Q&A: Kommilitonen! Conductor Anne Manson

Classic Arts Features   Q&A: Kommilitonen! Conductor Anne Manson
Anne Manson will conduct the U.S. premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!) _ an opera co-commissioned by Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music _ Nov. 16-20 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.


The production opens Juilliard's 2011-12 Vocal Arts season on Wednesday, November 16 at 8 PM, with additional performances on Friday, November 18 at 8 PM and Sunday, November 20 at 2 PM.

The new opera, a cross-generational, multi-national work utilizes life-sized puppets and traditional techniques. David Pountney, librettist of the opera, provides stage direction, sets and costumes are by Robert Innes Hopkins, puppetry is by Blind Summit Theatre, and choreography is by Carolum Choa.

Kommilitonen _ translating more literally as "fellow students" in German _ crosses generations, time-zones and cultures with three interlocking stories about groups of students who are involved in political action. The first story follows the activities of Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose), a group of students at the University of Munich led by siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, who protested against the National Socialist government in the early 1940s and were executed; the second story, Soar to Heaven, follows Wu and Zhou, two young people involved on opposite sides of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966-76; the third, The Oxford Revolution, is about James Meredith, who fought a lonely battle against segregation and racial prejudice to become the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi, 'Ole Miss', in 1962. These three stories unfold in parallel and eventually come together in a climax of devastating emotional impact.

Manson discusses the piece:

The story of Kommilitonen! centers on multi-national students during defining periods of history. How are the different cultural and political stories reflected in the music? How do the juxtapositions of these tales complement each other and combine into one?

The three stories are told in very short scenes, following closely on one another, and the piece reads a bit like a thriller, leaving you in suspense as you move from one plot strand to another. The cultural background of each story is reflected by musical references. In the case of James Meredith, to American music, in the case of Die Weisse Rose, to Schumann and the tradition of German lieder, and for the Cultural Revolution by borrowing from the propagandistic music of that movement in China. Maxwell Davies actually listened to recordings of Chinese patriotic marches from the period and incorporated them into the opera.

Why do you think it was so important for this piece to be told through the eyes of students?

The opera is about brave students who had the courage to make a stand for what they believed in and shows that we should never underestimate the younger generations. While these particular young people may not have changed the world, their work had a positive resonance that has continued long after their time.

The production features life-size puppets, a marching band, traditional Chinese instruments and other cultural nuances. How does this enhance the production?

The puppets are startlingly and shockingly human. The scene in which two intellectuals (represented by puppets) are beaten and killed by members of the Red Guard is the most shocking scene of the opera. The marching band is relentless and crude in its drive to get the message of Revolution across to "the people". The Chinese Erhu sounds like the voice of a single lonely human being within the chaos and cruelty of the movement.

What are your thoughts on this particular opera by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies? How has it been to work with a living legend – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as well as David Pountney?

It has been incredible to work with two people for whom I have had such great admiration for so many years. I believe that this is one of Maxwell Davies most important works and certainly one in which the emotional impact is very great. David Pountney is a brilliant director and it has been a privilege to watch him at work on a text which he created himself.

Was there a defining moment or breakthrough when you decided that music would be your life?

My earliest memories are closely connected with music, and I consider myself very fortunate that I've been able to spend so much of my life making music. I suppose the turning point for me may have been the summer I spent at Tanglewood when I was 15. From then on, it has been impossible to imagine a life without music!

Tickets to Juilliard Opera productions are $30 and are available at the Janet and Leonard Kramer Box Office at Juilliard, as well as through CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500, five weeks in advance of the production. Half-price student and senior citizen tickets are available with a valid ID at the Juilliard Box Office; TDF vouchers are accepted. For further information, call (212) 769-7406 or visit Juilliard's Web site at www.juilliard.edu

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