Jonny spielt auf is a curiously heterogenous opera. Ernst Krenek was only in his late twenties when he wrote it and you sense that an older composer might have realised that the libretto had the seeds of two or three different operas. But Krenek was no early bloomer and must have been desperate to make a splash as he crammed everything he had into this ambitious project. As it was, fortuna smiled on his opera and it made him a star overnight with hundreds of performances within a year of its premiere, only for Jonny and violin to disappear from the repertoire after Nazis banned it.
The curtain rises on a strong dose of glacier romanticism that probably makes rings true to Austrian or Swiss alpine mystics but for the rest of us now calls up unwittingly kitsch associations with Julie Andrews singing The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music. The alps are to this opera something like what the sea is to Peter Grimes. But the sea is more tightly integrated into the narrative of Grimes. In Jonny the glacier dominates two scenes, both of which are important for Max, a composer who has autobiographical elements from Krenek (who wrote his own libretto). On its second appearance the glacier gets a voice and rejects a lovesick Max, telling him his role is amongst humanity in a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of themes in Richard Strauss' opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (1915). The rest of Jonny spielt auf plays in Max's home, a hotel lobby and a railway station. The contrast between nature worship and the decadent hectic of modern life is thoroughly intentional but the mountain scenes are too isolated for this to be the central theme of the opera's narrative. Krenek was clearly enamored of the mod-cons of the 1920s. Automobiles, trains, a radio and telephone all play important roles in the drama but have lost any threateningly modernist qualities they may still have had in the 1920s.
Instead, a "battle of the musics" also runs through the libretto in parallel to the theme of mountain and nature vs urban decadence. The four main roles are archetypal portrayals of different musicians or genres. Max is a neurotic opera composer. He falls in love with Anita, a beautiful but sexually capricious diva who sings in one of Max' operas. Daniello is a virtuoso violinist with a priceless Amati instrument without which he is a nobody. And Jonny is a black American jazz celebrity who flirts with a chamber maid but whose real passion is to possess Daniello's violin, which he steals to give the opera a traditional unifying theme. Again, this constellation might call to mind Richard Strauss' later opera Capriccio (1942), which also puts a composer on stage and as an historical aside, the role of the diva Anita is loosely modeled on Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav, who was briefly Krenek's wife. This quartet of musical stereotypes make up something like a commedia dell'arte - or maybe that should be a "commedia della musica". But here, too, Krenek, does not fully exploit the theme's potential. The tension between the four characters remains superficial and is based around the theft of the violin rather than an artistic differences that might have been teased out of 1920s European attitudes to musical tradition and modernism.
Jonny features a white maid falling in love with a black American Jazz musician and the score is rich in pseudo-Jazz elements and numbers that alternate with modernist music reminiscent of Franz Schreker, Krenek's teacher or of Richard Strauss, the most important opera composer of the day. All of this made it an obvious target for Nazi cultural policy and in 1933 it was banned in Germany, along with the rest of Krenek's music. The opera was perhaps the most prominent contemporary stage work to be banned as "degenerate music" and the infamous poster for the resulting exhibition is derived from the character of Jonny.
So what is the rightful place of Jonny spielt auf? Is it a modern masterpiece that deserves a more prominent place in the operatic repertoire or is it a work of youthful daring that never quite delivers on its potential? Its cultural and political history as one of the most popular stage works of the interwar period that was then banned in the Third Reich certainly makes it a fascinating historical document. But stripped of its historical context and baggage, Jonny is too heterogenous to deserve a place among the mature operatic masterworks of the twentieth century. Pared back to one central theme, it might come over as more cogent and dramatically powerful. As it is, the opera makes for an enjoyable entertainment and a fun night night at the opera: something that also has a place in the repertoire of more opera houses.