'Shell Shock' opera brings trauma of World War One to stage

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian rocker Nick Cave have joined forces to create an opera marking the centenary of World War One, depicting the horrors of the conflict through the eyes of soldiers, deserters, a nurse and an orphan.

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“Shell Shock” debuted at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels on Friday, with eight further performances in the coming days, all but one of them sold out.

It depicts neither great battles nor heroism - instead it focuses on the traumatic effects war has on individuals.

Cave’s libretto is organized into 12 songs, or cantos, each focusing on one participant in the war. It is also littered with expletives.

Best known for his time as lead singer of alternative rock band Bad Seeds, Cave said he struggled with the subject matter and the problem of expressing the feelings of soldiers at war.

“What do I know about killing a man or seeing a friend die,” Cave wrote in the program notes. “At the end it was a battle between me, the keyboard and my imagination.”

At the opera’s start, the auditorium is plunged into darkness only to be awakened by the wailing of the choir as the curtain pulls up and a war cemetery appears under faint light.

The individual scenes are interspersed by modern dance routines by Belgian company Eastman, the dancers at times joining to form a heroic statue and at other times convulsing on the floor of an infirmary.

Lens’s music is not always melodic but uses the orchestra to paint the scenes, such as light wind instruments accompanying the lamentation of an abandoned orphan in the final scene.

It takes a surreal turn in the dramatic canto of the Angels of Death with high-pitched voices shrieking “I am the angel of death, I catch breath”, followed by repeated expletives.

The deserter’s canto begins: “My mother’s in the laundry crying from the shame. My father would have preferred I took a bullet in the brain.”

Perhaps most striking words are those of a survivor, who, back with his family, cannot shake the horrifying memories of battle.

“Sometimes I think my wife wished I’d died,” he sings.

Belgium was the scene of some of the heaviest battles between the Germans and British, French and allied forces entrenched in the west of the country and northern France.

Some 65 million soldiers mobilized between 1914 and 1918, of whom about 9 million were killed and 20 million wounded on both sides on all fronts. Civilian deaths are estimated at about 7 million.

Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Angus MacSwan