Ah, the soul of the artist! Penniless Fritz loves penniless Grete but feels compelled to abscond until he has given birth to his elusive masterpiece, an opera. From suicidal depression, Grete bounces to the heights as the top courtesan of Venice, then slides off the grid into sordid backstreet prostitution. There, in a nutshell, is the action of what music historians say was the operatic sensation of 1912: "Der Ferne Klang" ("The Distant Sound") by Franz Schreker, who was born Franz Schrecker and pronounced the name SHRAY-ker to match the doctored spelling. The libretto, like those of the seven other operas he went on to write, was his own.
If the synopsis sounds dated beyond parody, so be it. The lifeblood of an opera lies in its score, and Schreker had some sweet tricks up his sleeve. For one thing, he composed party music of unequaled complexity and brilliance. Take the bordello scene in Act II of "Der Ferne Klang," which involves (among other things) the overlapping sonorities of a chorus upstairs, a serenade from a gondola and a Gypsy band.
In the Act I finale of "Don Giovanni" Mozart superimposes three dances in different meters. But as Christopher Hailey, director of the Franz Schreker Foundation, points out, Mozart's acoustic space remains static, whereas Schreker's is dynamic. "He's shifting our aural perspective all the time, the way Charles Ives did with his marching bands," Mr. Hailey said recently from his office in Pennington, N.J. "There are also links with Mahler. The whole thing is like a radio play, a kind of aural montage."
Since World War II all of Schreker's operas have been dusted off, sometimes by top-of-the-line opera companies and symphony orchestras but mostly at second- or even third-tier German repertory houses, where picking over the scrap heap of history for discarded treasure is all in a day's work. The distinction of mounting the belated first performance of a Schreker opera in the Americas belongs to Leon Botstein, who gave "Der Ferne Klang" in concert with the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. On Friday Mr. Botstein follows up with the American stage premiere as part of SummerScape at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., ever a hotbed of intellectual and aesthetic adventure.
"My first distant impression was that the opera was so murkily philosophical that it would lack sharp theatrical profile," Mr. Botstein said. "But my experience with it in performance persuaded me that it could hold the audience and hold the stage."
Thaddeus Strassberger, who directs the Bard production, speaks up for the emotional impact of a story that in its details may seem abstruse. "Having rehearsed a good portion of it, we're not yet sure whether we take it as illustration of the world as Schreker saw it or as social criticism," Mr. Strassberger said recently. "But putting the piece on its feet, I'm finding that music that may seem calculated on the page has passion and pathos."
Passion and pathos as in, say, "La Traviata," another opera in which long-separated lovers with messy romantic and mercenary issues meet again just in time for one of them to die? "Why not?" Mr. Strassberger replied. "Already in the first act we're rooting for Fritz and feel heartbroken that Grete's been abandoned, deceived, disappointed. And their reunion in the last act is emotionally very similar to that of 'La Traviata,' with the same sense of satisfaction that people we've cared about for a long time might possibly be on the same plane for first time in their lives. Onstage it's absolutely heartbreaking. It's not even that dissimilar from the ending of 'Tristan und Isolde.' "
Mr. Botstein offered a very different perspective: "What Schreker says in this opera is that rejecting love for art is wrong. By separating love and art, you kill both."
Many have called Schreker's musical realization of his themes cinematic, but the German conductor Ingo Metzmacher points out that Schreker developed his techniques before filmmakers had shown the way.
"He wants to place the listener in the midst of the action," Mr. Metzmacher said recently from Salzburg, Austria, shortly after wrapping up a run of "Der Ferne Klang" at the Zurich Opera House. "It's hugely exciting. He keeps moving among six or seven sound sources like an acoustic camera. But when he wrote 'Der Ferne Klang,' in the first decade of the 20th century, the movies hadn't gotten far with such things at all. It's astonishing, really."
Other high points include a ravishing tone poem evoking the moonlit lake and an instrumental chorale of bird song at daybreak. Sumptuously accompanied flights of romantic vocalism alternate with dialogue that is hauntingly spare and sketchy. The sound effects include the mournful wail of a far-off train whistle.
To avoid any hint of the metronome, Mr. Metzmacher likes to conduct many large, logistically challenging scores without a baton. But in "Der Ferne Klang," where a certain blurriness is often intended, he found the baton indispensable. "To bring out the soft focus the playing has to be extremely precise," he said.
