Young Opera Singers Shine In Narratives Of Darkness – David Nicholson

(This review appeared in the Morning Star, August 4, 2016, by David Nicholson,

THE WELSH National Opera’s youth wing has produced an absolute triumph with its imaginative and interactive production of Peter Maxwell Davies and David Pountney’s opera, Kommilitonen!

Kommilitonen is the German for “fellow students” and is the phrase used by Hans and Sophie Scholl in the anti-nazi leaflets they wrote and distributed with fellow members of the the White Rose group of students active across Germany in the 1940s.
Pountney and Maxwell Davies developed their opera specifically about, and to be performed by, young people in three historical moments — WWII, the US civil rights movement and Mao’s cultural revolution.

The opera is based on three stories — the Scholls, James Meredith’s struggle as a black man to be enrolled in the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s and the brutal deaths of two university professors during Mao’s cultural revolution.

The narratives are interweaved, with the audience at the heart of the action as the singers swirl around the audience, with the former encouraged to move around and watch the action from different vantage points.

It’s a visceral experience and can be extremely uncomfortable, especially when the chorus are directing racist comments about segregation towards the audience as federal marshals escort James Meredith through the demonstration into university.

A Cabaret-style piano performance by the White Rose students performing skits mocking Hitler somehow makes you feel complicit in their deadly protest. As they scatter their leaflets bearing witness to the Nazis’ terrible deeds, the audience scramble to pick them up to read the denunciations. In 1940s Germany this would have been as dangerous as writing and distributing the leaflets.

The denouncement, where the Scholls and their fellow White Rose members are executed, is truly disturbing and moving.

The performances are outstanding and the WNO has some bright young stars of the future. Oscar Castellino, mesmerising as Meredith, has a commanding stage presence that belies his diminutive stature.

Director Polly Graham deserves plaudits for an outstanding piece of theatre. WNO Youth Opera have pulled off a remarkable production that is as imaginative and shocking as the events they portray.

Review by David Nicholson