Kommilitonen! An Opera For Students, About Students

From the denizens of imperial Rome (L’incoronazione di Poppea) to a bevy of mental patients re-enacting Grimm’s fairy tales (Transformations), from moonstruck Czech villagers (The Bartered Bride) to a gender-swapping couple (Les mamelles de Tirésias)—all subjects of Juilliard Opera productions over the last few years—it might seem as if there are no creative or original roles left for Juilliard’s vocal arts students to embody on stage. That is, except for one: fellow students.

In the third of the three stories in Kommilitonen! the singers use puppets to tell the tale of student unrest and misbehavior during China’s Cultural Revolution. Back row, left to right: Laetitia de Beck Spitzer, Spencer Lang, and (hidden) Martin Bakari. Front row, left to right: Laura Mixter, Simone Easthope, and Rachael Wilson.

(Photo by Juilliard Journal)

Librettist David Pountney.

(Photo by Karl Forster)

Peter Maxwell Davies

(Photo by Photo Eamonn McCabe; courtesy of G. Schirmer)

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On November 16, Juilliard Opera will give Peter Maxwell Davies’s Kommilitonen! its U.S. premiere at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The piece was a co-commission of Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music in London, and it grew out of a 2006 meeting between Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi and then-principal of the Royal Academy, Curtis Price, who decided to continue their institutions’ longstanding collaboration with an operatic work for students. 

Upon being asked to compose an opera to be performed by conservatory students, acclaimed composer Peter Maxwell Davies turned to his longtime creative partner, David Pountney, who agreed to write the libretto on the condition that the characters themselves be students. He said to Davies, “Look, I think we should write a piece not only for students but about students, so that for once they can actually play themselves,” Pountney recalled in a recent interview with The Journal. He also told Davies, “What we should do is write a piece about student activism, because there isn’t any anymore.”

Librettist Pountney direct the Juilliard production, and the singers and the Juilliard Orchestra will be conducted by Anne Manson, who most recently took the podium at Juilliard in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites in 2010. Some of the staging will feature lifesize puppets (see “Learning to Puppeteer for Kommilitonen!).

For a baby boomer like Pountney, who studied at Cambridge in the late 1960s, the college experience was inseparable from student activism. But five years ago, when Kommilitonen! was conceived, there was a noteworthy absence of student activism on most campuses, a trend that persists today in music conservatories. “Music students are notorious for their general disengagement from the world—hardly surprising, given the ferocious technical demands of playing or singing music well,” Pountney wrote in a recent article for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. “Practicing five hours a day doesn’t leave much time for riots.”

But even if conservatory students have neither the time nor the will to be political activists, they can at least play them on stage. In Kommilitonen! Pountney and Davies present stories of student activism from three 20th-century political upheavals. The first is the story of the Weisse Rose (White Rose), a student group formed at the University of Munich in 1942 to protest Hitler’s regime. After attempting to organize resistance against the Nazis by distributing anonymous leaflets around the university, the group’s founding members (including the brother and sister Hans and Sophie, sung here by Alexander Hajek and Deanna Breiwick) were caught and guillotined in 1943.

This story of unfathomable courage and martyrdom provided the opera’s title—the leaflets were addressed to Kommilitonen (Fellow Student).  “It remains a mystery to all of us how this very well educated and civilized nation could ever have gone down the route that it went down,” Pountney said. “And [the Weisse Rose students] are very poignant witnesses to that puzzle.”

While the work received its world premiere in London last March, Pountney felt that one of its three storylines should take place in the U.S. since its second outing would be here. To that end, he chose the inspirational story of James Meredith, who integrated the student body of the University of Mississippi, in 1962. “James Meredith was a brave and lonely figure, and his story is almost like a sort of monologue for the baritone [Will Liverman]. It’s definitely the largest individual part in the piece,” Pountney said.

For the third narrative thread, he recalled, “I thought, I’d better find a story where students behaved badly,” so he selected a tale of student mischief from the Cultural Revolution in China as a counterpoint to the heroism of the German students.  This section of the opera pits Wu (Wallis Giunta) who is against the Cultural Revolution, and Zhou (Karen Vuong) who is a proponent of it, against each other. They “did the most terrible things, and revealed how they could be manipulated by a political force,” Pountney said. 

While Pountney researched the lives and experiences of these courageous figures, weaving them into the fantasy-maze of his libretto, Davies researched the vernacular musical languages associated with their cultures. It was in the Chinese section of the opera that Davies said he faced his toughest compositional challenge. “I hope I’m not offending anybody when I say that the music of Communist China under Chairman Mao must be about the most repulsive music I’ve ever heard,” the acclaimed composer, whose accolades include the title Master of the Queen’s Music, told The Journal in a recent interview. “Studying it was not pleasant and it is so awful you can’t really caricature it. It’s a mockery of itself.” Davies prevailed, however, and infused an array of vernacular musical elements into Pountney’s well-crafted, ambitious libretto. 

“A style goes right through and is inflected into these three threads,” Davies said. “Toward the end they all flow together and it becomes one musical language.” The opera concludes with a unified chorus that Davies calls “a great hymn to freedom.”

As it happens, since the opera’s conception, political movements have been springing up around the world, from Egypt and Tunisia to mass mobilizations in Europe, and even to America, where the recent Occupy Wall Street encampment has been inspiring offshoots around the country (see Voice Box). For Pountney and Davies, thatKommilitonen! should premiere amid the rejuvenation of such youth-led, popular movements is fortuitous. Learning a lesson from the insufficient public resistance to the U.S.-U.K. invasion and occupation of Iraq—which composer and librettist both opposed vehemently—Pountney sees the opera as potentially inspiring a deterrent to political complacency. “The important thing is that we don’t allow ourselves to be cowed by official propaganda or published views when instinctively we know that there is something wrong,” he said. “The role of the voice of dissent is incredibly important, and it is an essential ingredient of democracy.”


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