The man who tamed a king

An interview with composer Aribert Reimann — By Aribert Reimann, Simon Hatab and Emmanuelle Josse

Berlioz was stymied after writing the overture. Debussy could not get past the score’s first two numbers. Verdi had to lay down his arms at the feet of the king who haunted him until the end of his life. It was not until 1978 that a composer, Aribert Reimann, successfully tackled the daunting, fascinating task of turning Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear into an opera. As the Palais Garnier prepares to stage the work in its original language for the first time, we interviewed the German composer, who, 40 years later, recalls struggling with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s King Lear has been the bane of many a composer: several singed their wings, starting with Verdi, who eventually gave up on his idea of turning the play into an opera. Were you aware of how challenging the project would be when it was suggested you undertake it?

Aribert Reimann: That’s exactly why I hesitated for five long years after Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau suggested it to me in 1968. I said to myself that if Verdi couldn’t do it, neither could I. But so much music gradually filled my mind that I eventually decided to start working. It was like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, of course. But the more time that went by, the more self-confidence I had. Two things really mattered to me. When you compose, you always have two or three key images in mind. With Lear, it was the storm and the heath.

The heath scene is precisely what made Verdi throw in the towel.

A.R.: Right. In my view, it’s the key scene. The storm is much more than just a meteorological phenomenon: it comes out of Lear and goes into him. Once the decision was made, I had only one obsession: composing this opera. The obsessive dimension is critical for composing. That’s all I could do for a year and a half. Everything else fell by the wayside. I totally identified with Lear. Doing concerts or working on anything else was out of the question. There was no way out; I couldn’t escape composing Lear. That’s why I stress the extreme character of the experience, the existential dimension of this work. Had I not managed to finish this opera, I might as well have ended my life: I couldn’t imagine existing without Lear.

Can you recall how you felt while composing Lear?

A.R.: Oddly well. It seems natural for a composer to be in particularly high spirits when composing! I still am today, whatever the work. When you compose a work, you live with and for it. Of course, with Lear I felt tremendous pressure because I knew when the fateful premiere had to take place. But I’m neither the first nor the last composer to be under pressure!

Had I not finished the opera, I might as well have ended my life: I couldn’t imagine existing without Lear.

Lear haunted you for 10 years, from 1968 to 1978. Reading the journal you kept while composing it, one gets the impression that you work like an explorer mapping out territory he’s going to explore. Is it always like that? Do you always plan out a clearly defined dramatic structure beforehand, or was that specific to Lear?

A.R.: To get started on the actual composition process, I need a very specific overview of the piece. That’s how I’ve conceived all my operas. But Lear is an extreme case. I spent several years working on it before getting down to the actual composition process because Lear is a very dense play. I had to have countless discussions with Claus Henneberg, the librettist who adapted Shakespeare’s text. I had ideas in mind and started jotting down notes. I didn’t begin composing until 1976. That process took two years. I finished the score in January 1978.

Aribert Reimann travaillant la partition de « Lear »
Aribert Reimann travaillant la partition de « Lear » © DR

Did you work on other operas in the meantime?

A.R.: No. I was completely engrossed in Lear the whole time. And in any case, the few pieces I had worked on beforehand already foreshadowed Lear: in 1975, there was the premiere in Zürich of Variations pour orchestre, which was performed in Paris a year later. There was also Wolkenloses Christfest, a requiem for baritone, cello and orchestra that Fischer-Dieskau premiered in 1974. Let’s just say that the sound world of these works anticipated Lear.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau suggested that you compose Lear. What was your relationship with him like during those five years of hesitation?

A.R.: We continued having many discussions. He had a terrible desire to perform the role on stage. In 1971, he premiered a piece I had written for him and I think he performed it again two years later in Hamburg, in 1973. I had the feeling that the orchestra’s sounds had changed, probably as a result of our talks. After the concert, I told him I could finally think of composing Lear.

Fischer-Dieskau himself had started working on a first adaptation.

A.R.: He did, but we put it aside to give Henneberg the adaptation. We had a continuous dialogue with him during the composition. I kept changing parts of the text. That’s how I always work.    

It was important to let the music speak: I wanted as little text as possible.

What advice did you give Claus H. Henneberg to adapt Shakespeare’s play?

A.R.: We talked a lot about it beforehand. I told him it was important for me to leave room for the music: I wanted as little text as possible. Then we each worked alone—he on the libretto first, I on the score—without seeing each other. His adaptation was missing things I needed for the music. In those cases, we talked it over together. The work he did on the libretto is absolutely remarkable. He focused on the play’s quintessence and on what matters most from a musical viewpoint. Henneberg didn’t use the famous translation by Schlegel and Thieck but an older one by Eschenburg, dating back to Goethe’s time. He thought it was perfect because it’s very close to Shakespeare. It’s concise and “uncompromising”, meaning less romanticised than subsequent translations.

