Opera Reviews
25 January 2020
Untitled Document

An opera about Nazi propagandists

by Steve Cohen
Kassof: Greenland
The Propaganda Machine, Philadelphia
September 2018

Greenland is an opera about the making of propaganda during the 20th century. The piece received its American premiere in an independent production during the September 2018 Philadelphia Fringe Festival called The Propaganda Machine Show. The opera had its world premiere in London in 2015 at the Barbican Centre and in the studio theater of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 

In Philadelphia, Greenland  was paired, appropriately, with a restored version of Refuge, a film completed in 1939 by the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign. Each focuses on the meaning and making of propaganda. That word is derived from the Latin propogandus, meaning “to propagate” and was established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 as a means of furthering Catholic missionary activity. The art of publicizing a political point of view was perfected by the Nazi government in the 1930s.

Refuge was a tool used by the other side, by an organization set up to raise funds for Spanish exiles during the Civil War when Generalissimo Franco, aided by Germany and Italy, overthrew the Republican government of Spain. For that purpose, the committee exhibited Picasso’s painting Guernica on a tour of the United States. Picasso supported the use of his work in a fundraising strategy to help the Spanish people, and the impact was so great that it became a symbol against violence towards civilians.

Refuge combines newsreels and candid footage depicting the plight of Spanish refugees, some of it taken from a camera hidden in a grocery bag by director Jean-Paul Le Chanois. This presentation of the film had a live score by Joshua Hartman. It’s extremely poignant in a time where our world has so many refugees seeking entry into different countries, confined in camps such as we see in this film.

Greenland’s libretto is by the Croatian librettist Aleksandar Hut-Kono and music by the youthful American composer Evan Kassof. The opera sets a film director resembling the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, with her stuntman and her cameraman on the glaciers of Greenland in 1940. They are shooting a propaganda film to pave the way for a Nazi occupation of that nation. The characters become trapped on the ice and fight with each other over surrendering to U.S. forces or waiting for German help. Ultimately, Greenland’s characters weigh the tension between making art and making propaganda.

The individuals are depicted without stigma as people who sincerely believe in the superiority of Germans. They sing about “people with no culture, Yankee scum,” and say “I’d rather freeze to death than lick filthy Yankee boots.”

It may be considered a chamber opera because of the small size of orchestra and characters. But Greenland’s emotions are large-scale and so is the passion in Kassof’s music. The style is post-verismo, tonal and dramatic, and the climax recalls Puccini’s Tosca. Tenor Wesley Morgan and bass Anthony Sharp are excellent in the male roles while Anaïs Naharro-Murphy is stunning as the film director. I look forward to seeing her in other roles from lyric to dramatic.

The six-person orchestra, for the film and the opera, was convincingly led by Kassof. Direction was by Nicole Renna. Kassof, Renna and Naharro-Murphy are the founding members of ENAensemble.

Text © Steve Cohen
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