Learning to love opera through historical research

When I first began my internship at The Culture Capital Exchange I didn’t expect to be exploring the history of Terezin concentration camps, or that my introduction to this subject would be through opera.

Like many young people, I am not instantly drawn to opera. Preconceptions about this art form are that it can be intimidating and exclusive, and the language and genre is mostly unfamiliar. I regularly attend theatre, musical and dance performances with friends but never the opera. To be honest, the idea of spending hours in an opera house listening to a language I don’t understand for a substantial price puts me off.

Of course, I should know better. Even though the language is unfamiliar opera can make you laugh or cry, just as any other form of art can, and it can be entertaining or touching. Still I feel there are not enough opera houses making an effort to change the perception of opera within a young audience. I’m interested to know who the singers are, what happens backstage and the historic background of operas, explained to me in contemporary language.

Are opera companies offering these things to young people?

Well, when set the task to market English Touring Opera’s concert On Some Threshold of the Air-Songs of Viktor Ullman, for Inside Out Festival, I had the opportunity to thoroughly explore the ETO’s website. This made me realise that there are opera companies which want to make a difference and are keen to attract a younger audience. The ETO has a blog which gives you a real inside view of what’s going on behind the scenes and provides a wealth of background information. And there’s a great education programme for children, so that hopefully the next generation does not have to wait until they’re 30 to engage with opera. Most interestingly for me, they provided information for my exploration of the fascinating but tragic history of the composer Viktor Ullmann.

Ullmann was born in the Czech Republic in 1898. Although his family was Jewish he was actually baptised as a Catholic.  When Hitler’s National Socialists assumed power in 1933 Ullmann continued to compose opera, but life became increasingly difficult for Czech Jews and by the end of 1941 the Nazis had established Terezin. What made Terezin concentration camp different from other death camps, was that many of the leading Czech Jewish creatives and academics were imprisoned there, which led to various cultural activities amongst the inmates. In total Ullmann composed some 20 works in Terezin, including The Emperor of Atlantis, an opera about life and death, which was first performed in 1975. He had the foresight to entrust The Emperor of Atlantis to a friend for safe keeping before being sent to his death at Auschwitz in 1944.

When you consider the history of this composer and the terrible conditions in which he composed his operas, it is amazing that we still have the opportunity to experience his music in the twenty-first century. Even though Ullmann was faced with such harsh realities throughout his life his operas are full of humour and pathos, making the performances of his work deeply moving to this day. The songs and operas composed in Terezin show the impressive way in which many of the inmates were dealing with their situation, by showing a deep will to live through the production of art.

For me this historical knowledge has lead to a new-found love and appreciation of opera, and I hope that in the future other young people will lose their prejudices about this art form. I found that opera companies have good intentions to engage with young people and have background information available, but until my internship I had not accessed this. The internship has also opened my eyes to the amount of research and time that ETO devotes to each opera before the first performance and how the works of composers from over 60 years ago still inspire musicians today.

Paula Sides and Jonathan Gale from English Touring Opera performed Songs of Viktor Ullmann at St. Johns, Waterloo as part of Inside Out Festival 2012

Image by Richard Hubert Smith

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