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Reinhard Febel

Commission to Reinhard Febel

Landestheater Linz (AT)

In the summer of 1860, a strange boy is born in Baltimore: Benjamin Button does not see the light of day as a cute little boy, but as a bearded old man. His fate is predetermined: He goes through life backwards and gets younger from day to day. When he finally meets Hildegarde, almost thirty years his junior, at the age of fifty, everything is at stake for him, who has never been loved because of his strange life story. Moreover, Benjamin is ostracized by society because of these special circumstances. The only time he is accepted is when his external and actual age match. His love for Hildegarde cannot last, because while she ages inexorably, Benjamin grows younger and younger until he finally becomes a baby in his own son's house. Hildegarde is left alone, reflecting on the stages of this strange love that has pervaded her entire life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story is a kind of folly, a whimsical and original, but only sketchily developed idea. Composer Reinhard Febel, who has been commissioned by the Landestheater Linz to compose the opera Benjamin Button, takes the story seriously, but without sacrificing the grotesque and comic nature of the situations. The story is told in a linear fashion, with instrumental interludes bridging the jumps in time. However, the story is told linearly in two directions, as if the arrow of time could really be reversed and the opera had freely chosen one of two possibilities. Perhaps in another, hypothetical version, the woman's life could run backwards and the man's forwards. Only in the epilogue should it become clear that the whole story was actually told from Hildegarde's perspective.

The same snippets of dialog may be repeated under different circumstances: fragments of scenes that are plausible and charged with true feelings in a first age context return in a second, later context in which they appear comical or bizarre – and vice versa. Benjamin Button's language and singing style undergo continuous deconstruction (or decomposition), the reverse of natural language acquisition. The syntax and also the musical material are complex at the beginning, but then gradually become simpler, especially in the last parts of the opera. The sentence structure as well as the musical motifs gradually become shorter. Then the singing voice moves into individual words, even syllables and phonemes, which remain at the end as discrete elements like the first sounds of a child, but increasingly charged with emotion, just as a small child names objects with all its concentrated perception and discovers and internalizes individual emotional reactions.

The other characters alongside Benjamin Button always maintain the same style. However, Hildegarde undergoes a significant emotional development because – in contrast to her counterpart – the experience of love goes hand in hand with the experience of ageing and finiteness. The middle of the play is the moment in which Benjamin's age corresponds to his natural development (the turning point, so to speak), in which he is as old as he feels. Here he is a real person, and this is where the real, central love scene and relationship takes place. Ultimately, it is not possible to separate Benjamin's birth and death. At the end of the piece, he enters the primordial ground of things, a kind of timeless, all-encompassing state from which he also came (at least in musical terms). One could say that the four Buddhist evils of birth, old age, illness and death have been transformed into death, illness, youth and birth – in other words, birth is also suffering, but at the same time death is also an emergence into something new, into a more comprehensive sphere than that of the human person. The composition aims to make these deeper dramaturgical layers tangible in terms of sound.

The commission to Reinhard Febel is supported by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation.

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April 6, 13 and 30, May 11 and 26 and July 1, 2024
Landestheater Linz