Kommilitonen! is an electrifying documentary opera about student revolution. It’s being performed by Welsh National Youth Opera – a group of 100 young singers, instrumentalists and theatre technicians who are the next generation of professional talent. They collaborate with a professional creative team and musical director to make an ambitious show that seeks to challenge and rival the mainstage work of the company. The opera is by the late, great Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the most significant musical innovators in terms of composition since Benjamin Britten. The libretto is written by WNO’s Artistic Director, David Pountney. This in itself is totally wonderful – an artistic director of an internationally renowned opera company who also writes libretti? Yes, and he’s fairly prolific too. WNO premiered his new Figaro Gets a Divorce earlier this year.
His text weaves together three key stories: Story one is about victims and aggressors from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Story two is about the unique life of James Meredith – the first African American to be accepted into the University of Mississippi in 1962. Story three concerns Hans and Sophie Scholl and other members of the anti-Nazi movement Die Weisse Rose, that was formed in Munich 1942. These students wrote and distributed pamphlets denouncing Hitler, and were executed for their actions.
James Meredith (Oscar Castellino) with Chorus
This is a highly ambitious but expertly crafted opera that deftly evokes the three different historical eras through soundscape and incisive text and has been an amazing project to work on.
The title Kommilitonen means “fellow students” and is taken from the final call to arms that the Weisse Rose students wrote before they were arrested and executed in 1943. Their words are from some of Europe’s darkest days – unimaginable for most of us. And yet their arguments transcend time. They astutely observe that “every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure” and outline the responsibility everyone has, to engage with politics according to their own conscience. Their belief in a renewed Europe is particularly poignant: “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence-these will be the bases of the New Europe. ” As each day goes by, this piece is becoming more relevant.
We are putting on a promenade version of this show in the historic and utterly intriguing space of the Barry War Memorial Hall, The Memo, inviting the audience to witness the storm of history in 360 degrees. I am lucky enough to be collaborating with serious and inspiring artists on this show – Movement Director Jo Fong, Designer Gabriella Slade and Video Designer Will Duke. It’s been such a wonderful journey and now we cannot wait to share it with an audience.