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Marc-André Dalbavie Charlotte Salomon

Opera in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue
Libretto by Barbara Honigmann after Charlotte Salomon's Leben? oder Theater?
French translation by Johannes Honigmann

Work commissioned by the Salzburg Festival • World premiere
In memoriam Gerard Mortier

In German and French with German and English surtitles

Duration of the opera approx. 2 hours and 10 minutes.


  • 28 July 2014, 19:00


  • 02 August 2014, 19:30
  • 07 August 2014, 19:30
  • 10 August 2014, 19:30
  • 14 August 2014, 19:30

Print programme (PDF)


Marc-André Dalbavie, Conductor
Luc Bondy, Director
Johannes Schütz, Sets
Moidele Bickel, Costumes
Bertrand Couderc, Lighting
Konrad Kuhn, Dramaturgy
Marie-Louise Bischofberger, Choreography / Associate Director


Johanna Wokalek, Charlotte Salomon
Marianne Crebassa, Charlotte Kann
Jean-Sébastien Bou, Doktor Kann, a doctor
Géraldine Chauvet, Franziska Kann / A Woman
Anaïk Morel, Paulinka Bimbam
Frédéric Antoun, Amadeus Daberlohn, a vocal pedagogue
Vincent Le Texier, Herr Knarre / Camp Commander
Cornelia Kallisch, Frau Knarre
Michal Partyka, Professor Klingklang / Student of Arts / Third Nazi / Policeman
Eric Huchet, Pope / Propaganda Minister / Professor of Arts / First Nazi / A Man / Second Emigrant
Annika Schlicht*, Student of Arts from Tyrol
Wolfgang Resch*, Second Nazi

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

*Member of the Young Singers Project


 ‘A person is sitting beside the sea. He is painting. A tune suddenly enters his mind. As he starts to hum it, he notices that the tune exactly matches what he is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in his head, and he starts to sing the tune with his own words, over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete.’ This is how Charlotte Salomon describes the genesis of her fascinating series of paintings, Life? Or Theatre? The young Jewish artist had fled to southern France following the Kristallnacht pogrom in Berlin on the night of 9/10 November 1938, where she joined her grandparents. She was living in Villefranche when the Second World War broke out. Afraid of the troops who were drawing ever closer from Nazi Germany, her grandmother threw herself to her death from an upstairs window. Her grandfather then told her that when Charlotte was nine her mother had ended her life in the same way. Even worse, she now discovered that a whole series of other relatives had committed suicide. Charlotte sensed that if she, too, was not to fall victim to the family curse or to go mad, she would have to do ‘something altogether insanely special’.

This ‘altogether insanely special’ project occupied her for the next two years, during which time she painted hundreds of gouaches retelling the story of her young life and that of her family, while at the same time investing those lives with a fictional element. All of these gouaches were created using the technique described above. Not infrequently she used resources reminiscent of the cinema to create a scene-by-scene narrative, adding texts that were often incorporated into the paintings. And she also included numerous musical references – the ‘tunes’ that came into her mind while she was painting and writing. These musical quotations range from Bach to Beethoven and Bizet as well as featuring popular tunes from the cinema. Now housed in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, Life? Or Theatre? was described by its creator as a ‘Singespiel’ and constitutes an ‘altogether insanely special’ fusion of images, texts and music that anticipates many later developments in the world of art.

Above all, however, this ‘Singespiel’ is moving testimony to a young woman who was alert and responsive to the disasters of her age and of her people. Hers was a life that came to an abrupt end when she was only twenty-six, for when the Germans occupied southern France in 1943, she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she died shortly afterwards. Some six million others suffered the same fate. This is a life story that finds unique expression in Life? Or Theatre? And for the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie it is the subject matter for an opera. He has taken Charlotte Salomon’s life and works and has also set himself the task of reacting as a composer to the music that she herself quotes.

Marc-André Dalbavie was born in 1961 and is one of the most frequently performed composers of his generation, enjoying particular acclaim with his opera Gesualdo, which was premiered in Zurich in 2010. His musical language was shaped at the IRCAM in Paris and reflects the influence of ‘spectral music’, a type of music associated with the French composer Gérard Grisey. Grisey and his fellow ‘spectralists’ rejected the abstract structural principles associated with serial music in favour of analysis of individual sounds, including the use of electronic resources. In short, their starting point is research into the acoustic properties of the sound spectrum. Dalbavie’s international breakthrough came in 1994 when Boulez conducted the first performance of Seuils at that summer’s Salzburg Festival. Since then he has continued to develop his own distinctive personal style. Using metatonal compositional techniques, he has moved on from the opposition between tonality and atonality or dodecaphony that was for a long time central to new music. Time and again he has been inspired by the music of the past. In addition to Gesualdo, whose madrigals has repeatedly formed a point of reference in his output, he has also drawn on the music of twelfth-century French troubadours and the Baroque tradition of the virtuoso concerto. His work-list features large-scale symphonic works that are regularly performed by leading international orchestras, but he has also taken a frequent interest in the human voice. In his opera Charlotte Salomon, his music becomes a medium through which the ‘Singespiel’ of its self-willed eponymous heroine can continue to be developed.

Konrad Kuhn
Translated by Stewart Spencer