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Breathe Freely is a new opera by contemporary Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff. Written for three singers and piano trio, it is a chamber opera in two acts set in 1943 against the backdrop of the Second World War. At its heart the opera is a manifold celebration of human endeavour, history, interest, compassion, and, of course, chemistry at the University of Edinburgh.
A note on the opera
The inescapable question when writing a dramatic work based on historical characters and historical events (and operas are dramatic works par excellence) is how much history and how much story there should be in the mix. It has been said, correctly, that ‘God does not write good theatre’. Life events, the things we do and the things that happen to us do not conform to tried-and-tested models of story arc, climax, dénouement, etc. Thus it is the task of the dramatist or librettist to mould a satisfying dramatic story from the known facts, using embellishment, inference and imagination in appropriate measure.
The challenge is particularly acute when one is writing about the (relatively) recent past, as is the case with Breathe Freely. That challenge is heightened further when at least two of the characters, James Kendall and Chrissie Miller, are still remembered fondly by people who may well listen to this recording. One must strike a balance between being true to the historical record and one’s own impression of the actual historical figures themselves, and producing an engaging work of music theatre that will appeal to a broad audience, including the vast majority who never knew Kendall or Miller.
Thus, although I conducted extensive interviews with people who knew all three of the main characters in Breathe Freely, and read most (if not all) of the available literature on them, there must remain a distinction between the historical figures and the characters in the opera, between the ‘real’ Kendall and ‘my’ Kendall, between the ‘real’ Chrissie and ‘my’ Chrissie. The two must not be confused.
When I first heard about Stanisław Hempel, a Polish chemist, army lieutenant and former socialist revolutionary who came to Edinburgh in 1943, I was immediately hooked. Why had Hempel come to Edinburgh? Perhaps because Prof. Kendall was an acknowledged expert on wartime applications of chemical substances. What was Hempel really doing during the years he spent at Edinburgh? Officially, he was writing a PhD on gas-flow rates in closed systems, under Kendall’s supervision. But he already had a PhD, so why did he need another one? I was struck that Hempel’s second supervisor was Mowbray Ritchie, who we know was linked to the Special Operations Executive, a forerunner of today’s MI6.
What then was Hempel actually doing in Edinburgh, attached to the Polish Armed Forces in the West, between 1943 and 1945? The fact is we may never know. The university’s Special Collections department have been unable to shed any light on the subject, despite great efforts, and nor have the National Archives at Kew. Until documents come to light proving the contrary, Breathe Freely must serve as my best guess. I hope, with all my heart, that you enjoy it!
A Persistent Illusion
This work was commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry (Edinburgh and SE Scotland Local Section) in 2011 to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry that year. It was in the context of this commission that I first became associated with the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, which in turn led to the commissioning of my opera Breathe Freely.
My brief in writing the piano trio was that it should celebrate the past, present and future of chemistry in this part of Scotland. The title refers to Einstein’s observation that the distinction between the past, present and future is merely a ‘stubbornly persistent illusion’.
The work itself is in three movements, none of which have titles: The first is an imagined three-way dialogue between Alexander Crum Brown (1838–1922), Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and a pioneer in the diagrammatic representation of compounds, the Russian composer-chemist Alexander Borodin (1833–1887) and the chemist Joseph Black (1728–1799), who had discovered carbon dioxide a century before. The motif recalls the opening movement of Borodin’s cello sonata.
The second movement (of which the first section is essentially twelve-tone while the latter section is essentially tonal) represents the process of chemical crystallization, with the piano crystallizing chords from the notes carried by the other two instruments.
The third movement derives from my workshops with pupils and teachers in Edinburgh schools. Participants were asked to produce note patterns on manuscript paper inspired by their knowledge of chemical structures and formulas, and everything in this movement is derived from those ideas (including the ‘twelve-bar blues’ section at the end of the movement). I tried to capture something of the exuberance and fun that I encountered in the classroom, as well as deeper considerations regarding the nature of our world.
The pupils and staff of Balerno High School and Gracemount High School who participated in the workshops contributed ideas that informed the final movement of my piece, and they may all properly be considered contributors to this work.
A note on the first performance
A Persistent Illusion was first performed in the Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, on 12 December 2011 in a concert given by the Hebrides Ensemble to mark the International Year of Chemistry.
