Anne Manson, widely admired as a conductor of operatic repertoire that ranges from the Baroque to Philip Glass, leads the cast and orchestra of the Juilliard School in New York in the American premiere of “Kommilitonen!” She speaks to T+L about the unusual work, commissioned jointly by the Royal Academy of Music in London and Julliard.
Q: Peter Maxwell Davies, 77-years-old and considered the dean of British composers (he also holds the royal appointment as Master of the Queen’s music), wrote the score and David Pountney provided the libretto and has staged the work in London and now in New York. What is the work about?
A: It is about students, facing crucial issues at turning points in history: the black student James Meredith who in 1962 fought racial prejudice to enroll in the segregated University of Mississippi; a brother and sister in Munich who joined the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany; and two Chinese students, who swept up in the Cultural Revolution, are compelled to denounce their parents. “Kommilitonen” is German for “fellow students,” by the way.
Q: Sounds serious. Is the work in three acts then?
A: First, about the structure. No, it is in two acts. The plot involves three interlocking stories, which cross generations, time zones, as well as cultures. The Meredith character is central. He tells his own story but also comments on the stories in Germany and China and acts as a narrator as the plot unfolds. About its subject matter: yes, it deals with significant issues, issues of moral consequence—courage, conscience. Students are forced to the extremity of what we all have to face as human beings. However, the pacing is swift. You flash out of one story and into the next. It is like a thriller.
Q: How does the commission influence the opera’s scheme and organization?
A: It has a large cast as well as a chorus that embodies students in China and Germany as well as citizens. And back to the nature of the work. The opera was written for students, about their own age group, to be performed by students, which means that the opera as a whole has a remarkable energy and lively quality. I don’t know how Pountney and Davies imbued the drama and the music with a sense of student idealism, but passion comes across the footlights. It delivers an emotional punch.
Q: Do the various settings affect the musical language?
A: Yes and no. In the China scenes there is an erhu, two-stringed sort of fiddle; tonalized folk material that is reminiscent of marches associated with the Red Guard. The German students participate in a Liederabend or song evening. There is American-based material. There is an onstage band, other musicians on and off the stage, besides the orchestra in the pit, and yet, it all feels very cohesive. The music is richly complex, at times dissonant. And there are these remarkable life-sized puppets. Audiences won’t forget the stage pictures.
Q: What has surprised you as you have rehearsed the opera?
A: Today’s students are better and better at learning contemporary music, no matter the difficulty. They learn very quickly. Will Liverman, a baritone who sings the role of James Meredith is so moving in the role. I expected that Juilliard would cast a very good singer, but I continue to be surprised how moved I am by his aria as I conduct from the pit. Every once in a while, you encounter a student whose talent and performance are overwhelming.