The Story of Wozzeck

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Category Culture
Date May 25 2023
Reading Time 2 min.

The Story of Wozzeck

This May Royal Opera House saw the return of Alban Berg’s first opera Wozzeck. The Viennese composer adapted the story from a play written by the German dramatist Georg Büchner almost 200 years ago, who infamously left it incomplete due to his untimely death at 23.

Following the tragic life of an impoverished and powerless soldier Wozzeck and his inevitable succumb to madness upon learning of his mistress’s infidelity, Berg’s sharp operatic masterpiece is as relevant today as it was when it first premiered at the Berlin State Opera in 1925. Starring Christian Gerhaher (Tannhäuser), the opera is staged by the award-winning director Deborah Warner, known for her interpretations of Henkrik Ibsen and Bertolt Brecht, and conducted by Antonio Pappano, the current music director of the Royal Opera House.

The prominent themes of poverty, militarism, casual sadism and exploitation are deeply merged into the plot depicting the everyday life of a small German-speaking town, the inhabitants of which are penetrated with the expectation of the coming of the great doom that will follow the war. This comes as no surprise considering the history of the opera’s creation. The play is loosely based on the criminal case of an 1800s Leipzig wigmaker, who later became a soldier and murdered his lover, the widowed Christiane Woost, in a fit of jealousy. Unlike Büchner’s character, whose fate is unknown, encouraging creative interpretation, the wigmaker was beheaded for his crimes.

Berg originally began working on Wozzeck in 1914 after attending the play’s first production in Vienna, but was delayed by the start of World War I and was only able to continue his work between 1917 and 1918 while on leave from his regiment. The composer’s experience during the war had a profound influence on the opera he was creating, as he was deeply affected by the cruelty of the military hierarchy and the casualty of the war’s terror. Berg’s memories of the soldier’s everyday life are also evident throughout the performance ranging from the modified but still recognisable in music military signals to the scenes depicting the realities of living in barracks. By the opera was completed in April 1922, Berg attained the military rank of a corporal and the First World War came to an end.

Wozzeck had a scandalous success after its premiere in Berlin, followed by a surge of productions all over Europe, particularly successful in Austria and Germany due to the use of the German language in the opera. By the time the production was deemed as “degenerate art” by the Nazis after 1933 because of its obvious anti-war narrative, Wozzeck became so well-established in the mainstream operatic tradition of the major European opera houses that the composer was able to live a comfortable life off royalties, while Wozzeck historically became the first avant-garde opera of the 20th Century.

Constructed of 15 scenes and performed without a break, Warner’s Wozzeck is contemporary and nuanced in depicting a gripping story of a relationship between a limited but morally-aware man and the brutality of the world around that consistently destroys him, while accompanied by tremendous musical power combining the Royal Opera House’s orchestra’s neoclassical clarity and the haunting touches of the Mahlerian D minor interlude leading up to the finale. Warner’s interpretation of Wozzeck is a perfect amalgamation of music and drama and has already received remarkable reviews from critics.


The opera is performed in German with surtitles, and is available to children over the age of 12. Wozzeck is showing between 19th May and 7th June.