A further stage in the evolution in Schreker's singular, multifaceted style may be observed in another hit, "Die Gezeichneten" ("Those Who Bear the Mark"), introduced in 1918, in Frankfurt, Germany, like "Der Ferne Klang." At the Los Angeles Opera in April "Die Gezeichneten" became the first Schreker opera to receive a stage production in the Western hemisphere.
The staging by Ian Judge was physically a rather bare-bones affair, remarkable chiefly for the video element by Wendall K. Harrington. Using projections on screens at the proscenium and the back of the stage, sometimes simultaneously, Ms. Harrington conjured a visual equivalent — "cinematic" but also immersive — of the acoustic swirl in the bordello scene of "Der Ferne Klang." James Conlon conducted.
Here, as in the earlier opera, Schreker spins a lurid tale. The Genoese nobleman Alviano, filthy rich but hideous to behold, builds a private fantasy island as the tangible projection of his yearning soul. Alas, the young bucks of Genoa co-opt it for their orgies. Worse yet, even the artist Carlotta, who sees Alviano's inner beauty, succumbs to the island's tainted, toxic allurements — but in the arms of another man.
Schreker the orchestrator proves a wizard indeed, particularly in the opera's overture, which is sprawling but ravishing. (At 10 minutes, it clocks in a whisker longer than the prelude to Wagner's "Meistersinger"; there is an even longer concert version.) The vocal writing is demanding, glamorous and original, though some find the pudding hopelessly overegged.
Mr. Conlon does not entirely disagree. "The opera suffers from the lack of a professional librettist," he said recently. "There are too many characters, too many subplots. Yet it is strong by the power of its music. Next time I would make cuts."
Beyond "Die Gezeichneten" Mr. Conlon is keen to put on "Der Ferne Klang" and "Der Schatzgräber" ("The Man Who Digs for Treasure"), another hit in its day. "For now," he said, "the job is to get Schreker out there. After that, let come what may. The work of a genius — and Schreker was a genius — can't be assessed on a single hearing. Separating the wheat from the chaff will take 20 years."
Why has it taken so long for Schreker to cross the Atlantic? Richard Taruskin's mammoth Oxford History of Western Music, which does not list Schreker's name in the general index, nonetheless holds the explanation: The history of music and its reception is enmeshed in the history of everything else.
Consider the operatic fortunes of Richard Strauss, born in 1864, 14 years before Schreker. His breakout opera was "Salome," his third, which had its premiere in Dresden, Germany, in 1905. Having caused the most gratifying of scandals there, it did the same at its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 and in numerous other cities. And thus the horror story of the dancing Judean princess who makes love to the severed head of John the Baptist entrenched itself in the canon.
With "Der Ferne Klang" it was Schreker's turn to grab the brass ring, but the year was 1912. By 1914 the world was at war, and immediate prospects for cultural exchange overseas were dim. When hostilities ended, history and public taste threw up fresh obstacles. Schreker's later operas failed to enhance his reputation, and by the early 1930s his sands were running out. An Austrian national, he was born to a self-made Jewish court photographer from the provinces and an aristocratic Catholic mother who, in the eyes of society, had married beneath her station. With this background, and drawn like a moth to themes of flaming depravity, Schreker fit the Nazis' profile of the degenerate artist to a T. In late 1933, after spirit-crushing humiliations, he suffered a stroke. Three months later he died.
At least he lived to see a warm reception in the East. In 1925 "Der Ferne Klang" reached the Soviet Union, the first contemporary Western opera to do so, two years ahead of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck." Staged in St. Petersburg, then freshly renamed Leningrad, at the opera house now called the Mariinsky Theater, Schreker's youthful tour de force made a huge impression.
Sviatoslav Richter, the titan of the keyboard, was still a child at the time, but some years later, when he was 15, he received a gift of the full score from his father, a German pianist and composer and a close friend of Schreker's from their student days in Vienna. A lifetime later Richter called Schreker "a great composer, now well and truly forgotten." But not forgotten by him: in his mid-70s he described "Der Ferne Klang" as a revelation, recalling music "steeped in passion and the pleasures of the flesh."
In Richter's mind aspects of the opera that today may seem to some of us irretrievably of their time possessed the agelessness of archetype. "It accompanied my whole life," Richter said. "I know each note by heart, and it has turned me into a different man from the one I should otherwise have been. I dream of it incessantly."