Julian Wagstaff © 2013
With Stanisław Hempel’s arrival, Wagstaff’s story aptly highlights the department’s acclaimed international standing, as well as Scotland’s role in welcoming and reenergizing the beleaguered Polish people. Scotland went out of her way to provide resources and institutions for the Polish resistance to recover their strength and regain their country (including, among many others, the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh as well as military and engineering schools). Yet Wagstaff has created something of a humble fanfare, one illuminated by the humility of the characters themselves: they worked away discreetly, passionately seeking solutions (in both senses) to society’s chemical problems with a selfless sense of mission. Wagstaff has expertly managed to blow their trumpets as much as they deserve but no more than they would have felt comfortable with.
The opera’s title is taken from the book of the same name that Prof. James Kendall wrote in 1938 to inform and reassure the general public, in the tense and frightening build-up to World War II, about the dangers posed by chemical warfare. Kendall’s volume makes fascinating reading, as we can see what has changed and what has stayed the same since the time of its writing. The book clearly encapsulates the state of mind of pre-war Britain as she begrudgingly re-militarized, though Kendall repeatedly tries to reassure his readers that Germany would not really be silly enough to try to start a war. Similarly, he makes the case that none of the known chemical weapons would be so lethally effective a second time around, now that everyone knew how to protect against them. In hindsight, of course, Hitler had deftly manipulated the other powers. We know that Germany did indeed develop a more lethal poison gas, the nerve agent sarin, but it was never deployed during the war for fear that the Allies had it too. Nor could Kendall have known in 1938 of the future development of the ultimate weapon, the nuclear bomb.
On one main point, however, Kendall’s views remain valid: people are more afraid of poison gas than they are of ‘conventional’ weapons, and mass fear can be manipulated. Therefore, he points out, gas is a very ‘useful’ weapon if you want to terrorize your opponent into submission, or if you want to justify intervention to your own populace. The current situation in Syria proves that the world is still prepared to accept over a hundred thousand bomb and gun casualties, but not a few hundred deaths by gas. On the contentious point of science and ethics, Wagstaff skilfully uses the romantic pragmatist Stanisław Hempel and the endearing perfectionist Chrissie Miller to debate the subject openly in the middle of the opera. It may be surprising to turn to this darker corner in what is a celebration of science; but where better to celebrate the importance of human dialogue, and the reaching of mutual understanding for the betterment of mankind, than at the very institution that excels in such a thing? Nec temere, nec timide, Edinburgh!
Indeed, it is human beings doing their best for the good of mankind that is being celebrated in Breathe Freely. The very fact that a chemistry department would commission an opera reflects a humanistic breadth of spirit and openness of mind in the University of Edinburgh that would undoubtedly have made Prof. Kendall proud. We celebrate the myriad influences, circumstances, characters and elements that have combined to inspire thousands of young chemists who continue to make great discoveries for humanity. That is why, with this in mind, we can all afford to breathe freely.
Omar Shahryar © 2013
When Julian Wagstaff approached me about conducting his new opera Breathe Freely, I was keen to be involved, but wondered whether a conductor was really necessary for a piece written for a cast of three and an instrumental trio whose members were already used to working together. I went to the first rehearsal half-expecting to be told that my services wouldn’t be required. But it soon became obvious that Julian’s music, as one of the instrumentalists remarked to me, sounds much easier than it actually is.
Writing accessible music is one of Julian’s great gifts. Unlike many contemporary composers, he is not afraid of tonality, but composing a tune in G major such as the one first sung by Chrissie in Act I (‘Before the war’), which also returns to form the musical climax at the end of the piece, is not necessarily an easy option. Behind its apparent simplicity there lies a skilled and rigorous compositional process that prevents the music from ever becoming predictable.
The same is true of Hempel’s song in Act II (‘To live is to regret’), which, in other hands, could easily have descended to the level of a rather cheesy ballad, but which here becomes a genuinely operatic statement of belief, assisted by Julian’s ability to write well-placed phrases for the tenor voice. This understanding of how to write idiomatically for the forces involved also applies to the instruments. Notice, for example, at the start of the second act how the accompanimental figure passes from cello to piano and then to clarinet, thus imbuing the music with an ever-changing texture. Making the most of smaller forces in this way is just one of the aspects of Julian’s compositional skill that make this opera such a rewarding experience for audience and performers alike.
Derek Clark © 2015
Kendall tells Ritchie that he is expecting a visit from a Polish military officer named Stanisław Hempel. Hempel, also a doctor of chemistry, is a serving lieutenant in the Polish Armed Forces in the West, stationed in Scotland. We hear that Hempel has an interesting and colourful past.
