with anybody as with Ronnefeld, who had already, by the age of twenty, been Karajan’s second-in-command at the Vienna [State] Opera, where when scarcely more than thirty he conducted the Italian operas, notably Rossini’s--La Cenerentola, etc.—better than the majority of his Italian colleagues. But more than anything else, Peter Ronnefeld was an utterly and thoroughly excellent piano player, a.k.a. pianist, and he excelled at this profession most of all when he played with Hubertus Böse. But I personally, apart from laughing more with him than with the majority of other people—who, as everybody knows, are too dull-witted to laugh—spoke a great deal about music with him and the two of us musically helped each other up into the stratosphere, so to speak.
After The Final Edition, Ronnefeld wrote one more opera, entitled The Ant, which was premiered at the so-called German Opera House on the
Rhine, in Düsseldorf, I believe. This opera was utterly and totally driven by
jokes that Ronnefeld and I were in the habit of cracking during our breaks from
the madness of the Mozarteum, and Mr. Liebeneiner produced it; Mr. Erede, a
thoroughly Italian conductor, conducted.
The libretto was authored by Mr. Bletschacher (or Pletschacher?), another
good friend of Peter Ronnefeld’s and subsequently the dramaturge at the Vienna [State]
So at the age of twenty-six Peter Ronnefeld died. I saw him for the last time about thirty years ago in a train dining car en route to Düsseldorf and indeed to a rehearsal of The
Ant. At the time
he was working as the music director (!) of the
orchestra in Kiel, and he said to me, as we were spooning up a thickened oxtail
soup, just imagine, he said, I’ve been trying to hire Krebs
(the best oratorio singer of his day), because I need him for the St. John
Passion, and the doctor I saw this morning told me I’d already got him!3 Ronnefeld had a mole surgically removed; he
should not have done that, because half a year later he was dead.
A couple of months ago I read that Peter Ronnefeld’s son had also died (in
) and had also
not yet reached thirty. Who knows
whether he did not also have a mole surgically removed like his father. In any case, the Ronnefelds have died
young. The fact that they were more highly
musical than all but a few other central Europeans has been of no use to them. Hamburg
I am already looking forward to the repeat performance of The Final Edition in
. At the time of its Salzburg premiere--which
could not have been attended more conspicuously by everybody from [Carl] Schuricht
and [George] Szell to Boris Blacher and [Gottfried von] Einem and in which I
myself ultimately had to figure in the last act as an actor rather than as a
judicial act, as specified in the score, and still ended up getting cocooned in
the regional theater’s curtain, to the great mirth of the entire stage crew and
the tragic detriment of the director, who was all-too unpretentiously surnamed Tuttenberg4—the
opera still bore the title of The Echo’s Final Edition. Why it is now called simply The Final
Edition I can hardly know, as I am not privy to the thoughts of Ronnefeld’s
descendants or the thoughts of the Vienna State Opera. I wish the premiere all possible success, because
Peter Ronnefeld was an inspired dog; and I extend my greetings to the horrible South
Germans, who for all their horribleness afford me an utterly and thoroughly
singular species of enjoyment here every single day. Vienna
1. Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur. Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons. Herausgegeben von Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth. Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles. Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011), pp. 280-282. Originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on March 3, 1987.
2. A principal bass is the lead bass voice in a chorus, not a soloist. The original German, Baß-Stimmführer [bass voice-leader], is slightly less misleading.
3. Krebs is not only a surname but also the German word for cancer (and crab, naturally). Bernhard had already made use of Ronnefeld’s life history in a piece of dialogue assigned to the conductor in The Celebrities: “I had a colleague…we were together at the Academy…[he] conducted La Cenerentola at the age of twenty-two…In Bad Segeberg between Hamburg and Kiel / I ran into my colleague for the first time in years / he was looking for an Evangelist for the Passion / in those days there was literally only a single Evangelist in all of Europe / Helmut Krebs …Just imagine / said my colleague in a perfectly cheerful tone / I’ve been trying to hire Krebs / and the doctor tells me I’ve already got him.”
4. A Tuttenberg is (or would be) nothing less ludicrous than a “mountain of tits.”
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson