Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1921 opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) tells the story of the unrequited love between a nameless dwarf and the Spanish princess who toys with him. The Dwarf is unaware of his disability, but the illusion of his ‘normality’ is shattered when he sees himself in a mirror for the first time and ‘collapses with an inarticulate scream, as if struck by lightning’.[1] His reluctance to accept his disability is indicated as he pleads with the Infanta: ‘say that it isn’t true, that I am not ugly, not misshapen […] Say it isn’t true, say that I am handsome’. The opera ends as he dies of a broken heart.

Onstage, the Infanta wears a fairy-like white gown and looks back at the Dwarf who scurries away from her. He is wearing blue jeans, white trainers and an athletic sweater. They are reflected on the mirrored wall behind them.
Jennifer Courcier (the Infanta) and Mathias Vidal (the Dwarf) in Le Nain (Opéra de Lille, 2017). The Infanta wears a fairy-like white gown while the Dwarf wears blue jeans, white trainers and a dark athletic sweater. She looks back at him while he scurries away from her; they are reflected in the mirrored wall behind them. Photo: Frédéric Iovino.

In Der Zwerg, Zemlinsky harnesses the symbolic potential of disability, creating a protagonist whose physical abnormality sets them apart, both visually and socially, from the dramatic world in which they function. In his book Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard J. Davis puts forward the idea of the ‘norm’ and its relevance to studies of disability representation: he suggests that ‘[t]o understand the disabled body, one must return to the concept of the norm, the normal body’ (23). In literature, visibly impaired characters have often been placed in direct opposition to a healthy and heroic counterpart. This is most evident than in the narratives of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For example, in Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910), the monstrosity of the Phantom is underscored by the presence of Christine and Raoul, whose beauty and vitality (or ‘normality’) is defined only by the existence of their physically anomalous antagonist. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the disabled protagonist is placed in opposition to his physically healthy creator. In her prominent work Extraordinary Bodies, disability theorist Rosemarie Garland Thomson, this way of depicting disability ‘buttresses an embodied version of normative identity’.

Black and white photo of the Phantom with a haunting smile, arms outstretched beside Christine, who crouches in fear.
Lon Chaney as The Phantom and Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Black and white still of the Phantom with a haunting smile, arms outstretched beside Christine, who crouches in fear. Photo: Public Domain.

Disabled characters are also frequently figured alongside aesthetically normative or conventionally beautiful counterparts in the operatic canon, and the trend is clearly reflected in the bodily juxtaposition of the Infanta and the Dwarf in Zemlinsky’s opera. In the first scene, the description of the Infanta by the maids depicts her as a paradigm of health and beauty:

Infanta, you are beautiful. Your shoulders are smooth,
you are slender, your radiant hair filters the sun of your beauty.
How shall we express our thanks?
Infanta, we love you.

Later in the scene, Don Estoban’s account of the appearance of the Dwarf, who has been sent as a gift to the Infanta, provides a striking contrast:

The Sultan has sent a dwarf, a freak of nature’s cruelty.
He limps, his hair is like fiery bristles,
His head juts out from his shoulders, which are
abnormally high. He is bent in two by a hump, and
his entire body is stunted and misshapen.
He might be no more than twenty years old,
or maybe as old as the sun.

The conflicting physical attributes of the Dwarf and the Infanta described in these passages distance the protagonist from the realm of bodily ‘normality’ exemplified by the princess. The protagonist’s placement alongside the aesthetically idealised Infanta therefore adheres to a familiar mode of disability representation and illuminates the opera’s participation in the practice of narrative prosthesis.

Standing in a large gold picture frame, dressed in a contemporary grey and white clothes, the Dwarf clutches a gold rose and the Infanta holds a small doll. To their right is a child dressed in a 1600s style gown.
Aleš Briscein as The Dwarf and Tatjana Miyus as the Infanta in Der Zwerg (Oper Graz, 2016). Standing in a large gold picture frame, dressed in a contemporary grey and white clothes, the Dwarf clutches a gold rose and the Infanta holds a small doll. To their right is a child dressed in a 1600s style gown. Photo: Werner Kmetitsch.

The aesthetic disproportion of the opera finds a real-world parallel in the relationship between Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler, whom the composer had met and fallen for in 1900.

