Ambitious staging of Kogoj’s opera Black Masks by the Capital of Culture

Black Masks. Photo: STA archive

April 2012

The premiere of the opera, Black Masks, written by the Slovenian composer, Marij Kogoj, was one of the opening sequences in an extensive programme of cultural events for this year's European Capital of Culture, which took place in Maribor in mid-January.  A large-scale opera project is a joint production between the Ljubljana and Maribor Opera and Ballet National Theatres and a co-production with the organisers of the European Capital of Culture.

The selection of the Kogoj opera, classified as one of the highlights of Slovenian musical creativity and among the most original Slovenian opera works, was no coincidence. Ever since it was composed, Black Masks has represented a major challenge to all those who decide to stage it. This is a piece of work with a reputation of being a heavy and obscure opera with its musical language, which combines an unusual mixture of late-Romanticism and atonal musical elements; Kogoj's musical expressionism was largely influenced by Franz Schreker and Arnold Schönberg, under whom Kogoj studied composition during the First World War.

Musical and dramaturgic genesis of Black Masks

From the Black Masks. Photo: STA archive

The composer, Marij Kogoj, born in Trieste in 1892, composed Black Masks on the basis of a story written by the Russian writer, Leonid Andreyev, using the dramatic text or its Slovenian translation as a libretto.  Black Masks was penned between 1924 and 1927 and premiered two years later in the Ljubljana opera theatre. Even then, music connoisseurs and the more culturally sensitive public considered it the highlight of musical expressionism, with some comparing it to the more expressionist operas of Alban Berg – Lulu and Wozzeck. After the Second World War, Black Masks, as Kogoj's sole opera, was staged only twice and this year's staging in Maribor was the fourth.

The theme of Kogoj's opera is a story about the increasingly mentally traumatised character, Duke Lorenzo di Spadaro, who organises a masquerade ball in his grand castle, where uninvited black masks appear which are attracted to the light. In his encounters with his masked guests, Lorenzo realises his dark past – that he is not a descendant of the late Duke di Spadaro, but instead the son of a horse stable-boy and the Duchess. It all ends with Lorenzo's insanity and his death, and the fire destroying his castle, which also serves as a metaphor for his mental disintegration.

In the story of Lorenzo, we can identify a number of distinct autobiographical elements from Kogoj's youth as an orphan, after his father's death and his abandonment by his mother, until his suspicion about his mental illness, as a result of which he was admitted to a mental hospital shortly after staging Black Masks, where he remained until his death in 1956. One critic even questions whether the composer, by writing the opera, was running away from his own feelings about going insane, although the greatest mystery of his oeuvre remains how he could describe his madness while still compos mentis.

Creators staging the Kogoj opera in Maribor

From the Black Masks. Photo: STA archive

Yet, the Slovenian conductor, Uroš Lajovic, and the musical director of the current staging, who has been performing in Vienna for a number of years, rejects the hypothesis that Kogoj would have been able to compose such a demanding and complex music masterpiece in a state of unsound mind.  The revision of Kogoj's 800 pages of sheet music took Lajovic as long as eight years in order to thoroughly prepare himself as the musical director and conductor for the performance in Maribor. The stage director was Janez Burger, thus far mainly known as a film director, while other members of the group of authors worth mentioning are the costume designer, Alan Hranitelj, the artist group, Numen, from Zagreb who also designed the set, the lighting designer, Pascal Mérat, and the stage movement designer Edward Clug.

The interpreter of the main character of Duke Lorenzo is the baritone Jože Vidic who, after the premiere, was admired for his commendable music perfection and psychological depth when displaying the protagonist's mental disorder, his delusions and paranoia. Several other major roles are taken in alternation with two singers, while the total number of solo roles performed by the singers of Ljubljana and Maribor opera ensembles amounts to as many as twenty-seven.

With the premiere and a few re-runs in Maribor, the performance of Black Masks, conducted by Uroš Lajovic and directed by Janez Burger, has just started its stage life. 

Next year, Black Masks is expected to be staged at the Zagreb biennale and the ceremony marking Croatia's accession to the EU.

Text by Albert Kos, Sinfo, February 2012