More than just a modern opera

  • 2007-09-05
  • By Joel Alas

OPERA FOR MODERN TIMES: Estonian Erkki-Swen Tuur's fresh, contemporary opera 'Wallenberg' tells the story of a Swedish diplomat who saved countless Jews from the Holocaust. The work is being performed in Tallinn later this month.

TALLINN -  It's not often you hear praise heaped upon a modern opera, or an Estonian opera. They are normally written off as good attempts to emulate older foreign works, but are quickly forgotten.
Wallenberg is different. It has won over even the most critical opera-goers, and even those who don't frequent the Estonian National Opera House have been impressed.
The reason? It's not only lyrically and musically bold, but it deals with controversial and touching themes.
Wallenberg opened at the National Opera House in June and is scheduled for a further series of performances this month.

Wallenberg tells the story of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who used his connections to issue Swedish passports to thousands of Jews, thereby saving them from Nazi concentration camps. His dangerous double-crossing of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes was bold in the extreme, and it carried a large cost. Wallenberg disappeared at the end of the war, and it is thought he was held in clinics and prison camps until his death in the 1970s.
"There is something very important about every contemporary work of art, especially in the field of classical music," says Arvo Volmer, music director and conductor of Wallenberg, and artistic director of the Estonian National Opera company.

"Strangely, 90 percent of what we consume was composed long before our time. But I don't think there's any doubt that modern day humans are longing to get some experience from the contemporary way of thinking."
Most new operas were celebrated for their mere creation and existence, Volmer said.
"Unfortunately, very many are not successful. But look at Mozart's time. How many composers do we know from this period, except Mozart? There were tens of thousands of them around, but time does its selection."
It seems time has selected Wallenberg as this decade's piece to be remembered. "This is a successful work. The theme itself, the Holocaust and anti-totalitarian sentiments, is also very intriguing. The attention it has received is deserved, and the opera lives up to it. It knocks on everyone's conscience."
The production stands out all the more for its inventive staging style. The orchestra has been relocated to the back of the stage, bringing the action closer to the audience.

"There is no division between the audience and the stage. From the rear of the stage, the orchestra never covers the singers, which is the way it should be in opera. The music is full of energy, which involves a strong massive sound with brass and percussion. If we were to have the orchestra next to the audience, the singers wouldn't be heard at all."
Stylistically, the production is designed to be time-neutral, meaning it could appear futuristic or historical. "It's a timeless story," Volmer explains.
Composed by Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur, the production debuted at the Dortmund Opera in Germany in 2001. It took six more years for the opera to be staged in Estonia, and not without difficulty.
It debuted in Tallinn in June this year, but its director, the Moscow-based Dmitri Bertman, was almost unable to attend rehearsals or the premiere due to the diplomatic and political challenges posed by the removal of the Bronze Soldier. Bertman had reason to believe that traveling to Tallinn at such a sensitive time could jeopardize the interests of his own opera company in Moscow.

"Dimitri had problems coming over to start the rehearsals. We got around it by dealing with Dimitri over the Internet, and having meetings in a neutral country."
Eventually the director did get to Tallinn in time for the premiere. Volmer said it was fitting for such a politically-challenging opera to face its own political challenges.
"This kind of controversy is what the piece deserves. The themes are actually very important in the present world for everyone 's the themes of racial and religious segregation, themes of totalitarian regimes, and the ever-present theme of a person's desires and feeling of duty, which is so eternal and central for human nature."

Many of the upcoming performances of Wallen-berg have already sold out, but some tickets are available. There are plans to stage further sessions in 2008 to meet demand.

Estonian National Opera House
Sept. 21 & 22, 19:00