KOMMILITONEN! (YOUNG BLOOD!)
The piece consists of three interlocking stories of students involved in political action in three different situations.
“Die Weisse Rose” was the name taken by a group of students at the University of Munich, led by Sophie and Hans Scholl. They produced leaflets protesting against the National Socialist government of Germany in 1942-3 until they were arrested and guillotined.
“Soar to Heaven” follows two characters, Wu and Zhou, involved on opposite sides of the Cultural Revolution in China.
“The Oxford Revolution” tells the story of James Meredith, who fought a lonely battle against segregation and racial prejudice to become the first black student to enrol at “Ole Miss”, the University of Mississippi, in the USA.
I had no plans to write any more operas or music-theatre works, but the invitation to compose a new work for the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Juilliard School in New York, to a libretto by David Pountney, with him as director, was too much to resist.
David and I have collaborated before, so I knew that the stage direction would not be a travesty of text and music, and the idea of writing for and working with extremely talented young musicians was the final persuader.
There are three interwoven stories, demanding three different sorts of music, so I had to invent an American style of the late 1950’s / early ‘60’s, a German style for the 1940’s, and a Chinese music of the period of the Cultural Revolution. As the opera progresses, the contours of the musical phrases gradually transform, with all three styles coalescing in the final scene whose melodies were conceived first, and which are the source and origin of the whole work.
Much thought went into judging the scale of difficulty of performance for the students – there could be no compositional compromise, but I had no intention of putting them off new music for ever by making unreasonable demands: it had to be challenging enough to remain interesting over a long period of rehearsal, but not awkward to the extent of being un-stimulating. One great feature of the libretto is its intensity, with touches of sly humour: for me this was a great stimulus which I just hope the music reflects.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 2011
Kommilitonen! is made up of three stories whose scenes are interlinked, and occasionally,
especially towards the end of the opera, run simultaneously. All three stories are about
real events that happened to real people, though they are of course related by an
unrealistic medium. The unifying theme is that all the stories concern students involved
in political action.
The first story concerns James Meredith, a black man from Mississippi who in 1962
became the first of his race to be allowed to register for the University of Mississippi – “Ole Miss” – then a bastion of Southern segregationist white supremacy. Meredith was a stubborn, obdurate and determined man whose dogged persistence eventually obliged
the US government to defend his registration with many thousands of Government troops,
sparking a riot that caused death and massive injuries. Having registered, he went through
with the University course, guarded every day of his student life by US Marshalls.
The second story concerns student resistance to Hitler’s government during World War 2. A
brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, students at the University of Munich, gathered
a small group called Die Weisse Rose (the white rose) who distributed many thousands
of leaflets throughout Germany protesting against the crimes being committed by the
National Socialists, and accurately prophesying the shame Germany would come to feel when these crimes were exposed. Their actions, as young students, for which they paid with their lives, (they were guillotined on 22nd February 1943) effectively exposed the lie that ordinary Germans “did not know” what was being done in their name. They give the opera its title: Kommilitonen means “fellow students”, and their final leaflet, addressed to their fellows, starts with the words “Kommilitonen und Kommilitoninnen!”
The third story is taken from an account of life during the Cultural Revolution in China, and is an example of student activism lurching lethally out of control. The children of a local education minister are forced to denounce their father, and eventually both their parents are dragged out of their house by Red Guards, beaten up, interrogated and murdered. Their son begins a long journey of coming to terms with these events, joins the Red Army and, eventually, the Communist Party, though he understands that this involves continuing to deny the truth about the fate of his parents. Finally he will become
a University Professor, like his father, and write a history of the Cultural Revolution, though he refuses to mention the people who he knows were responsible for his parents’ deaths. This represents the particular and rather partial accommodation that China continues to make with its turbulent, Maoist past.