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Culture

Opera inspired by Baader-Meinhof paintings on way to Europe

Following his success at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Australian composer David Chesworth explains why he chose to write an opera based on the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group.

The artist David Chesworth

David Chesworth found Richter's paintings inspirational

Last month Verena Becker, a former member of the radical far-left Red Army Faction (RAF), went on trial for the 1977 murder of a federal prosecutor, Siegfried Buback. The trial, which is taking place in Stuttgart, Southern Germany, provides a reminder that the RAF - also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang - has not yet been consigned to the history books.

Just months after Buback's murder, three RAF members committed suicide in prison. These suicides inspired Gerhard Richter's controversial painting series "October 18 1977" . David Chesworth, an Australian composer, explains why seeing these paintings led him to write an opera.

DW: Why did you choose to write an opera on the Baader-Meinhof?

David Chesworth: After 9/11 I became interested in terrorism and how notions of terrorism have changed since the 1960s and 1970s. When Gerhard Richter painted his series "October 18 1977" during the late 1980s, it was an intermediate period between the "Red" terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s and today. Richter's work provides an interesting conduit between these two ideas of what terrorism is.

What is the opera about?

I wanted to tell the story of the Baader-Meinhof group, of Germany at that time, and I also wanted to explore Richter's perspective painting these suicides years later. I wanted to create a new world, a new space to explore. I like the audience to go into the work and discover things and this leads to people seeing the world in different ways. Both Richter and Meinhof wanted to present their own different ways of seeing the world and I thought it would be interesting to explore these contrasts. Richter's paintings were an interpretation of the RAF, with Meinhof as his muse. My work takes this a step further – I observe Richter, observing Meinhof, and in doing so the audience gains a new perspective.

Two actors on stage

Performers Kate Kendall and Hugo Race on stage during the performance

Why does this remain relevant today?

The opera looks at the individual politics of Richter and Meinhof, but it also focuses on the collective will of people to make change through social groups. Meinhof wanted to use one kind of social group to overthrow another. I thought it was an interesting time to do a piece on that idea. In a post-Thatcherite world, the focus is on the individual and socialism has been demonized. We have a hung parliament in Australia and in many other countries around the world – in many ways we are now living through a period of political stagnation. I wanted to compare the world of the 1960s and 1970s to how we live today.

David Chesworth's show, Richter/Meinhof Opera, recently closed at the Melbourne International Arts Festival and plans are underway to bring the show to Europe in the near future.

Interview: Naomi Scherbel-Ball

Editor: Gavin Blackburn

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