Lost Homeland: an Interview with Composer Dawn Sonntag

Scene from premiere at Hiram College of Verlorene Heimat
Jason Bud, center, in the premiere of “Verlorene Heimat” at Hiram College, will also appear in the Cleveland Opera Theater production.

The Opera Evangelist had the pleasure of chatting with Hiram College professor, vocalist, pianist, and composer Dawn Sonntag, whose opera Verlorene Heimat (Lost Homeland) will be performed on Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 P.M. and Sunday, January 28 at 3 P.M. at the Maltz Performing Arts Center in University Circle. The performances are part of Cleveland Opera Theater’s N.O.W. festival. The opera, which depicts the experiences of an “East Prussian refugee family and the Jewish-Ukranian girl they sheltered,” is based on a true story told to Sonntag by her mother-in-law.

Opera Evangelist: You’ve shared with me that you started thinking about composing an opera in 2009.  What made you decide that you wanted to try that form.  Are you a passionate opera fan?

Dawn Sonntag: As a child, I used to create “musical shows,” forcing my younger siblings to rehearse and perform, creating sets with my bedroom furniture, and dragging my parents to my room to see our shows, and I sang in musicals in elementary and high school.  I did not have opportunities to see opera as a child, but my father has a beautiful singing voice and used to listen to the Met broadcasts that were aired Sunday afternoons, and my parents had a friend who was an opera singer, so the idea of opera was not completely foreign to me as a child.  At the same time, I had always loved theater and creative writing.  My doctorate from the University of Minnesota is in both voice and composition, and I have performed opera as a singer and worked as a vocal coach/accompanist with singers in the U.S. and in Germany, where I was a substitute repetiteur for the Heidelberg Opera Theater.  So opera seems like a natural fit for me as a composer; the idea of composing opera had always been there for me, but I did not want to commit the time to composing opera without knowing when and where it would be performed; it is a large time commitment. When I started teaching at Hiram College in 2008 and took over the opera workshop program, I decided the time had come to realize this idea and to compose something that students could perform.

OE: After casting about for a libretto for a while,  you decided to write your own.  What were the challenges of finding a libretto?  Did you consider and reject several, or was it more a matter of finding a librettist?

DS: I looked at a few librettos that writers had submitted to the American Composers’ Forum opportunities listings, but I could not connect to the topics and themes I found. A good friend of mine, Gracia Grindal, a writer and now professor emerita of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, had written a moving and dramatic libretto based on historical novels about Norwegian immigrants, but the copyright owners would not give her rights to the story, so I could not set that.  And I think because I like to write myself, I realized that maybe I could write my own libretto .

Dawn Sonntag Portrait
Composer Dawn Sonntag

OE: You were discouraged by some from writing an opera that offers a sympathetic portrayal of ethic Germans during World War II.  Why did you feel that this was a story that needed to be told?

DS: I thought it was important to show how private citizens who had been deceived by Hitler’s promises to “make Germany great again”—and Hitler uses that phrase in his speeches—withdrew their support for the Nazis and became resistors, even risking their lives to do what was right, once they realized that Hitler was a dangerous and destructive fraud. I also wanted to show how an entire culture was destroyed because of its initial support for this demagogue and how even small villages were divided because of politics.  The Germans in East Prussia had their own beautiful, rural culture, and not only did they lose it because of the war, but more than 300,000 of them died in that winter of 1945 as they tried to escape. The story of the Germans living in Eastern Europe who were trapped between the Nazis and Russians and either forced to flee to western Germany or trapped in what is now Poland or Russia is not widely known, even though there are actually many of these former refugees living in Cleveland now, especially in the Tremont area.  I also saw such strength in Elise, who refused to bow to small-town social pressure to support the Nazis and who not only had the composure to secretly prepare for the evacuation, risking her life to do so, but also refused to treat Hedwig like a slave although she was a forced laborer and kept her Jewish heritage a secret, which was also very risky considering that Elise had already been threatened with being sent to a labor camp.   The weight of war that women carry is often overlooked. My mother-in-law was very upset about the increasing neo-Nazi activity in Germany, and she was afraid that once her generation had passed on, this activity would increase as the memories of World War II were forgotten.

OE: You took this opera from it’s first few bars to full student production in a very short period of time.  Tell us about that.