[track 2] Hempel arrives, and tells of an uncomfortable train journey up from London. Kendall sympathizes, but suggests that Hempel has suffered far worse things in his life. [track 3] Hempel tells Kendall of Poland’s suffering under Nazi occupation, including the plight of scientists dying in labour camps. [track 4] He says that Scotland offers hope: that Polish people will be able to train to fight there, and that Polish science will be kept alive through study and research. Hempel observes that Kendall—as a well-known expert in gas warfare—understands the link between science and war better than most.
Dr Chrissie Miller enters, and [track 5] complains to Kendall that equipment shortages are affecting her work. She has set up a laboratory under the auspices of the Ministry of War to detect poison gases in minute quantities.
Kendall introduces Miller to Hempel. Miller says she has never met anyone from Poland before, and asks Hempel if the language is similar to German. A somewhat indignant Hempel answers in the negative. Miller explains that when she came to Edinburgh to study chemistry she was told to learn German first.
[track 6] She sings of her experiences learning the language, and how strange it is that the people whose nursery rhymes she learned are now her deadly enemies.
[track 7] Kendall congratulates Miller on her work to detect poison gases—‘all known gases deployed in war’. ‘But what about the unknown ones?’ he asks. Miller replies that before the war Kendall had written (in his book Breathe Freely!) that all viable poisonous substances had already been discovered. Kendall replies that opinions must change along with the facts. Echoing Winston Churchill, he says that the allies must be ready to respond to every eventuality. The three characters praise their respective visions of science, and its role in human progress.
Kendall entrusts Hempel, together with a small team of chemists, with the work of producing a substance that can be used in response to any German attack using their suspected new gas. He then telephones Ritchie, as promised, to keep him informed of developments, as Act I ends.
[track 8] It is two years later, in the evening. We see Stanisław Hempel in his Edinburgh laboratory. He is reminiscing about his youth, and about his time in the militant Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party (the Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS). He recalls a political assassination he took part in against the forces of the Russian occupation, in which a local police chief was killed. Now, as an older man, Hempel reflects that even though the victim of the assassination was an enemy, guilty of great cruelty, he was also a human being with a past, a childhood and a life that was snuffed out in an instant.
Miller enters and catches Hempel in the midst of his reminiscences. She is shocked to learn that a man ‘so full of warmth, charm, humanity’ such as Hempel could be guilty of killing another human being. Hempel responds that as scientists involved in the war effort they are all killers, whether directly or indirectly. Miller retorts that her gas-detection work is purely defensive, purely protective. Hempel counters that in war there is no such thing as purely defensive work: all such work aims to bring victory closer, to ‘better kill the enemy’.
Miller does not understand how Hempel can express no regret for the actions of his younger self. [track 9] Hempel responds by saying that ‘To live is to regret’.
[track 10] Kendall enters the laboratory and asks Hempel what progress he has made in isolating the new compound. Hempel replies that the discovery is still proving elusive, but that he expects to have important news by the morning.
Kendall states that the ‘powers that be are anxious’. The Allies fear that the Nazis, in desperation as defeat draws near, may use their secret poisonous gas in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of the war. Kendall repeats his conviction that the Allies must be ready to respond in kind to such events. Miller pronounces his statement ‘terrifying’.
At this moment, Kendall, Miller and Hempel hear distant noises which sound like celebration. They switch the radio on to hear what news there may be, and discover that the war has ended with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Kendall suggests that they celebrate the news with a glass of Scotch whisky, and the other two accept the invitation after token resistance.
[track 11] Hempel, Kendall and Miller speak of what they will do now the war is over. Hempel will return to his home, ‘free Poland’, where he will ‘bathe in the Baltic, holiday in Zakopane’. Miller will ‘walk to Portobello and stroll along the sand’. Kendall stresses that they can all now ‘breathe freely once more’, and the others echo his sentiment.
Hempel asks Kendall what will happen to the secret work he has been engaged on the past two years. Kendall says that, while the details of the work will be erased from the record, the labour has not been in vain, as no scientific work is ever truly lost.
Kendall telephones Ritchie to give him a final report, as the opera ends.
While the people and locations described in the opera were (or are) real, the opera itself is a work of fiction—an ‘alternative history’ of Stanisław Hempel’s time in Edinburgh. The opera emerges from the point at which the historical sources fade into silence…
Linn Records © 2015