'When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.’ It is surely one of the most celebrated, and arresting, opening lines in all literature – very ‘Kafkaesque’, in fact! It was just a matter of time before The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), this profoundly unsettling novella by Franz Kafka, found its way into dramatic form, and it has been adapted into a variety of genres, including spoken theatre, ballet, film, and, of course, opera. One of the best-known of all the theatrical adaptations is by Steven Berkoff, maverick British actor, director, playwright, and all-round theatre man.
Irene Shaland suggests that the ‘whole art of Kafka persists in forcing us to reread him. If he ever suggests any explanations, they are not revealed in clear language, thus they require that the work be reread from another point of view.’ Berkoff’s Metamorphosis proves a point in doing this, if only in order to gain the courage for taking another look at, as Kafka puts it, ‘the horror of life – the terror of art’. Berkoff has maintained that ‘we make theatre as if there had never been theatre before’. The success of his adaptation has certainly made Kafka’s story available to a range of audiences, providing a different form of access to the work; operatic versions provide yet another perspective on this great literary work.
Opera is an irrational art form, as has been pointed out by many commentators and in many different contexts. What is more irrational than people singing at each other? Kafka and opera should have a lot in common, with Kafka’s work being renowned for its surreal and often absurdist qualities. Yet there are surprisingly few effective operas based on his fiction. Works drawing on Kafka by well-known contemporary composers include Aribert Reimann’s version of The Castle (Das Schloß) of 1992, and Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony (2000). Reimann, as an opera composer, is best known for his searing adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, but his Kafka opera was very successful; his version of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata will be performed in the same venues by Opera Australia in Sydney and Melbourne in 2019.