Rhinegold Photo credit: Dan Seltzer
Avner Dorman at work

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Avner Dorman: When an opera suddenly seems more than just an opera

4:42, 4th January 2017

In the second of the series, composer Avner Dorman blogs about working on his new opera, Wahnfried, for the Karlsruhe Staatstheater

I’ve been back at my desk, in my home in the United States, but work on my opera Wahnfried doesn’t stop. Ahead of my rejoining the conductor Justin Brown and our director Keith Warner back in Karlsruhe shortly, I have lots of work to do. Much of it in the light of what we learned from the recent batch of rehearsals.

More on the specifics of that process soon — especially my extensive musical collaboration with conductor Justin Brown. But things happen while one works, and we’ve recently gone through a rather gruelling election season here in the U.S. (you might have heard about it!) that has both reinforced and shed new light on the opera.

The type of rhetoric and ideas we have all been hearing in the past few months are very troubling and underscore certain aspects of human nature that Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the central character in Wahnfried, personifies. In the opera, Chamberlain casts out members of other religions, other social groups, and other sexual orientations from the “pure” world that he wants to create. A failed scientist himself, Chamberlain develops a pseudo-scientific theory that distinguishes people by their blood (as if people of different races are of different species). With the scientific knowledge we have today regarding human genetics, these ideas seem ridiculous. But somehow these misconceptions continue to live on in our society – even nearly a hundred years after Chamberlain’s death.

When I started working on Wahnfried, I read a paper that investigates how paranoid thoughts can run in families and how they can mimic the behaviour of a contagious illness. In the opera, Houston’s paranoia and disgust towards the “other” spreads rampant throughout his household and ultimately, infects the societal discourse in Germany at that time.  While Houston Chamberlain’s voice was not the only voice spreading these ideas in society, his words were clearly impactful; his seminal book outlining these racial theories was deeply influential in the development of Nazi ideology.

That’s an incredible, frightening idea. So thoughts of paranoia, if you are exposed to them on a regular basis, can become your own.  When I first began working on this opera, many of the ideas that Houston espouses — racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia — seemed like issues of our past, or at the very least, on their last legs.  Nazism hardly seemed a timely ideology to discuss.  As the past year’s events have shown us, the thoughts and ideas that underlie these dark and disturbing elements of society have not been eradicated at all — instead, they have been lying dormant, now again awakened by a new rush of paranoia and hatred.

With the perspective of the last century, it’s now easy to read the story of Houston Chamberlain and the Nazis today and acknowledge that the ensuing events were horrific.  In fact, the characters in Wahnfried are presented as grotesques — perhaps making even more clear their failures and the lessons we can learn from them.  I hope that we can turn this lens on our current society and recognise these same weaknesses, before they reach so far that we must again rebuild from the ashes.  While the spread of hatred and fear can mimic the spread of a virus, we are not helpless to resist this plague; we each have the power to promote peace, equality and justice no matter the voices surrounding us.

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