An 'opera of ideas' takes shape

Penn’s Charles Bernstein

Penn’s Charles Bernstein (left) provided the words. Composer Brian Fernyhough set them to music. And “Shadowtime”—an opera about Walter Benjamin—was born.

Like any poet, Charles Bernstein chooses his words carefully. And in the 20 plus volumes of poetry he’s published, as well as in frequent readings over the years, the Regan Professor of English has presented those words in a clear, direct fashion, exercising artistic control over both the message and the medium.

When he agreed to write the libretto for an opera by English composer Brian Ferneyhough, Bernstein kissed that control goodbye. Indeed, members of New York’s Lincoln Center audience—where “Shadowtime” has its American premiere July 20 and 21—may be unable to make out many of the words at all. While some sections of the text are recited, others are sung by four parts of a chorus, layering and transforming the words into an overall sound environment that is neither linear nor, at times, decipherable.
And that’s just fine with Bernstein.

The loss of control, he says, is part of what made it exciting for him to collaborate with Ferneyhough. The opera was originally commissioned by the Munich Biennale in 2004, and its subject is Walter Benjamin, the Berlin-born Jewish philosopher and cultural critic who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazi invasion of France.

“What’s interesting about working with Brian,” says Bernstein, “is that he’s doing something I couldn’t possibly do on my own. It’s wonderful to participate in a collaboration where you’re working toward something else, where your words are transformed into a larger structure.”
Benjamin’s death in a Spanish hotel is the opera’s dramatic opening scene. From there, Bernstein envisions an imaginary American after-life for Benjamin which includes a trip to the underworld—or “shadow world”—through a portal in a Las Vegas nightclub.

Though such scenes give the opera its structural framework, Bernstein says he and Ferneyhough tried to make it “an opera of thoughts rather than a plot-driven or narrative work.” That’s unusual, says Bernstein, at a time when so many operas are musicalized versions of movies or novels. It wasn’t always that way. Poetic librettos have a long history in the operatic world and they allow for a different kind of experience, according to Bernstein, one based less on individual characters and more on imagination, sound and the play of language.

Though Bernstein collaborated closely with Ferneyhough—a composer known for his complex, technically demanding scores—throughout the creative process, when the poet attended the final dress rehearsal of “Shadowtime” he says he was “stunned and thrilled because it transformed what we started into this theatrical work.” The libretto, he acknowledges, is not the main element of an opera. “A good libretto can’t make a bad opera better.” Still, he says, “the whole skeleton is there in the language,” and what he saw on stage took his breath away. “There was a deep resonance with what I had imagined.”

“Shadowtime” will be staged as part of the Lincoln Center Festival July 21 and 22. A free symposium at 6 p.m. on July 18 will feature Ferneyhough and Bernstein. On July 20 at 6 p.m. Bernstein will moderate “Why Benjamin Now?” a symposium with Marjorie Perloff and Penn English Professor Jean-Michel Rabaté. For more information, and for tickets, go to or call 212-875-5456.

Originally published on July 7, 2005