Welsh National Opera’s Youth Opera is preparing to present a new production of Kommilitonen! – an opera for young people, about young people – which will be performed at Memo Arts Centre in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan.
Translating as ‘Young Blood!’, Kommilitonen! intertwines three stories of student revolution in the 20th century in Germany, the USA and China. The piece tells the stories of the legendary Scholl brother and sister who were guillotined for opposing Hitler, the lone civil rights campaigner James Meredith and his battle to gain admission into the segregated University of Mississippi, and the terrifying events of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The three stories come together at the end of the opera, locating the action between the past and the present and evoking the tyranny of the three historical political systems that the opera explores.
Composed by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – who sadly passed away in March this year – and with a libretto by WNO Artistic Director David Pountney, Kommilitonen! was originally commissioned jointly by the Royal Academy of Music, London and the Juilliard School, New York, and was first performed in 2011.
The cast and chorus for this new production feature young singers from WNO Youth Opera 16-25 group which includes singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), other UK conservatoires and five members of Only Kids Aloud, and offers a platform to highlight the talents of these young artists who are the future of the opera world. WNO Youth Opera 10-14 group will also be involved in the Chorus. As well as the singers, much of the technical and backstage team are young people who are being mentored by WNO’s highly-skilled team in areas such as stage management, lighting and props.
The singers include Oscar Castellino from Mumbai who will sing the role of James Meredith. Initially trained at Royal College of Music, London, this production will afford Oscar the opportunity to work and learn alongside professional singers and musicians. The role of James Meredith is being covered by Marcus Farnsworth who made his debut in the role during its premiere at the Royal Academy of Music, London in 2011 and is now mentoring Oscar. Marcus has been performing on the mainstage with WNO this summer in the Company’s new commission, In Parenthesis.
The orchestra will be made up of orchestral students from RWCMD and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music who will play alongside WNO Orchestra members, and will feature an on-stage erhu – a two-stringed bowed instrument – for some of the Chinese scenes which will be played by a RWCMD student.
Kommilitonen! will be a promenade performance and, in keeping with the themes presented by the opera, this new production will be a contemporary telling of the story through movement and video projection as well as the music.
This new production is directed by former WNO Genesis Assistant Director, Polly Graham, who was herself mentored by David Pountney. This project follows Polly’s recent work on Unheard Voices – CREW and A Christmas Carol for WNO, and comes just a few months before she makes her mainscale directorial debut for WNO with Le Vin Herbe in Spring 2017. Polly says: “Kommilitonen! is a perfect piece for WNO Youth Opera to stage because it’s an opera about young people which should be performed by young people. It’s also an opera about real life historical events, and so we wanted to break down the divide between performer and spectator and acknowledge that we are all concerned with politics. It’s not hard to be blown away by James Meredith the first African American to be accepted into the all white University of Mississippi in 1962, and the Weisse Rose students, who wrote and distributed pamphlets denouncing Hitler and were executed for their courageous deeds; trailblazers in dark times. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that we know their stories and continue to be inspired by them.”
The production brings together members of the creative team that previously worked on WNO Youth Opera’s award winning 2013 production, Paul Bunyan including conductor Alice Farnham who has recently conducted The Firework Maker’s Daughter at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and is part of the teaching staff at RWCMD.
WNO Youth Opera Producer Paula Scott says: “WNO Youth Opera continues to be ambitious and build upon its success providing training and unique performance opportunities for young singers and young people interested in stage production. We are delighted to be bringing this production to the Memo – the first time that WNO has performed a full scale opera in Barry – and for new and existing audiences to see the talent that is emerging both on the stage and behind the scenes.”
Kommilitonen! will be performed at Memo Arts Centre, Barry between 27-30 July. Tickets are now on sale. More information is available at wno.org.uk
Polly Graham on Kommilitonen: