According to Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, it was at a lunch to celebrate the appointment of Maxwell Davies to the Academy's staff that a suggestion was made that he might be interested in writing an opera for the students to perform. At first, the composer unequivocally declared that his days of composing opera or musical theatre were over, but he soon changed his mind, with the provisos that:
the opera must be about students,
David Pountney must be involved, and
the opera should be commissioned in collaboration with another college.
Pountney's agreeing to write the libretto and direct the opera, and the agreement of the Juilliard School's President, Joseph W. Polisi, to the sharing of the commission, set the project in motion. The premiere, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins and conducted by the Academy's Director of Opera, Jane Glover, took place at the college's Sir Jack Lyons Theatre on 18 March, 2011. The American premiere took place at the Juilliard School in November 2011.
about forty musicians in the pit (strings, piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, percussion)
an on-stage marching band for some of the Chinese scenes (piccolo, oboe, cor anglaises, cornets, trombone, sousaphone, percussion)
a backstage brass quintet (cornets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, percussion)
an on-stage Jazz trio (piano, drums, double-bass)
an on-stage harp
an on-stage erhu for some of the Chinese scenes
Some excerpts from reviews in British newspapers, March 2011:
Andrew Clements in The Guardian: "It commutes effortlessly between the narratives, Davies's music delineating each strand with remarkable clarity. His score is extraordinarily fluent: the vocal lines are perfectly judged and the instrumental writing full of wonderful touches, with marching band, jazz trio, solo harp and erhu players on stage. It is as good as any theatre score he has ever composed."
Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph: "Sir Peter Maxwell Davies makes a splendid grumpy old man, and I am totally behind him over his recent stands against muzak in restaurants and on television documentaries. I only wish I could be so whole-hearted in support of his operas, but I have never found them of anything but superficial musical and theatrical interest. His latest effort, Kommilitonen! doesn't break the mould."
Richard Fairman in the Financial Times: "Running these tales simultaneously could have resulted in a confusing mishmash but Pountney has pinpointed the crucial elements of each so cleverly that everything is clear and the juxtapositions strike sparks off each other. Equally, the music works with exemplary theatrical skill; Maxwell Davies has coloured his score with snatches of American roots music, German art song and brassy Chinese marches without ever losing sight of the opera's unifying goal."
George Hall in The Stage: "Fast moving in its presentation, the production is a punchy piece of theatre that proves surprisingly topical, even if its overall look and naive stance – there are obvious heroes and villains, with nothing in between - recall 1970s agit-prop. So does much of the score, wide-ranging and effective though its use of pastiche is, and drawing on the techniques of the memorable music theatre works that first brought Maxwell Davies to notoriety. Visually, this is a fine realisation, purposefully conducted by Jane Glover, though ultimately its simplistic viewpoint and air of nostalgia tell against it."
Anna Picard in The Independent: "Diverting as it is, the opera is simplistic. This would be understandable were it written by, not for, students. So much emphasis is placed on books in Pountney's staging that it is hard to escape the suspicion that he believes a well-stocked library confers moral grace. History is full of literate thugs, but you won't find them in Kommilitonen!. The Dostoevsky scene could have been lifted from The Producers, with the Evangelist (Stephen Aviss) in a white SS uniform and the Inquisitor (John-Owen Miley-Read) in a black SS uniform. Meanwhile, Max attempts to convey Meredith's strength of character in music that is a homespun hair's breadth from Porgy and Bess. Orchestrally, vocally, theatrically, the performance is a triumph, but one that is not without compromise."
^ abcRoyal Academy of Music: Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!), Programme for the world première production, March 2011
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