Culture Vulture: See ‘The Dwarf’

zwergDer Zwerg (The Dwarf) by Alexander Zemlinsky. Libretto by George Klaren, based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta.” Staged by OperaHub at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 13. Free

Reviewed by Helen Epstein

For a truly worthwhile evening of music drama—free admission no less—get yourselves to the Boston Center for the Arts to what seems to be the Boston premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky‘s Der Zwerg.

This opera (1919–1921) draws on several rich sources: the composer’s long and unrequited love for his young and beautiful composition student Alma Schindler Mahler; “The Birthday of the Infanta,” a short story by Oscar Wilde; and a celebrated painting by Velasquez titled Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) which features the Infanta/princess and her entourage, including two dwarfs.

The one-act (90-minute) opera, performed without a break, centers on the relationship between the vain, vapid, and beautiful Infanta and the grotesque but idealistic and credulous dwarf who has never seen his reflection and does not know what he looks like. Zemlinsky set the piece in imperial Spain, but this production updates it to an unnamed, contemporary beach resort. Performed with piano rather than an orchestra, the opera obviously loses a great deal, but in the small theater there’s the considerable gain in extraordinary intimacy. English subtitles are projected behind the stage space.

The production utilizes Boston’s pool of wonderful musical talent, mostly graduates of the local conservatories. Baritone Adrian Packel sang a convincingly pompous and strong Don Estoban; soprano Erin Pedersen a heartless and accurate Infanta; and Sarah Kornfeld a satisfying Ghita. Tenor Sean Malkus sings the demanding role of the Dwarf, the only compassionate character in this opera.

In fact, the role of Dwarf was divided between Malkus as the Dwarf as Illusion and dancer Christina Chan as the Dwarf in reality. Her choreography was fascinating to watch.

Overall, the 90 minutes flew by. Although the tiny stage space was often overwhelmed by the 14-member cast and the acting and quality of voices were sometimes uneven, OperaHub is doing exciting work on a shoestring. Check them out and send them a check!


Helen Epstein is the author of “Music Talks,” a volume of 4000-word-and-under profiles of celebrated musical artists, including such stars as Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, James Galway, and Yo-Yo Ma. The new edition is available online and at music outlets like the shop at Symphony Hall in Boston. Order through the link below to Amazon and The Arts Fuse receives a (small) percentage of the sale.


  1. Caldwell Titcomb on March 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    ‘Der Zwerg’ – An Addendum

    By Caldwell Titcomb

    The Austrian musician Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) may be unfamiliar to most readers. He was a fine composer and conductor, who earned the strong backing of Brahms, Mahler, and his sometime student Schoenberg (who later became Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law). His style falls between that of Mahler and the pre-serial Schoenberg.

    As a committed Jew, his music was banned as “entartete Musik” (“degenerate music”) by the Nazis. In the late thirties he moved to the U.S., but poor health did not allow him many years here, where he died in Larchmont, New York.

    He largely vanished from sight for several decades after his death. But in the late seventies he began to move in from the fringes. His best known work for some time has been his splendid “Lyrische Symphonie” (1923), a song-symphony that Zemlinsky himself considered a sequel to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” This work followed closely on his one-act “Der Zwerg,” the sixth of his eight operas.

    The current free production by OperaHub, directed by Erin Huelskamp, is fully staged, with an elaborate set by Stephen Dobay and costumes by Kathleen Doyle. Tenor Sean Malkus is a standout in the role of the Dwarf-as-Illusion. All that’s missing is Zemlinsky’s characteristically lush orchestration, for which Julia Scott Carey substituted at the piano. But one is thankful for what is almost certainly the work’s local premiere.

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