The translation you opted for distances itself from the grotesque typical of Shakespeare in order to stress the darkness of the original text. Was it important for you to leave the grotesque elements in the background?

A.R.: In the background… yes, that’s the right way to put it. In the score, my work on the character of the fool is closely connected to all that. He usually appears alongside Lear. His songs are composed in a totally different way from the other roles. The part must be played by an actor who has to sing the way an actor would in order to stand out from the other characters. A string quartet based on sound material from the fool’s and Cordelia’s scores always accompanies his singing. It sounds completely different; the string quartet creates a sense of intimacy. This is a framework in which the grotesque can be expressed. The fool’s function is not just to express the grotesque. He knows what’s going to happen. He has a particular way of processing what he’s seen, taking it to a different, more light-hearted level. That said, these motifs are rather short and occasional. The essential thing about Lear is the darkness overshadowing the play from beginning to end.

You’ve composed works in English, but for Lear you opted for a German translation.

A.R.: I did. At the time, the custom was to rely on translations: the premiere took place in Germany, so writing the opera in any other language was out of the question. Similarly, the work was presented in Paris in 1982 in a French adaptation by Antoinette Becker. There were no overtitles back then. In 1981, there was an English version that an Englishman, Desmond Clayton, adapted from Shakespeare’s original text. It was performed in San Francisco and, later, at the English National Opera in London. Ponnelle directed the San Francisco production. Three years after the Munich premiere, the American version was already very different. There’s a book [Aribert Reimanns Lear. Weg einer neuen Oper by Klaus Schultz] about the first seven productions of Lear in which Ponnelle accurately described what he changed. I found the San Francisco staging especially beautiful.    

When one composes, there’s a time when the performers must be forgotten in order to focus only on the characters.

Did Fischer-Dieskau’s voice and personality influence your score?

A.R.: I wouldn’t use the word influence, but we had a long experience of collaboration dating back to our first concerts together in 1958, when I was his pianist and accompanied his recitals. We often performed together, especially in Paris, and the music was always contemporary. So his voice was always in my ear while composing, but I knew the rest of the cast as well. That helped me a lot. However, there’s also a time when the performers must be forgotten in order to focus only on the characters, whether Lear, Goneril or Edgar. Edgar is the first counter-tenor role I ever wrote. When he passes himself off as Tom, he disguises his voice. In those days there was a very good singer at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin for whom I wrote the part. He premiered the role in Munich. I’ve written several pieces for counter-tenor since then.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau et Julia Varady lors de la création de « Lear » à Munich, 1978
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau et Julia Varady lors de la création de « Lear » à Munich, 1978 © DG/Toepffer

Did you know the whole cast while composing?

A.R.: Yes. After writing the first 50 pages of the score, I had a long talk with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who directed the premiere. I had really liked his Munich production of Pelléas et Mélisande and immediately decided that he and nobody else would direct Lear. Later, he wanted me to attend the two months of rehearsals before the premiere and constantly asked me for my opinion. His staging relied heavily on the score. He explained to me how he represented certain sounds, colours and movements and wanted to know whether or not I agreed with his interpretation. It was a fantastic collaboration.

It was important to create an opera that could be performed in any period. That’s why we left the word ‘King’ out of the title.

Were you as excited about working with other directors when Lear was reprised?

A.R.: This kind of close collaboration with the director can only happen for a creation. When Lear was reprised, the only director I met was Harry Kupfer for the 1983 Berlin production. A recording of the work had already been made. He was familiar with the music, but didn’t want to know too much about it. He had his own vision of the opera. I was surprised and excited by his proposal. But for the rest, no, I was never in touch with the directors before the dress rehearsal. I didn’t know Calixto Bieito personally. I’ve seen some of his productions, but we’ve never met each other. I’ll be in Paris. I want to be surprised.

Do you agree with Harry Kupfer, who says Shakespeare must be forgotten to stage your A.R.: Can Shakespeare be forgotten? (Laughs) That seems impossible to me. Nevertheless, Lear is a work in its own right. It was important for Henneberg and me to create an opera that could be performed in any period. That’s why we left the word ‘King’ out of the title: the opera is called simply Lear. Lear refers to the past as well as the present. Forty years on, Lear is as topical as ever. Each period can see this opera through its own eyes. What happens to Lear can happen to each of us. Anybody can lose everything overnight. Wandering on the heath, Lear is nothing more than a being who no longer has anything. All he’s got left is Kent, the fool and Edgar disguised as Tom. It was very important for me to avoid setting the opera in a specific period. Every production I’ve seen shows a different Lear, a reflection of the issues of the times. The most important thing is for the music to remain relevant to each new interpretation, which it always has so far.

