Martin Streda, an opera from Jachymov's hell New York City Premiere
Imagine a tough December winter, 1952 in a communist labour gulag. Uranium mines spread over the mountainous region high above the town of Jachymov. In a freezing cold solitary cell in a concrete bunker, emaciated and exhausted prisoner number A 03915 feels abandoned and hopeless. During brutal interrogations this young student of medicine, Martin Streda is brutally beaten and blinded. A dark night of physical suffering and mental tribulations surround him. He is tortured by unresolved conflicts. Being a declared pacifist, he was sentenced as an enemy of the state as revenge, on his father, a known dissident escaped from the country before they could arrest him. Now he is punished again for allegedly receiving a letter from his father that was smuggled to him. This night he is denied a bucket of coal upon which his daily survival in the frigid bunker depends. Suddenly, his hopelessness is punctured by a knocking on the wall, revealing that in the neighboring cell there is another prisoner. He starts communicating with him by morse code, sharing with him his troubled soul.
New York City on the evening of November 19th 2005. The Metropolitan Opera in the centre of Manhattan and nearby Merkin Concert Hall. Eight musicians and a solo baritone singer, dressed as a prisoner of a forced labor camp, are ready on stage. The premiere performance of the one-act opera Martin Streda is about to begin under the baton of Paul Hostetter, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. The solemn event will be the closing part of a memorial concert dedicated to a Canadian with Czech roots, Andrew Y. Svoboda (1977- 2004). The young, talented composer died suddenly due to heart failure at the end of 2004. Although Svoboda's creative activity was terminated so early, the very topic of the opera and its bold musical expression point to his exceptional artistic maturity. There is an obvious affinity with Schoenberg's monodrama Erwartung, and with Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. Svoboda admitted influence of these works during a rare interview: "By listening to these extraordinary pieces of music I experienced what strength and power a single actor could generate on the stage." Columbia Composers at Columbia University took the initiative in organizing the memorial concert. Andrew Svoboda was enrolled at Columbia in a doctoral study, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal (Professor John Rea) and receiving a diploma in advanced composition from the École Normale Supérieure de Musique in Paris, France (Professor Michel Merlet). For a detail biography visit www.andrewsvoboda. com.
One may ask why this native son of Ontario, Canada searched for, and chose a topic concerned with a small Czech land beyond the ocean, especially since domestically this topic is largely ignored, bypassed or treated with contempt. Primarily, it was the authentic experience of Andrew's father, who as a young student spent almost 9 years in the communist prisons and labor camps. He occasionally spoke of his early life at the family table while his young sons Andrew and Michael listened in silence. His father's authentic experience and stories about his prison-mates eventually inspired Andrew to write the libretto for Martin Streda.
The role of the protagonist of the opera is loosely related to a real life story of a medical student Milan Seda who was arrested in lieu of his dissident father living in exile, and who was blinded during brutal interrogations by the communist thugs. Andrew explained why he selected this topic for his monodrama: "Originally I was looking for a more contemporary theme. But since the experiences of Martin Streda are those of my father and his friends, I still consider it rather present. The themes of the opera are still very appropriate today: prisoners of war, political prisoners, physical and psychological torture, and troubled relationships between father and son."
Andrew Svoboda grew up in a multicultural Canadian environment and was to a high degree molded by it. He often emphasized that Canada is an integration of cultures. Moreover, from his early childhood he was exposed to Czech and Chinese music (his mother was born in Hong Kong). Gradually he became consciously interested in both cultural backgrounds and his music quite naturally merged them. However, this was not the case in Martin Streda. This monodrama is precisely carved as if of a single slab. It is compact, without broad preludes and extravagances. The musical canvas is subordinate to the commanding theme of the opera. It convincingly evokes the repressive space of the solitary cell, and the bleak disposition of the prisoner. We hear anxious percussion twitter, booms of the timpani and ominous bell tolls, lightened by a redemptive sound of the flute only to be subdued by shivering strings. The protagonist Martin is communicating with a prison mate through the cell wall by morse code.
The plot line of the monodrama concerns a man thrown into a lion's den. He lingers at the edge of life and death, while making right with his father safe in exile. The tense drama evolves in the claustrophobic cell of a concrete bunker. There is a small stove fired by one bucket of coal a day. It is Christmas time. At one moment the drama is seemingly ruptured by the scratchy sound of a popular Christmas song coming from the speaker of the camp intercom; a rude joke of the prison guards playing with the jittered emotions of the prisoners. This evening, however, the life-saving bucket of coal is denied to the prisoner. Freezing and emaciated, Martin realizes the consequences, that for the first time since his arrest he has the situation under his control. There is one last piece of coal left in his bucket. Choosing not to use it to prolong his misery by another hour, he burns the alleged father's letter instead. He dies deserted and helpless after reaching inner reconciliation with his father.
The role of the main and only protagonist of the opera is written for baritone. At the New York premiere this role was embraced by 25 year old Canadian, Karl Ludvik. Ludvik graduated from McGill University in Montreal and presently continues his professional training in Augsburg, Germany. Karl's father, also Czech, emigrated from the totalitarian country, but unfortunately died 10 years ago. Aware of his roots, Ludvik visited Jachymov in west Bohemia and familiarized himself with the area and conditions of the defunct gulag of the Uranium labor camps after accepting the role.
. Karl's performance was extraordinary. Dressed in the prison's garb, he sang fully engaged, with an intimate understanding of the tragic theme. His delivery was powerful yet balanced, free of cliché and with disciplined simplicity. Vocal and orchestral parts were intertwined and complemented each other. Karl's Martin was convincing in portraying the lacerating existential abandonment in the 'black hole' of his bunker cell, in sharp "awakening" of his consciousness, in crying and in conceded whisper of his hopelessness. Karl mastered the most difficult parts where hallucinating Martin supplants his own voice with those of his father, the guard and the interrogator. Although the New York premiere with solo- singer, eight member orchestra and conductor was a concert performance of the opera, the impact was hardly short of a fullstaged arrangement. Justly, the performers, and the spiritually present composer were rewarded with a long, spontaneous standing ovation.
After the premiere a handful but distinguished company of Canadian, American and Czech participants gathered in a small Greek restaurant. Somebody expressed the desire to see Martin Streda on a Czech stage, where it naturally belongs. Let us hope that one of the bolder Czech music directors steps in the murky waters of the recent past and dares to introduce this significant piece of dramatic art to a domestic audience.Milos Dolezal
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