DS: Between 2009, when my mother-in-law told me the story, and September 2013, when I actually started writing the music and libretto, I had mulled over the idea, but I also had several other commissions for chamber music and choral pieces during that time and a heavy teaching load, so I had written neither a libretto nor a note of music. And I had attempted to start writing the libretto, but it felt stilted and I kept discarding what I wrote. Part of the problem was lack of time to think and concentrate.   But in the fall of 2013, I was approved for a 12-week pre-tenure sabbatical from Hiram College. The following spring, I was scheduled to teach the opera workshop course. I  decided to dedicate my sabbatical to composing this opera, and I set a goal of having a workable score printed and ready to distribute to students by the start of the spring semester in January.   During the summer of 2013, just before my sabbatical started, I read Roger McKee’s book entitled Story, which is about screenwriting, and came up with an order of scenes and what was happening in each scene. In late August and early September, I spent three weeks in Visby, Sweden, which is on the Island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, at a composer residency as part of the residency program at the International Centre for Composers that is sponsored by the Swedish government. This gave me three weeks of uninterrupted work time, as well as time to talk walks along the Baltic Sea.  While I was there, I completed the initial draft of the duet between Elise and August and came up with basis for the musical material for the rest of the opera.  When I got home, I made a goal of completing one scene a week, and it flowed well. Getting started is always the hard part.

Getting started is always the hard part.

OE: What were the challenges of composing an opera?  How was it different from other composing experiences you’ve had?  What was the biggest challenge?

DS: Composing an hour of continuous music seemed daunting, but once I started, it flowed naturally and became less and less scary.  In fact, I found that immersing myself in the story and characters as I was writing the music was freeing.  And since I wrote the libretto, I was free to create a text that worked well musically and vocally.  The biggest challenge is time, I think.  My best work happens mid-day, after my mind has warmed up but before I am tired, and I am usually teaching during that time. And then on the weekends one has to deal with the other obligations of life and catch up on rest.   Committing to composing an opera also means saying no to other smaller compositional opportunities—chamber music, choral pieces, etc.   So one has to set priorities and try to create a schedule that allows one to compose when one feels fresh and creative.

OE: For your next opera, what are you looking for in a libretto?  Do you feel that there are stories that lend themselves better to opera than to other forms?  Why?

DS: I am especially drawn to librettos that make history come alive and help the audience connect with the past in a personal way.  I could imagine that some stories might be better told without music, as theater works rather than opera, just as I feel that music can get in the way of some poetry, but whether a story lends itself to opera really depends on the composer’s personality and imagination.  And flow and beauty of the language—the vowels and consonants—are important to me when setting a text to music. This past summer, I attended a program in Halifax, Nova Scotia entitled “Opera from Scratch,” in which six composers create one-act, ten-minute operas for a solo singer, who is paired with the composer.  The composers and singers then spend a week together rehearsing and performing the new works. All of the composers at last year’s festival composed their own librettos, and it was fascinating to see the wide variety of subject matters and settings. This is what I love about opera—it is such a diverse art form, full of creative possibility.

OE: Opera seems to be undergoing a revival in the US.  New opera festivals have been emerging over the past several years, and many of the major opera houses have commissioned or are featuring new opera works.  How hopeful are you for the future of the art form?

DS: I am excited to see opera blossoming in the U.S and optimistic about its future.  Opera is and can be so much more than many people realize.  I am glad to see it becoming more accessible to audiences of all ages and socio-economic levels through the efforts of directors of new, small opera companies and through education programs of larger companies.

OE: What are you listening to these days?

DS: I still practice and perform regularly as a pianist and singer and conductor, and I am always studying and playing scores that I use in teaching music theory, composition, and voice as well, so all of that is part of my “listening” experience.  And when I study an opera score, I do it at the piano, playing through it.  I do not sit and listen to music much without a score; and I can’t listen while I am driving or cooking – I can’t “see” and listen to music at the same time, and I forget where I am and what I am doing. Last fall I accompanied rehearsals the Bach B-Minor Mass for a semi-professional choir, Kantorei, in Spokane, and I will be singing with that choir this spring, so am learning rep for that, for example, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs.  I love early music and want to put together an ensemble to perform Leonhard Lechner’s Passion, so I have been listening to recordings of that with a score I have.  The other day, a friend reminded me about Fauré’s nocturnes for piano, so I decided to find those and play through a few of them, and earlier last fall I played through Scriabin’s preludes and made my way through his piano sonatas. I also listen to a lot of new works by composer friends of mine and to works by composers whose music is new to me, like Robert Kyr, whose name I have known for a long time but whose music I only discovered a few months ago. In the past year I have heard new operas by about twelve different composers at festivals in Hartford, Halifax, and Cleveland.  Recently I listened to Margaret Brouwer’s opera about Lake Erie, Voice of the Lake—such an evocative and moving work.  I’ve also been listening to new, energetic chamber music written and performed by ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and avante-garde music by composers like Amy Beth Kirsten. So although I feel that opera composing is where I would like to concentrate my efforts as a composer, I listen to and perform a wide variety of music.

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