NEW YORK — Just two nights after police broke up the Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan, a new opera about student protest movements around the world had its U.S. premiere uptown at Lincoln Center.
And as if to underscore the connection, the performance at the Juilliard School on Wednesday drew a small group of demonstrators who stood behind police barricades holding signs and chanting "Off the stage, into the streets!"
The opera is "Kommilitonen!" with music by the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies and libretto by David Pountney, who also directed. In a program note, Pountney said they took student activism as their subject because, when they set to work back in 2008, it seemed the phenomenon had vanished.
Well, the world has certainly changed – even since the opera was first performed last March by the Royal Academy of Music in London, which co-commissioned it.
Headlines aside, "Kommilitonen!" is an earnest and engaging creation, an agitprop pageant that proves surprisingly entertaining. Moreover, the Juilliard Opera singers and orchestra, led by conductor Anne Manson, performed it with an enthusiasm and polish that had the 77-year-old composer beaming when he came out for his curtain call.
Pountney has woven together three separate stories, beginning with the White Rose movement, in which a small group of German students risked their lives to distribute propaganda protesting Nazi atrocities. The opera's name comes from a term they used in their final leaflet (shortly before they were captured and guillotined), which roughly translates as "Fellow students!"
The second story tells of James Meredith's crusade to become the first black student to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962 – an individual act of courage that helped galvanize years of civil rights struggle.
The third story, a counterpoint to show the excesses of youthful zeal, is set during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and depicts the children of a local official who denounce their parents as politically impure.
The narratives unfold in alternating fashion throughout the first act in brief, brisk scenes. The second half begins on a somber, philosophical note with a resulting drop in energy, until the stories merge and the whole ensemble joins in a stirring anthem to end on an optimistic note.
Davies' lifetime of experience writing large-scale compositions shows in his expert use of the orchestra. The rhythmically varied, basically tonal score is filled with snatches of melody that hint at Chinese marches, American spirituals and German lieder – tunes that often melt into one another. In a compelling moment during the interrogation of the Chinese parents, a relentlessly upbeat chorus for the Red Guard plays against a string lament for the hapless victims.
Among the standouts in the young cast, baritone Will Liverman showed terrific presence and a solid voice as James Meredith, the most fully developed character; soprano Deanna Breiwick sang sweetly as Sophie Scholl, leader of the White Rose; and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta made the plight of the Chinese son painfully sympathetic.
There are two more performances this Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.