Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Werther —or— A Dark Knight at the Opera

Last Thursday I went along with the Black Hat Collective to another preview at the Minnesota Opera.  Our mission:  To draw comics, enjoy the show, and have a fun time —then blog about it!

Tonight's show: 

Read on to learn about history, tragedy, romance and Batman in this fully-illustrated article featuring cartoons and comedy. 

Werther (Ver-tur) is an opera by 19th-century French composer Massenet (Massa-nay) based on an epistolary novel (a novel made out of mailed letters, like Dracula) by 18th-Century German author Goethe (Geuh-tuh).

The story is simple:
A gloomy man named Werther falls in love with a lady named Charlotte, but she's already promised her dead mother that she'd marry a guy named Albert instead.  Charlotte and Albert get married ten minutes in and then everybody cries for an hour.  Then Werther shoots himself.  The end.

Before I show you my cartoons or discuss the opera, I think you should know the back-story behind this play.

Germany, 1774.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther when he was 24.  At the time, he had a mad crush on a woman named Charlotte Buff, and used his book to vent his emotions.  Goethe had considered himself a member of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, which would later form the basis of the Romantic movement, which deemed everything natural sublime and exalted the extremes of emotion —including angst and depression as well as joy.

Werther Fever
When The Sorrows of Young Werther came out, it struck a chord with people everywhere and became super popular.  We're talking Twilight-popular.  Goethe became a celebrity overnight and "Werther Fever" spread across Europe.  Werthermania inspired young dudes to dress like Werther (early cosplayers), write satirical fanfiction (such as The Joys of Young Werther, which has a happy ending) and even to perform some of the earliest known copycat suicides!  This was a committed fandom!

Later in life, Goethe would grow to hate Romanticism, calling it "all that is sick." He wrote that, "If Werther had been a brother that I had killed, I could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost."  Though he also understood that every young person deserves to have an emo phase, saying, "It would be sad if a person didn't have a time in his life when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."

After growing out of Romanticism, Goethe went on to become one of the great Humanist poets.  He wrote works such as the epic 2-part Faust, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and many stories, plays, and poems.  He was also a painter and a scientist, and did lots of research into optics, biology and color theory, from which he invented the first symmetrical color wheel.

France, 1887.
100 years after Goethe gave it up, French composer Jules Massenet is still clinging onto Romanticism even as it's falling out of fashion (its arch-nemesis, Realism, is much more in vogue).  He was a big fan of talented Germans (he had a flaming art-crush on Wagner) and it was only natural that Massenet turn Werther, the flagship of Sturm und Drang, into an opera.  At 45, Massenet had already made about 17 operas so it's naturally pretty good music.  He had some trouble getting it performed at first, and halfway through he decided to rewrite it for a baritone, rather than a tenor (the tenor version is still the most common).  Still, when it finally premiered in 1892, Massenet made bank.

Minnesota, United States, 2012.

120 years later, Thomas Boguszewski and sits in on a preview of Werther at the Minnesota Opera in Saint Paul.  He draws some funny cartoons.
"This opera
is about love.."
The show opens up onto a tiny room with all the walls covered in papers (love letters, presumably).  

—Now I know where Baz Luhrmann stole the opening scene for Moulin Rouge.

Soon the actual set appears and it's pretty nice.  It's a slim, sparse set in front of a large photographic backdrop of Industrial-Revolution Germany.  There are smokestacks rising above the horizon and heavy clouds.  The gloomy grayscale of the backdrop is offset by the little island of color that Charlotte and her siblings inhabit.

In this opera, Werther is quite the Romantic philosopher.  His first song is an ode to the glory of nature, then he sings a tribute to the innocence of children, then he sings about falling in love with Charlotte because she takes such good care of her younger siblings.

(Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to get somebody to fall in love with you, learn to be good with kids.)

At first I just sat and sketched pictures of characters and scenes that I like.

Werther at Charlotte and Albert's wedding.
What a sad fella.

Charlotte's sister had a good costume and
played the part of a kid well

Werther met Charlotte and Albert in July, and by Christmas, he's decided to kill himself over them.

Werther sends a letter to Albert asking to borrow some pistols, using a cover story of "I'm going out of town and need them for protection."

Instead he takes the gun, wanders the streets, and prepares to kill himself while dramatic music plays.

This dramatic music made my day.

Because sitting in the opera, I was listening to THIS:

But all I could hear was THIS:

In the end, Werther locks himself in his room.  He has taken all the letters down from his wall and thrown them into a pile in the corner.  He has also scrawled "Liebe oder Tod" (Love or Death!) in huge script on the wall.

Werther sits in the corner with his pistol.  Charlotte knows what he's about to do and is coming to stop him, but she'll never make it in time.  Werther raises his gun, prepared to fire into his own chest.


Now there's a character WORTH cosplaying.


  1. THOMAS! This is lovely beyond all compare! I've always heard fantastic things about Goethe, and now I have even more drive to go out and read his work! (I think what so entranced me in your description of him was his ability to move through different phases of his life, not care for them now, but still appreciate the impact they had, the necessity of them to springboard later works)

    As always, your sketches are lovingly capturing the...I hesitate to say "gritty," but this is the best word coming to mind..."gritty" or "grim" nature of characters (Particularly with your Werther-at-Charlotte's-Wedding drawing)


    1. Thank you, Lara!

      And yeah, that Werther's a pretty grim fella, I guess it was a bit inevitable that my drawings of him to be a sort of comic-grim. He was also a really animated fella though, leaning this way and that at extreme angles out of melodramatic despair. We thought he looked a bit like Dick Van Dyke from afar.

      I'm so glad you liked it. Show your friends! :P