In a journal entry, Schindler refers to Zemlinsky as ‘dreadfully ugly, almost chinless’, and accounts of his ‘ugliness’ appear with some frequency in her diaries.[2] Even after Zemlinsky and Schindler’s relationship had developed into a romantic affair, she imagined their marriage and noted ‘how ridiculous it would look…he so ugly, so small – me so beautiful, so tall’.[3] She ultimately rejected Zemlinsky in favour of Gustav Mahler, and Der Zwerg has long been understood as reflecting the composer’s own insecurities about his physical appearance, which are summarised in his denigrating self-portrait: ‘Short and skinny (low marks: unsatisfactory, ß-). Face and nose: impossible; every facial feature: ditto. […] Everything else as outlined above. Hence summa summarum: hideous!!’[4] In the libretto, the infanta says: ‘you are a hideous, misshapen dwarf! You are so ugly that you are ridiculous! You are a monster, you aren’t a man! You are so repulsive that it is absurd!’ Elsewhere, her playmates react to the Dwarf’s arrival with exclamations such as, ‘[a] monster! […] I have never seen anything so hideous in my life!’

Vintage black and white portrait photo of a woman in a lacy 1900-era gown and large feathery hat, with a Gibson Girl hairstyle
Alma Mahler (b. Schindler) in 1909. Vintage portrait of a woman in a lacy gown and large feathery hat. Photo: Public Domain.

But there is more to the opera’s use of disability than simply reflecting Zemlinsky’s insecurities about his physical appearance. Der Zwerg emerged at the beginning of a period in which the composer would face increasing critical hostility as a result of his Jewish heritage. Alma Schindler’s journal entries also reveal her prejudices and anxieties about the composer’s Jewish roots. Having received a postcard from Zemlinsky from a coffee-house in the Leopoldstadt district in 1901, she asks, ‘is he one of those little half-Jews who never succeed in freeing themselves from their roots?’.[5] Elsewhere, she paints a cruel picture of Zemlinsky’s physical appearance: ‘Small, chinless, toothless, always smelling like a coffee house, unwashed…’.[6] In Seeing Mahler, K.M. Knittel suggests that Schindler’s reservations about the composer (smell, voice, lack of creativity) all referring to ‘traits ascribed by her culture to the Jews’ (41-42). The physical attributes described by Schindler also resonate visually in the many caricatures of Zemlinsky with which Antony Beaumont’s biography of the composer is punctuated, and in which Zemlinsky is depicted as chinless, with a hooked nose and, like Wilde’s Dwarf, a mane of unkempt black hair.

Vintage image of a dark-haired man wearing an old-fashioned suit and tie
Alexander Zemlinsky c. 1900. A dark-haired man wears an old-fashioned suit and tie. Photo: Public Domain.

The opera’s narrative may therefore have served as a platform on which to project a commentary on the aesthetic anti-Semitic ideals of health and beauty and the public’s preoccupation with the visibility of otherness. In this sense, Zemlinsky’s Dwarf can be understood as a symbolic foil to the opera’s largely biographical narrative of aesthetic disproportion and tragic anagnorisis. People with disabilities occupied a space as a kind of universal other at the time in which the opera was created, and as such, the body of the Dwarf is an apt site for the projection of Zemlinsky’s experience of cultural exclusion. This use of disability as an allegory for personal struggle against social norms renders the Dwarf a catch-all symbol of social and political otherness, his body functioning as a metaphorical site of uncertainty, anxiety and vulnerability.

[1] All quotes from the libretto are taken from Georg Klaren, Der Zwerg (libretto), trans. Roger Clement, liner notes for Der Zwerg, Frankfurter Kantorei, Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, Conducted by James Conlon (EMI Classics, 1996), compact disk.

[2] Alma Mahler-Werfel, Alma Mahler-Werfel: Diaries 1898-1902, trans. Antony Beaumont (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 253.

[3] Alma Mahler-Werfel, quoted and translated in K.M. Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 40.

[4] Alexander Zemlinsky, unpublished letter to Alma Mahler-Werfel, quoted and translated in Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 2000), 27.

[5] Alma Mahler-Werfel, Alma Mahler-Werfel: Diaries 1898-1902, trans. Antony Beaumont and Susanne Rode-Breymann (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 402–03.

[6] Alma Mahler-Werfel, Mein Leben (Frankfurt: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1989), 29 (my translation).

Share this article:

Similar Posts