Kommilitonen! A stirring triumph for WNO Youth Opera – Glyn Pursglove

This review by Glyn Pursglove appeared in Seen and Heard International on 01.08.16 link: http://tinyurl.com/zqha7ar

Title :Kommilitonen! A stirring triumph for WNO Youth Opera

notably Oscar Castellino as James Meredith, who sang with authority throughout and conveyed something of Meredith’s stubborn individuality … and, particularly, Tara McSwiney’s Sophie Scholl, intensely moving, her voice capturing the nobility and suffering of Scholl’s position … Also very striking were the performances of Flora Mcdonald and Jacquelyne Hill

Kommilitonen’s origins lay in a 2008 lunch to celebrate Peter Maxwell Davies’s appointment by London’s Royal Academy of Music. Initially he was not attracted by the suggestion that he might write a theatre work for performance by the students of the College, feeling that his days of writing opera (he was then in his seventies) were well behind him. He later changed his mind, after discussing some ideas with David Pountney, who had been librettist of The Doctor of Myddfai (1996), which Davies had declared to be his last opera. Maxwell Davies told the College that he would write a new work on condition that it should be a collaboration with Pountney and that the work should not just be a work for students but also be in some sense a work about students. He was also keen that the project should be ‘shared’ with another conservatoire – and the Juilliard School duly became involved.
Pountney’s libretto weaves together, in a kind of overlapping counterpoint, three distinct narrative strands. One, the first we encounter, concerns the story of James Meredith, the first Afro-American to register, against all obstacles and opposition, at the segregated University of Mississippi (in 1962); a second strand concerns the remarkable story of The White Rose, a small group of students who, in 1942, produced and distributed pamphlets denouncing the inhumanity of Hitler’s Nazis and calling for an end to the war (‘Kommillitonen’ was the term by which they addressed their fellow students) – all were captured and executed in 1943; the third strand narrates an episode from Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), in which the children of two university professors, Wu Tianshi and his wife Li Jingji, were forced to make public denunciations of their father – both parents then being murdered by a mob of Red Guards.
David Pountney sees his libretto as being about ‘student activism’, but I wonder whether one can’t get the work into more unified focus if one thinks of its subject as youthful idealism, its strengths and its weaknesses, its nobility and its openness to abuse and manipulation. Meredith was, by all accounts, a cranky and difficult loner (who, incidentally, grew increasingly conservative in his later years, joining the Republican party and opposing plans to make the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday). There was a fair slice of egotism in his ‘idealism’, if that’s what it was. The members of The White Rose were quite remarkably courageous, their understanding of the reality they were living though astonishingly clear-sighted, their vision of how they might challenge it both noble and naïve (like so much youthful idealism). The Chinese students who metamorphosed into Mao’s Red Guards were also possessed (in another sense of the word) of a vision of social renewal, but it was one encouraged and endorsed by contemporary political power, rather than developed in opposition to it. Pountney’s libretto brings out such distinctions very forcefully.
Pountney himself directed the first production of the opera, at the Royal Academy in March 2011 (the American premiere followed, at the Juilliard in November of the same year). This revival was directed by Polly Graham – though Pountney was there, in the audience, for its first night.

Tara McSwiney as Sophie Scholl (c) Kirsten Mcternan

The main hall of the Memo Arts Centre (in the building formerly known as Barry Memorial Hall which was inaugurated in 1932) is substantial and Polly Graham’s immersive, in-the-round promenade production took advantage of all the available space. The orchestra were up on the stage, leaving the floor free for performers and audience; the middle of that floor was occupied by a structure of black and white cubes, climbing to a central high point, their outer surfaces used for the writing (and the erasing) of slogans. Large screens hanging at either side of the stage carried, at various times, images (sometimes historical, sometimes of the cast), or passages of text and quotations, or of sung text. Performers, one by one or in large numbers, entered and exited the hall through any of several doors in the hall’s perimeter – as did the brass band Maxwell Davies’s score requires. In the audience we occasionally had to press ourselves against a wall to clear a way for performers, occasionally found our faces only inches away from those of singers, walked from side to side to see more clearly as the action swirled around the hall, occasionally found ourselves swept into that action, not least in the closing ‘hymn to freedom’. The spectacle was often vivid, perhaps most frequently so in the ‘Chinese’ scenes. Being in such close proximity to it gave one endless changing perspectives and contexts for thought.
Both the competence and the energy of the young performers were profoundly impressive, and often moving. Fittingly, this is essentially an ensemble work, rather than one for soloists. Still, one or two individuals merited special mention, notably Oscar Castellino as James Meredith, who sang with authority throughout and conveyed something of Meredith’s stubborn individuality (for Meredith see, for example, Merdith C. McGee’s James Meredith, Warrior and the America that Created Him, 2013) and, particularly, Tara McSwiney’s Sophie Scholl, intensely moving, her voice capturing the nobility and suffering of Scholl’s position. Also very striking were the performances of Flora Mcdonald and Jacquelyne Hill as, respectively, Wu and Li, daughters of Wu Tianshi. But, for all the excellence of these individuals, it was as a company achievement that this production of Kommilitonen was most striking and most memorable. The chorus and the ‘lesser’ characters were equally passionate and disciplined.
The score by Peter Maxwell Davies is complex and rich – and is characteristically allusive, so that there were flashes of (I think) Alban Berg, as well brass band music, honky-tonk piano and negro spirituals (one of the most chilling moments, in its dark irony, was the rapturous singing of the slave-song ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ by white objectors to the presence of James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi). Throughout Alice Farnam maintained well-judged control, supporting the young voices sympathetically and, on occasion, unleashing the full power of the orchestral writing.
The whole was a stirring triumph for WNO Youth Opera and all, who had obviously worked so hard, whether as performers or backstage, should be very proud of themselves.


James Meredith: Oscar Castellino
Sophie Scholl: Tara McSwiney
Hans Scholl: Dragos Isonel
Wu Tianshi: Pablo Gonzalez
Li Jingli: Aimée Daniel
Wu: Flora Macdonald
Li: Jacquelyne Hill
Zhou: Suzi Saperia
Voice of Pokayne: Andrew McGowan
Willi Graf: Jack Bowtell
Christoph Probst / Evangelist: Andrew Henley
Alexander Schmorell / Grand Inquisitor: Dafydd Gape
Gestapo Officer: Joshua Liam Jones
Janitor: Edmund Caird
Prison Guard: Catherine Schofield
Doctor: Enna Hansen
Red Army Officer 1: Joanna Goldspink
Red Army Officer 2: Amy Kearsley
Red Army Officer 3: Christina Negoescu
Children’s Chorus: Dylan Mingay, Lauren Williams, Rhiannon Spannaus, Sarah Stanniforth, Rhys King, Beth Bradfield, Carys Lloyd, Finley Davies, Nancy Bradley, Lilli Mohammed
Children’s Chaperon: Lynne Evans
Director: Polly Graham
Designer: Gabriella Slade
Movement Director: Jo Fong
Lighting Designer: Katy Morison
Projection Designer: Will Duke
Projection Realized By: Dan Trenchard
Youth Opera Producer: Paula Scott
Chorus Master: Nicola Rose

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Orchestra of WNO Youth Opera / Alice Farnham (conductor)