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By Christina A. Russ
Within the walls of Frohring Music Hall, a composer is at work.
She doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “typical composer” – mainly because she’s a performer, too.
But every day, Associate Professor of Music Dawn Sonntag brings a sense of familiarity to music professions, showing Hiram College students that composing – like anything else – takes commitment, practice and study.
“I would really love to show them that composers are not demi-gods, that they are not unapproachable,” she says. “I want to show students that it’s all very fluid, and that it’s very natural to be a performer and composer. The way you get to be a composer and performer is by working at it. It’s not a magical thing where you’re picked off the street.”
She’s been sharing her wisdom and talents with Hiram College students since 2008. And at the same time, she’s continued to thrive in the Northeast Ohio music community and beyond, most recently performing in local concerts, leading master classes at Mississippi State University and performing at a number of concerts at colleges and universities in Virginia.
And this past academic year, she truly showcased her versatility as a musician, as she staged her first original opera “Verlorene Heimat” on the Renner Theater stage.
A personal story
Inspired by the true story of her mother-in-law’s journey from East Prussia to Germany at the end of World War II, Sonntag took on the role of composer, librettist, director and pianist, all over the course of an academic year. On April 10-12, 2014, her family’s story came alive through opera, thanks to the Bissell endowment, which provides funding to stage a musical or opera on campus every other year.
“I entitled my opera ‘Verlorene Heimat,’ which means ‘Lost Homeland,’ because that is the phrase used by many, many ethnic German East Prussians who had to flee East Prussia during World War II,” she says. “And my mother-in-law was one of those.”
Christa, Sonntag’s mother-in-law, was nine years old in 1944-1945, when the opera’s events unfold. While Christa’s father was at war on the Eastern Front in January 1945, she, her mother, younger brother and their Jewish-Ukrainian farm laborer (a 16-year-old girl named Hedwig, whom they treated like family) were forced to evacuate East Prussia.
“Verlorene Heimat” depicts the events leading up to, through and following that 600-plus mile journey by feet and wagon. Though about 300,000 refugees died of cold and starvation, not only did Christa’s family survive, but they were also reunited with their father, whose quest to find his family after the war was truly miraculous.
“He turned himself into the British as a prisoner of war, so that they would ship him west, and he jumped from the train when he got to Western Germany,” Sonntag says.
Such a reunion seemed made for stage, and it was that scene that first inspired Sonntag to turn her family’s story into an opera.
“At first, I had thought, ‘Wow that would be such a wonderful ending,’” Sonntag says. “But the thing was, when my mother-in-law talked about this story, there was this sadness always that went with it. The sadness was that, ‘We made it, but there were many other people who didn’t make it.’ There was a lot of survival guilt among that generation for those who did make it.”
Drawing from this sadness, she wrote the only fictitious scene in the opera. Sonntag says no one in her husband’s family knows what happened to Hedwig, the Jewish farm laborer, but they suspect she may have journeyed to France with her boyfriend, a French prisoner of war. In the opera’s last scene, the two are shot and killed by a German soldier.
“There is a chance she made it or that she somehow returned to Ukraine,” Sonntag says. “It’s however, not unlikely that she didn’t make it. This is a situation that might have happened.”
Piece by Piece
Many pieces must come together to write, compose and stage an original opera. Though she had thought about it for some time, Sonntag began most of her work in August 2013.
Often, it is one person’s job to write the libretto (script) and another’s to compose the music. For “Verlorene Heimat,” Sonntag did both.
“I ended up writing the dialogue and the music sort of together,” she says. “I would know in my mind what was happening in that scene, and I would just start writing. I would be singing dialogue as I went.Sonntag strayed from her usual impressionistic influences as she was composing “Verlorene Heimat” and instead drew from Jewish and East Prussian folk songs and hymns for the opera’s hour-long score.
“If you’re given a libretto to compose, you have to take what the author has written and make the music work with it. So in a way, this was easier.”
“There had to be musical themes that would recur,” she says. “I really enjoyed doing that, actually. I was a little worried about it before, but once you have sort of figured out what themes belong to which characters as you imagine the action in the opera, the music just sort of comes out.”
Sonntag says she is proud of the Hiram College students who portrayed her much beloved characters in the campus performances earlier this year. She also praises the behind-the-scenes crew: Carl Skorepa, theatre arts technical director and designer, who designed the set and lighting and theatre arts major Elidia Hernandez ’15, who designed the costumes.
She hopes the students involved in the opera and those who saw it learned not just about this part of World War II’s history, but about opera as an art form.
“I wanted to show them what opera can be – and is,” Sonntag says. “Everyone thinks that opera is fat ladies singing, in big costumes and in a different language, about something that happened a long time ago. There are very many good American operas out there, so hopefully this will awaken their interest in opera as a genre.”
Only the beginning
Sonntag hopes the premiere at Hiram College was just the beginning for “Verlorene Heimat.” She has already talked to Holocaust historians who have expressed interest in having the opera performed at an upcoming conference, and over the summer, she is traveling to Berlin to explore additional possibilities
She also plans to write and compose more operas. After finishing final edits to “Verlorene Heimat,” she will begin composing music to an opera about the founders of Augsburg College in Minnesota. She has also considered writing an opera about former President James A. Garfield, told through his wife Lucretia’s point of view.
“I very much enjoyed writing my first opera,” Sonntag says. “I guess I really feel like this is a genre that fits me. I’m interested in history. I’ve always liked to look at old things and think about what life was like when these things were new.”
She says she is grateful Hiram College has allowed her to pursue her many interests and passions.
“It is the size of Hiram and the flexibility of being able to do many different things that allowed me to do this,” Sonntag says. “My background is very strongly as a vocalist and choral conductor, but also as a composer. In larger schools, you would only be able to do one or the other. So I’m very fortunate at Hiram to be able to do both.”
She also cherishes the opportunity to work with and influence students of all majors, not just those pursing music or the arts.
“The students took this whole process very seriously and really put their heart into it,” Sonntag says. “And that just shows the heart of Hiram College. There was such great rapport among the students, which was very important. I think that it’s just an environment that’s rich with motivation and opportunity.”