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Andrew Shore, John Graham-Hall - photo: Hugo Glendinning

Death in Venice: the interwoven lives of Britten and Mann

Mann’s ‘tragedy of humiliation’

Published in 1912, on the eve of the First World War, Nobel Prize-winning German writer Thomas Mann’s classic novella Death in Venice is the ultimate exploration of the dialectics of Apollonian rationality and Dyonisian passion that has shaped Western culture from Plato to Schelling and Nietzsche.

Suffering from writer’s block, the novella’s protagonist, renowned author Gustav von Aschenbach, visits Venice. There he gets increasingly entangled in his obsession with a beautiful young boy named Tadzio whom he never dares to approach. Later calling his work a ‘tragedy of humiliation’, it follows Aschenbach’s lapse from being a bulwark of morality to succumbing to emotional frenzy.

The novella is partly autobiographical: numerous incidents, including the momentous encounter with the young Polish baron Władysław (Adzio) Moes, stem from the Mann family’s trip to Venice in 1911. Even Aschenbach's literary works cited in the novella coincide with those already completed or planned by Thomas Mann.

It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them, and the excellence of the writing would be of no avail.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

Unexpected connections...

Britten had long contemplated adapting Death in Venice into an opera, considering its author a central figure of modern European literature. If at first sight Mann and Britten seem to inhabit different artistic and personal worlds, there is, in fact, considerable overlap between their respective lives. Britten’s close friend, the poet W.H. Auden, married Mann’s eldest daughter Erika in 1935, the very summer they met. If the union was a marriage of convenience between two gay artists, which enabled the politically engaged cabaretist Erika Mann to escape the Nazi regime, they nonetheless never divorced and remained lifelong friends.

When Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, emigrated to the United States for a while in 1939 where they ended up living together with a group of émigré artists in Brooklyn Heights, among them: Auden, Erika Mann and her brothers Golo and Klaus, writers in their own right. While it is not documented whether Thomas Mann, who lived in Princeton, New Jersey at the time met Britten, though it seems likely given their mutual connections. At the time, Mann did not seem too impressed with Britten. In a 1948 letter he recalls that ‘Back then, the young musician seemed not to have given the impression of genius. I suppose it was the story of the ugly duckling.’

In 1970, Britten finally approached Golo Mann about turning the Death of Venice into an opera, receiving a heartwarming acknowledgement about his father’s appreciation of his music.

My old mother, and I, and everybody concerned, would be delighted, would be happy, would be enthused if you could realize this project. Need I point out and explain, why we would? My father, incidentally, used to say, that if it ever came to some musical illustration of his novel Doctor Faustus, you would be the composer to do it [. . .] a Death in Venice opera by BB would have made the author of Death in Venice happy.

Golo Mann, letter dated 14 September 1970

At the same time, Golo Mann informed Britten that Luchino Visconti was working on a film adaptation. Visconti had decided to turn Aschenbach’s character into a composer, magnifying Mann’s allusions to Gustav Mahler through his name and appearance. As evocative as the film otherwise might be, this transposition distorts Mann’s reflection on Aschenbach’s conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian passion. Music, it can be argued, is intrinsically indebted to a Dionysian spirit.

From the page to the stage

Britten and his longtime librettist Myfanwy Pipe portray this inner conflict in a dream scene opposing the gods Apollo and Dionysus together in a contest in which Apollo is defeated, sealing the final disintegration of Aschenbach. All in all, Britten and Piper’s adaptation would prove much more faithful, treading a fine line of preserving Mann’s original framework and flavour while operating important changes to make it feasible on stage. They streamlined the plot by skipping the beginning of Aschenbach's holiday on the Adriatic coast.

In an inspired dramaturgical move, they blend four of the novella’s ominous characters symbolize death – the Traveller, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier and the Leader of the Strolling Players – into a single baritone role. By also including Dionysos as well as the Hotel Manager and the Barber, who both involuntarily incite Aschenbach’s ruin, Piper and Britten fashioned a substantial role opposite Aschenbach in what would otherwise have resembled a monologue.

Piper’s intuition to cast the role of Tadzio as a non-verbal dancer proved a stroke of genius perfectly translating Mann’s intent. Offering Britten a complementary visual form of expression, Tadzio is lifted from his worldly status to impersonate the idea of beauty through movement.

I followed the performance with the greatest involvement and felt the opera to be the equal of the novel. The interpretation of Aschenbach by Peter Pears I thought was excellent [. . .] the idea that Tadzio does not speak (i.e. sing) but only works through his appearance, his personality and his movement, I find altogether ideal.

Thomas Mann’s widow Katia, in a letter to Britten on 8 November 1973, after attending the London premiere

Discreet and controlled Britten, outwardly as Apollonian as Mann himself, proved perfectly fitting to formulate the age-old antinomy between reason and passion.