Listening to you gives me the impression that the existential tragedy matters more than the issue of power and its political dimension.

A.R.: The political aspect is too important to ignore. Each production of Lear has been very political because the play’s hard-core issues are power, exploitation, renunciation and loss. The music says nothing else.

The music is like a cage from which Lear cannot escape.

Gramsci defined crisis in these words: “The old world is dying, the new world is struggling to be born, and in the semi-darkness between them monsters emerge.” In Lear, the old generation is blind, the new corrupt. Do you think the play is relevant to times like ours?

A.R.: Of course I have my ideas about our times but it’s the director who interprets the work. The issue of power, and how it must be questioned, is as relevant today as ever. It was very important for me to start this opera without an orchestra. Lear appears and says, “We have summoned you to this place/to divide our kingdom between our daughters/before your eyes…” No sooner does he utter those words than the orchestra begins to play. Lear immediate adds, “Oh, how I want to sleep…” He has become aware that his words were rash and thoughtless. He should have known that the only thing Goneril and Regan were interested in was inheriting his kingdom and that their declarations of love are hypocritical. But he cannot escape. The music is like a cage from which Lear cannot escape. He built it himself by uttering these words: “to divide our kingdom between our daughters…” Only Cordelia is incapable of lying, which results in her being disowned. Then it dawns on him that this was a moment of thoughtlessness, of senility, and that he misjudged Goneril and Regan. But it’s too late: the wheels are turning. Before I started composing, I wondered what the key of the music was: I think it is this moment.

Where does Lear fit in amongst your other works?

A.R.: This was my third opera after Ein Traumspiel and Melusine. As I said, some of my previous works foreshadowed Lear. But after finishing the piece, I needed to step away from it. I didn’t compose for six months. Then I worked on chamber music. When I started composing a new opera, Die Gespenstersonate, based on Strindberg, I opted for a small 12-piece orchestra. Lear forced me to measure up to a full-scale orchestra; then it dawned on me that 12 musicians can say as much. Although I used a symphony orchestra for Medea, which was created in Vienna in 2010, none of the operas I’ve composed since Lear is on the same scale.

What are you working on now?

A.R.: A new opera, and it’s altogether different again. You’ve got to change, evolve, metamorphosize, but that happens naturally.

Lear has had an extraordinary posterity. You finished the opera in 1978. Nearly 40 years later, how do you view it in hindsight?

A.R.: There’ve been around 20 productions of Lear so far. I haven’t seen them all. There was a very interesting one two years ago in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast. Since the productions are always quite different, I can see how the music reacts. I’m very interested in that.

Do you know Bo Skovhus, who is performing the title role in the new Paris Opera production?

A.R.: Yes. He already sang the part in the Hamburg production, which Karoline Gruber directed and Simone Young conducted. The DVD came out this year. I found it fantastic. It spans an immense range of expressions, from pianissimi to great bursts of fortissimo singing. I’m very excited about seeing it again. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’ll do in Calixto Bieito’s staging.

Lear opens with the division of a kingdom, a matter of inheritance. You’re often considered a composer “without a school”. Like Cordelia, is it important for you to reject an inheritance?

A.R.: (Laughs.) That’s no concern of mine. True, I don’t fit into any box. The only thing that matters to me is writing my music, marching to the beat of my own drum. I hope to keep on doing that for a long time. I’ll leave it up to musicologists to answer your question.

 Interview by Simon Hatab and Emmanuelle Josse
Translated from the German by Emmanuelle Josse

Aribert Reimann in brief


Born into a family of Berlin musicians: his father is an organist and director of the Berlin State Choir, his mother an oratorio singer and voice teacher at the conservatory. Composes his first lieder for piano at the age of 10, attends the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and works at the Deutsche Oper as a voice coach.


Gives his first concerts as pianist and accompanist, notably for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Brigitte Fassbaender and Ernst Haefliger. His ballet, Stoffreste, based on a libretto by Günter Grass, premieres in Essen in 1959. Becomes professor of contemporary voice at the Hamburg Musikhochschule and Berlin Hochschule der Kunste.


Composes his first opera (Ein Traumspiel, based on a text by August Strindberg).


The creation of Lear at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich crowns his success with critics and the public. The work is performed in over 30 productions around the world, followed by Die Gespenstersonate (based on a text by Strindberg) in 1984, Troades (after Euripides) in 1986, Das Schloss (based on Kafka’s novel) in 1992 and Bernarda Alba Haus (based on the text by Garcia Lorca) in 2000.


Medea (based on the play by Franz Grillparzer), commissioned by the Vienna Staatsoper, is named “World Premiere of the Year” by Opernwelt magazine.

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