You’ve conducted the work of so many different composers at the Met. Where does Alban Berg fit into your repertory?
Berg is one of my very favorite composers, and Wozzeck is one of the greatest operas ever written, no matter what your criteria. He had an extraordinary talent. The concise quality, the emotional impact, the detail—the structure is so fully realized, and the expressive range is so deep and wide.
The opera is based on Büchner’s play Woyzeck. But the opera is quite different.
Berg fell in love with this play and then he adapted it into an opera libretto of singular success. Each of the three acts has five scenes, and each scene is connected to the other scenes by very strong structural links. If you look at any score of Berg’s, the hyper-organization is impressive for its own sake, but of course it isn’t done for its own sake—it’s done because the structure heightens the emotional response in the listener. Berg once gave a lecture about aspects of the formal structure and then he finished by saying, “But, of course, none of this has anything to do with what you should experience when you come to a performance.” It’s easy to talk about Berg’s work in intellectual terms, but the operas themselves elicit a deep visceral response.
Wozzeck is one of a handful of operas that you have made an effort to make central to the Met’s repertoire.
That’s true. The idea was to take this piece, and by re-rehearsing and performing it every few years, the company became completely conversant with it, and so did the audience. In our time, these works have become much more central to the repertoire, whereas in the past they weren’t put in front of the audience nearly as often as Aida or Bohème or Carmen. Wozzeck is one of the operas that we used to improve the company’s capacity and skills—and it inevitably helped us improve our performances of other pieces as well.
What do you ideally want an audience
to feel when they leave a performance of Wozzeck?
You want the audience to be unable to shake it off for a long time. I think when this opera succeeds the audience carries it with them for quite some time. It may sound strange, but one of the techniques that one learns is how to conduct the opera so that the audience gets the punch in the gut, while I can still go home when it’s over and eat dinner. Shakespearean actors tell me that performing a role like Lear or Othello every night requires a similar technique. Because otherwise, Wozzeck would leave me completely unraveled. —Matt Dobkin
This interview was first published online and in the Met's Playbill in March 2014.