“There can be no doubt that there is nothing in the world as indispensable as love”
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
This season ETO is kicking things off with a intimate production of Massenet’s heart-wrenching opera Werther, a piece loosely based on Goethe’s infamous first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Goethe is without a doubt one of the most popular literary figures of the late 18th and early 19th century, when his novels and poems set off a sort of Goethe fandom throughout Europe. When Werther was published in 1774, Werther Fever hit the Continent and encouraged young romantics to delight in sentimentalism, and join the search for the emotional and sensual pleasures of life.
On the surface, the story of poor Werther appears to be a commonplace tale of unrequited love: an emotional young poet falls madly in love with an intelligent and charming young woman, Charlotte, but his world is soon shattered when he learns that she is engaged to another man. Werther’s innocent infatuation soon turns into a romantic obsession, until by the end of the opera he believes that his only option for release from the agony of unrequited love is to take his own life. He dies after writing his beloved one last letter of farewell.
This tragic tale was more than just a work of fiction for the young and heartbroken Goethe. Werther’s burning desire for Charlotte is in fact an autobiographical account of Goethe’s own love for a young woman named Charlotte Buff. In 1772, the 23-year-old Goethe moved to Wetzlar to live and work as a lawyer and it was there that he met Charlotte (Lotte) Buff and her fiancée Johann Christian Kestner. Goethe spent much time with the couple, yet he soon began to realise that he was harbouring deep romantic feelings for the beautiful Lotte. Rather than facing up to his feelings and causing turmoil in their happy relationship, Goethe chose to flee the city and merely left a note for his two dear friends, attempting to explain his sudden absence. Heartbroken and utterly alone, Goethe moved to Frankfurt and began to consider writing. Shortly after leaving Wetzlar, Goethe received a letter from Kestner saying that a close friend of theirs, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, had committed suicide due to his heartache from unrequited love with a woman called Elisabeth. This struck a chord with Goethe, and as he processed the loss of his friend and pondered his own disappointments in love, so came the idea for The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe’s own love story with Lotte sadly ends without a happily-ever-after; but before he could let her go, he wrote her one final letter: “Farewell, dear Lotte, I am sending you shortly a friend who has much in common with me, and I hope you will receive him well – he is called, Werther…”
The novel instantly brought Goethe worldwide fame; it became a bestseller in Germany, England and France, and was translated into nearly every European language. It is even known to have been a favourite of Napoleon’s as he read the book seven times and carried it in his breast pocket next to his heart while he journeyed to Egypt.
The book also triggered off a Werther Fever among the young Romantics of Europe (and you wouldn’t be far wrong to imagine squealing fan girls and crazed fan-fiction writers at this point!). The young Romantics latched onto the work like teenagers do with the Twilight Saga today: thousands of poems, stories, sequels, prequels and plays were written in admiration of the work, and fans desperately requested Goethe to write another book in order to follow up the tale. Young men throughout Europe started dressing like Werther from the cover of the book, in his iconic blue jacket and yellow trousers, and even chose to smell like Werther through the new range of “eau de Werther” colognes and perfumes that had been brought out for true Werther enthusiasts. Fans could also buy ceramic action figures and they could join Werther clubs, attend annual Werther memorial processions and buy emblazoned jewellery, bread boxes and porcelain.
Sadly this devotion to the work also had terrible implications, as the work caused a considerable increase in the number of suicides – a development which became known as “The Werther Effect”. Many young people tried to follow in Werther’s footsteps, sometimes successfully, by wading into rivers and attempting to drown themselves, with copies of Goethe’s novel tucked faithfully into their pockets.
This sudden wave of interest in Goethe’s work meant that many people began to use it as the foundation for ballets, plays, symphonies and operas. Massenet however was a little bit late in hopping on the Werther bandwagon as he didn’t come into contact or realise the significance of the work until about a century later when the hype had already died down. While returning from a visit to Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Parsifal in 1886, he was given a copy of the novel and was instantly inspired. Werther was Massenet’s fifteenth opera and it is thought that he took musical influence for it from Parsifal, embodying aspects of Wagnerian dramatic music and German Gothic ideas. After the opera was composed, it sat in Massenet’s desk drawer for five years before being produced, and was eventually put on to great acclaim, at the Hopofer in Vienna. When the opera was performed in Weimar, where Goethe lived till his death in 1832, a local tenor named Giessen was asked to sing the title role. The irony of this was discovered however when it transpired that his real name was in fact Buff, and he was the grand-nephew of Goethe’s “real life Lotte”, Charlotte Buff.
The opera was a huge success, and became more popular even than Manon, composed by Massenet in 1884. Yet while the public revelled in its curious beauty and tragic plot, Massenet’s younger contemporaries became incredibly jealous of the attention the opera was receiving. Debussy in particular was very unimpressed by the opera and its growing popularity, and it was this hatred for Massenet that drove Debussy to complete his one and only opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Both works are currently being performed by the ETO so perhaps you should join in the debate and see if your preference is for Werther’s intimately tragic work or Debussy’s musically endearing symbolist opera.
Box Office and Marketing Assistant
ETO’s French opera season opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.