The memories and impact of Houston Baptist University’s world premiere of the opera Bonhoeffer remain with all those touched by the production. The seed for the opera production was planted at HBU, but the outgrowth of that seed was a cooperative effort stretching from Houston across the Atlantic Ocean.
The premiere of Bonhoeffer brought to fruition many years of work by composer, Dr. Ann Gebuhr, Professor in Music and Associate Dean of HBU’s College of Arts and Humanities, and librettist, Dr. Robert Hatten, Professor of Music Theory at Indiana University. In the early 1980s as doctoral students at Indiana University, Gebuhr and Hatten found that they were both “moved and intrigued” by the title character’s life and work. It was at that point the idea for an opera was formed.
Gebuhr first became aware of Bonhoeffer’s teachings as an undergraduate student at Indiana University when her friend and spiritual mentor at the time, Sister Louise Szkodzinski, an Indiana doctoral student, presented her with Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. “I took it back to the dorm and began reading it, but did not finish it – I didn’t want to know what was in that book because I would then be responsible for it,” she said. “But what I had read kept haunting me so I did read it that summer, and that was the beginning of this opera.”
While on sabbatical from the University in 1994, Gebuhr had the opportunity to travel to Germany where she traced Bonhoeffer’s life – including a visit to the Flossenburg Concentration Camp where Bonhoeffer spent his final days before being executed. Before completing her sabbatical, Gebuhr attended the seminar “Living with the Letters” at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. sponsored by the International Bonhoeffer Society. Among the seminar planners was Bonhoeffer’s friend, student and biographer Eberhard Bethge and his wife Renate (Bonhoeffer’s niece). Meeting the Bethges further focused her ideas about the opera and enhanced the information she had gained during her trip to Germany.
The actual creation of the opera began with Hatten studying Bonhoeffer’s writings. He later compiled a series of short scenes that were expanded to a play-length libretto then condensed into the final libretto. Gebuhr began writing music for the opera in the summer of 1994 and finished a complete first draft in the summer of 1998. Written in two acts, the opera is set in Bonhoeffer’s prison cell, and a good portion of its lyrics are drawn directly from letters Bonhoeffer wrote to his family while he was imprisoned.
“For both Robert and me, this opera was not primarily an academic or artistic endeavor,” Gebuhr said. “It was a call to discipleship – not as disciples of Bonhoeffer, but of Christ, using the wonderful, surprising, grace-filled gifts given to us during a somewhat unusual and surprising life’s journey that led to the completion of the opera.”
Dedicated to the memory of Eberhard Bethge, best friend to Bonhoeffer, who passed away March 18, 2000, Bonhoeffer premiered in May at the Moores Opera House and featured a cast and production staff that included HBU students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests. Serving as conductor was Dr. Robert Linder, former Dean, College of Fine Arts and Sharyn Pirtle of Houston Grand Opera served as the stage director. Douglas Yates, who sang the part of Bonhoeffer, traveled between his home in Germany and Houston for rehearsals and performances. With three performances, the world premiere of Bonhoeffer provided its audiences with an experience that went beyond that evening. – courtesy of “HBU News.”