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Libretto cover published in 1921
Die tote Stadt (German for The Dead City) is an opera in three acts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The libretto is by the composer and Paul Schott (a pseudonym of the composer’s father Julius Korngold), and is based on Bruges-la-Morte, a short novel by Georges Rodenbach.

Performance history

When Die tote Stadt had its premiere on December 4, 1920, Korngold was just 23 years old with two short one-act operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, already to his name.

The success of these earlier works was so great that Die tote Stadt was subject to a fierce competition among Germanmarker theaters for the right to the world premiere.

In the end, an unusual double premiere was arranged and the opera opened simultaneously in Hamburgmarker and Cologne. Die tote Stadt’s theme of overcoming the loss of a loved one resonated with contemporary audiences of the 1920s who had just come through the trauma and grief of World War I, and this undoubtedly fueled the opera’s popularity.

Die tote Stadt was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s. Within two years of its premiere it had circled the globe and even received several performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New Yorkmarker.

But the work was banned by the Nazi régime because of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry and after World War II it fell into obscurity. In recent years, however, the work has enjoyed notable revivals, among others in Bonnmarker, Royal Opera Housemarker, San Francisco Opera and in Vienna State Operamarker.

The opera received its UK premiere on 14 January 1996 in a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with Ian Caley (Paul) and Christine Teare (Marie/Marietta).The first UK staged performance was on 27 January 2009 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The opera received its French premiere on 5 October 2009 at the Paris Opéra Bastillemarker, with Robert Dean Smith (Paul) and Ricarda Merbeth (Marie/Marietta), opening to very favorable reviews.


Cast at premiere in Hamburg and Cologne on 4 December, 1920:
Role Voice type Hamburg
(Conductor: Egon Pollak)
(Conductor: Otto Klemperer)
Paul/Gaston/Victorin/Albert tenor Richard Schubert Karl Schröder
Marie/Marietta soprano Annie Münchow Joanna Klemperer
Hariette/Juliette soprano Maria Jeritza Joanna Klemperer
Brigitta/Lucienne mezzo-soprano Maria Olszewska Katherina Rohr
Frank-Fritz baritone Josef Degler Karl Renner
Chorus: party goers


Place: Bruges, Belgiummarker

Time: End of 19th Century

Act 1

When the opera opens, Paul, a younger middle-class man whose young wife, Marie, has recently died, cannot come to terms with the sad reality of her death. He keeps a “Temple of Memories” in her honor, including paintings, photographs and a lock of her hair. When his friend Frank pays him a visit at his house and urges him to honor Marie by moving on with his life, Paul flies into a rant, and insists that Marie “still lives.” He tells Frank that he has met a woman on the streets of Bruges who exactly resembles Marie (indeed, Paul thinks that it is Marie) and invited her back to his home.

Soon, the woman, Marietta, a young and beautiful dancer, appears for her rendezvous with Paul. They talk, she is put off by his odd behavior, but persists in trying to interest him in her charms—she sings and dances seductively, but eventually gets bored and leaves. Paul meanwhile is driven to a state of extreme anxiety.

Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his interest in Marietta he collapses into a chair and begins to hallucinate. He sees Marie’s ghost step out of her portrait and urge him not to forget her, but then the vision of Marie changes and tells Paul to go and move on with his life.

Act 2

After a series of visions in which his pursuit of Marietta alienates him from all his remaining friends, the act ends with Marietta finally overcoming his resistance and leading him offstage locked in a passionate embrace. All this takes place in Paul’s imagination.

Act 3

Paul’s vision continues. Back in his house, living with Marietta, he quarrels with her. She gets fed up with his quirks and continuing obsession with Marie and starts to taunt him by dancing seductively while stroking his dead wife’s hair. In a rage, Paul grabs the lock of hair and strangles Marietta. Holding her dead body he exclaims “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Then he snaps out of his dream. Astonished that Marietta’s body is nowhere to be found, he has barely had time to collect his thoughts when his maid informs him that Marietta has come back to pick up her umbrella which she left in the house when she departed a few minutes ago. With the shock of the traumatic dream still fresh in his mind, Paul finally resolves to leave Bruges, let his dead wife rest in peace, and continue his life. In a touching conclusion, with his friend Frank at his side, he vows to start his life anew and slowly leaves behind his house and his “Temple of Memories,” for the last time.


Korngold's score shows the influence of both Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, in the rich, detailed scoring, and soaring bel canto vocal writing respectively. He uses a huge Strauss-sized orchestra, but fills Die tote Stadt with an abundance of gorgeous and memorable melodies à la Puccini.

The two most famous excerpts from the opera are "Glück das mir verblieb", "Mariettas lied" (in context a duet for tenor and soprano but usually presented in concert as a soprano aria), and the lovely aria for baritone, “Mein sehnen, mein wähnen.”

On the whole, the music is consistently of very high quality, certainly at the level of many more frequently performed Strauss operas. The most likely reason for the opera’s neglect is the extreme difficulty of the two lead roles, Paul and Marietta.

A tenor who would attempt the part of Paul must have the stamina to stay on stage and sing almost constantly for two hours over a gigantic orchestra. But unlike Wagner’s tenor parts, which demand great stamina but not many high notes, the role of Paul in Die Tote Stadt is filled with many high B-flats and A-naturals, making the part nearly impossible to cast. Well-known Pauls have included James King and René Kollo.

The high tessitura of Marietta's demanding role could probably be navigated by any soprano who sings the Empress in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. Among singers who have essayed the role in recent years is Carol Neblett, who performed it at the New York City Opera and later recorded it.

Selected recordings

A few recordings have been made of Die tote Stadt, most notably the 1975 version on RCA, with Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (RCA CD #87767(2)).

Another older recording, though of quite good quality, is a 1952 Munich release, available from Opera Today web-site, which includes Maud Cunitz and Karl Friedrich, Fritz Lehmann conducting.

Related Media

(These films used Glück das mir verblieb)


  1. List of recent and planned performances of Die tote Stadt at Operabase
  2. Performances of Die tote Stadt found at G. Casaglia almanac; retrieved 06-01-2009
  3. Christopher Palmer, Grove online
  4. Die tote Stadt, Opera Today site with synopsis and MP3 recording (there it is said to be a "live" performance, but no trace of auditorium noise or applause can be heard)


  • Christopher Palmer: "Erich Wolfgang Korngold", Die tote Stadt, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Opera) (Accessed May 4, 2007), (subscription access)

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