Simanaitis Says

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RECENTLY I ENCOUNTERED the first humans, at least metaphorically. Here are tidbits about the Dutch National Opera’s production of Die Erste Menschen, a 1920 opera by German composer Rudi Stephan. Unorthodox though the opera is, I found it a compelling retelling of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel.

Die Erste Menschen, Viewed by Chance. My desktop ARTE Concert icon, left over from early-pandemic streaming, was no longer active. But it was easy to navigate to its current opera offerings. One of them caught my eye: Die Erste Menschen, by Rudi Stephan, described as “an erotic mystery at the Dutch National Opera.”


Rudi Stephan’s Brief Life. Wikipedia notes that composer Rudi Stephan showed “great promise who, shortly before the First World War, was considered one of the leading talents of his generation.”

Rudi Stephan, 1887–1915, German composer of chamber music, orchestral works, and a single opera, Die Erste Menschen.

Stephan was inducted into the German army, sent into battle, and was the only one in his regiment to be killed. He died of a Russian sniper bullet at age 28.

From a Play to an Opera. Die Erste Menschen began in one genre and transformed into another. Otto Borngräber’s theatrical play Die Erste Menschen was published in Berlin in 1908. As Opera Gazet notes, the opera Die Erste Menschen was “a co-production by Stephan and Borngräber, completed in 1914, although the latter would have preferred Richard Strauss alongside him.”

Richard Strauss’s Salome, 1905, had already transformed a controversial Oscar Wilde play into an equally controversial opera with the same name. 

As noted by Opera Ballet Netherlands, “Freud is heard in the background…. the primitive family is torn apart by the tension between the sexual urge and the greedy life on the one hand, and a life dedicated to the spiritual on the other.”

About the original, the website writes, “The erotic and incestuous nature of the story caused a great deal of controversy during the performance of the play and led to intervention by the censorship.” Stephan had died prior to the opera’s first performance in 1920. Subsequent changes to the operatic libretto were made in 1924 to satisfy censors. 

The Dutch National Opera’s Performance, 2021. Stephan’s music has been termed late-Romantic, post-Expressionist, and, according to a less-than-ecstatic Opera Gazet, “somewhat akin to Schoenberg, Berg,… Suddenly, the greatest musical genius since Beethoven had been reinvented. Hallelujah! Not. Nonetheless: fascinating, but one hour would have done Stephan’s opera justice.”

Die Erste Menschen’s streaming time is 1:43:04.

Image from a Die Erste Menschen trailer.

 My Own Review. I beg to differ with Opera Gazet’s assessment and especially its dislike of director Calixto Bieito’s avant garde production. The set includes a see-through house. Much of the action takes place around its dinner table heavy with consumables that end up on the floor.

I like the bored, post-Eden Adam/Adahm admiring his laptop, not Eve/Chawa, who fondly recalls Garden days—and nights. Growing sons Cain/Kajin and Abel/Chabel are discovering sexuality. And there is a marked shortage of women….  

I’m reminded of my opera teeshirt that reads “Murder, Treachery, Adultery, and Incest—All Sung to Your Favorite Tunes.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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