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Desperate Beauty: Britten's 'Death In Venice'

At the turn of the 20th century, Western literature was going through a kind of identity crisis. Many writers were examining themes of chaos, personal and political decadence, and social decline. Oscar Wilde, André Gide and Thomas Mann were just a few of them. The element of homoeroticism was also present in many of these works. One of the most profound and enduring of these was Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which was published in 1912 in Germany, soon translated into other languages and published all over the world.

Mann based the novella on his own experiences. In 1905, during a cholera outbreak, Mann was staying on an island just outside Venice. Years later, he visited the city once again. During that stay, in May 1911, he read an account in the newspaper of the death of composer Gustav Mahler. The central character of Death in Venice, a man named Gustav von Aschenbach, is based on both Mahler and Mann himself. The haunting story — of an aging writer and his obsession with a boy's beauty — has remained perennially popular, inspiring a play, a movie, a pop song and today's opera.

Mann's interest in the ancient classical themes of Apollonian discipline and Dionysian abandon are especially evident in Death in Venice. Mann revealed that he had been smitten with a young boy when he was in Venice a few years before the publication of the book. And in Benjamin Britten, Mann's preoccupation with beauty, yearning and obsession found a sympathetic ear. Britten, too, experienced passionate attachments to adolescents, though those attachments owed as much to nostalgia for the innocence of youth as they did to eros. Such sentiments often brought out the best in his music.

Benjamin Britten completed Death in Venice in 1973. The role of Aschenbach he wrote specifically for his longtime partner, tenor Peter Pears. Pears' unique, hauntingly delicate voice was perfectly suited to the intense, intimate atmosphere of the work. Because of failing health, Britten wasn't able to attend the premiere. He died just a few years later, leaving Death in Venice as his last opera.

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