Church conference premieres opera on dissident | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.05.2013
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Church conference premieres opera on dissident

Anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a remarkable influence in contemporary Protestant theology. Inspired by his life, a multifaceted opera premiered at the German Protestant congress in Hamburg.

Soft strings, trumpets like poking needles and a strong but clear cello - the opening of "The End of Innocence" seems at first restrained, but soon gives way to soloists and the choir raising their voices. The two-hour piece is permeated by celebrations, prayers, massacres and deaths. At one point, up to 250 professional and amateur musicians are on-stage at Hamburg's Kulturfabrik.

Many things make this opera unique: It was commissioned by the German Protestant Church conference, and deals with the story of a Protestant shining light of the 20th century, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theresita Colloredo also contributed to the libretto.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was murdered in a concentration camp

According to conference president Gerhard Robbers, Bonhoeffer was a role model, a man who made the right decisions during difficult times. The theologian was a religious Christian who took a stand against the Nazis and was murdered on Hitler's orders at age 39 on April 8, 1945, in the Flossenburg concentration camp.

Does this opera simply trivialize goodness? Librettist and musical director David Gravenhorst explained: "We have tried to do justice to Bonhoeffer. This is only possible if we don't show him."

Gravenhorst added that the theologian would have "probably been appalled at the idea of being stylized as an opera hero."

Contemporary history parable

Neither are the texts and the staging of this piece ordinary, since the opera is told as a parable. The story can be summed up so: Germa and her brother Heman grow up in a farm. The charismatic Drako, an alleged healer, promises them things will turn better in difficult times. Germa and the other manor residents follow Drako, while Heman decides to take a stand against the tyrant.

Director Kirsten Harms, who previously worked at the German state opera in Berlin, arranged the piece in five scenes. She put the orchestra right in the middle of the set while singers and actors perform around it, as a kind of optical trick.

Harms emphasized that Bonhoeffer never appears in the piece: "We are playing a fictional story, a parable that condenses contemporary history."

Timelessness sought

Kirsten Harms

Director Harms put the orchestra right in the middle of the set while singers and actors perform around it

Harms recruited nine soloists and the church choir of St. Nikolai for "The End of Innocence." The opera melodies are far from upbeat. A gloomy undertone runs through the piece, which displays several music styles. Motifs from different eras resonate throughout the opera, including psalms and baroque elements ranging to surrealistic and post-avant-garde.

Stephan Peiffer, a graduate from the Hamburg University of Music and Theater, spent two years composing this, intended to be timeless. His musical signature, however, seems somewhat tense and inconsistent - perhaps to do justice to Bonhoeffer.

Peiffer, added that he, the librettists and organizers decided to intentionally depict Bonhoeffer "as a human being with strengths and weaknesses."

Challenging silence

But who is this Bonhoeffer, if not the hero portrayed in one black-and-white depiction commissioned by the church conference? An answer was given by protesters holding up banners and demanding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be made a topic of the conference.

Pastor Friedhelm Meyer from Düsseldorf believes that Bonhoeffer wouldn't have remained silent on the sufferings of Christians and Muslims, were he alive today. On the contrary, he would "scream out."

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