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October 8, 2019

Journey to Zauberland (Magic Land)


Contributed by Michael Kondziolka, UMS Vice President, Programming and Production.


The 2019/20 season marks the third edition of UMS’s songfest biennial. Since the first biennial in the 2015/16 season, our curatorial goal has been to create a platform showcasing the broad diversity of the world of song — diversity that includes both the expected and the new — including Western art song, American popular song, singer/songwriters, the “American Song Book” jazz vocalists, and the musical theater cannon. In addition, we have always been looking for artists who are using the power of song in new and trailblazing ways.

This season features the UMS co-commission of Zauberland (Magic Land): An Encounter with Schumann’s Dichterliebe. This will be an evening of song embedded in a theatrical conceit, with high ambitions: to recreate and communicate the emotional reality of one woman’s refugee journey from war-torn Syria to the relative safety and peace of the idealized West — her “Zauberland” (Magic Land).

Soprano Julia Bullock

Julia Bullock’s gifts as a singer and interpreter of songs are well established. Her commitment to rethinking how her interpretive artistry is dispatched toward the creation of new ideas in the vocal arts is truly exciting. We knew that a trailblazing singer like Julia, so committed to new pathways for singers, meant that there was a place for her as a featured artist on our UMS season. She is joined by director Katie Michell, a celebrated, renowned (and controversial!) theater maker and director in the UK. These two women, working alongside pianist Cédric Tiberghien and composer Bernard Foccroulle’s new song compositions, are why we embraced this experimental project for our song biennial this season.

It strikes me as I reflect back on each of the “experimental” offerings our three song biennials to date, that every one of these projects has ultimately used song as an inroad into a pressing social or political issue (years past include Taylor Mac’s queer counter-narrative of America’s history and Gabriel Kahane’s red state/blue state rumination of a fractured voting public trying to make sense of our current electoral map). Now, Mitchell and Bullock’s investigation of Western democracies walled off to those who need them most, shows the ways in which a cannon of practice — the singing of songs for an audience — may offer unexpected ways into rethinking some of the most relevant and vexing issues of contemporary life.


The synopsis of the evening is as follows…

A young woman, five months pregnant, is forced to leave Syria and makes the long journey to live in Germany. She leaves behind her husband and family in war-torn Aleppo. She settles in Cologne, where she gives birth to her daughter and continues her career as a professional opera singer. On the eve of her husband’s death, she has a strange dream where singing a concert of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is mixed up with the trauma of her journey from Syria and her life in Aleppo before the war.

How the evening is structured musically…

There is an unsolved mystery about Schumann’s Dichterliebe (1844), settings of poems from Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, which were published as part of his Buch der Lieder (“Book of Songs”) in 1827. Originally a sequence in manuscript of 20 songs, four songs were cut before publication (two groups of two) to make the famous “cycle” of 16 that we currently know. While scholars have argued that this was an aesthetic decision by the composer, no contemporary evidence exists as to why Schumann made these cuts.

Composer Bernard Foccroulle and famed British dramatist Martin Crimp have therefore taken the two points where songs were removed as an invitation to intervene, and finally to extend Dichterliebe itself. On the one hand, this is a radical modern gesture, but on the other, it alludes to original 19th-century performance practice in which it was common to break up performances of so-called “cycles” with other music. Over the course of the evening, the 16 lieder of Dichterliebe will be performed in their entirety, but in dialogue with a specially composed sequence of 19 new songs.

Before the performance…

Please visit the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre lobby installation by photographer/artist Natalia Cuevas. El Camino: Cases 0360-0380 serves as an exploration of migrant deaths along the US- Mexican border, focusing specifically on unidentified border crossers and their families through recreations of personal items found along the South Texas area. In addition, the Institute for the Humanities is hosting an exhibition called “Yo Tengo Nombre (I Have a Name),” which is a series of paintings inspired by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, along with nearly 100 ID photos of migrant children from a Texas holding center. The exhibit runs through October 31 (Gallery is open M-F 9 am to 5 pm, 202 S Thayer St).