History & Classics, Interviews, Music
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Kepler’s Trial: out of many disciplines, one opera

Kepler’s Trial, an opera based on The Astronomer and the Witch by Professor Ulinka Rublack, tells the extraordinary story of Katharina Kepler (1546–1622), whose celebrated astronomer son, Johannes, defended her against accusations of witchcraft. It is the culmination of a highly unusual creative process, in which a team of leading scholars met regularly to explore the story.

Valeria Vescina, writer and creative writing tutor, speaks to Ulinka Rublack, professor of early modern European history at the University of Cambridge, about the interdisciplinary effort behind the production. With music by Tim Watts (Cambridge and Royal College of Music), the opera premiered at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas in October 2016, and was reprised at the Victoria & Albert Museum to coincide with its ‘Opera: passion, power and politics’ exhibition, which runs until 25 February 2018 .

Many congratulations to you, Tim Watts and everyone involved in this outstanding project. How wonderful to see the results of uncompromising scholarship being brought together like this. When did you first conceive of the possibility that the story of Katharina and Johannes Kepler might offer material for an opera?

The composers Paul Hindemith and Philip Glass (respectively, German and American) wrote operas about Kepler. Katharina features in Hindemith’s Harmony of the World as a deranged old woman. After writing the book, I thought his portrayal should be rectified. Academics have a role in counterculture. Here was a chance for research to contribute to artists’ work. The extraordinary musicians at St. John’s made experimenting with opera very tempting. The historical facts offer rich terrain: true drama, alongside Kepler’s philosophical world view.

What was it about the story that you felt might ‘speak’ to present-day audiences?

The idea of having to defend one’s mother from an unjust, life-threatening accusation resonates in any century, as does Johannes’s courage; the trauma for a family is all too imaginable. Also, Johannes’s vision of the universe’s beauty and harmony, at a terrible historical time fraught with religious divisions, is inspiring. And the boundaries of elderly women’s role in society remain to be shifted.

For this project, you convened meetings of scholars from diverse disciplines: history, anthropology, history and philosophy of science, mathematics, psychoanalysis, history of art, modern languages, art… and of course music. Which aspects of the insights from other disciplines surprised you most?

I was struck by the mathematicians’ questioning of how safely we can separate science from magic in our own era, rationality from imagination… They’re very conscious of this, and of the mind being embodied, because inspiration and creativity are vital in their work. Colleagues interested in psychoanalytic theory contributed to the portrayal of the complex mother-son relationship. Johannes’s youthful story, Somnium, or Dream, features a son whose mother is a witch.

Was it autobiographical? He maintained not, and we accept that, but it sparked thoughts of the psychoanalytical concept of the ‘all-good’ versus the ‘witch’ mother. So, integrating in the opera Johannes’s ambivalence became important. We did so partly by means of the Daemon, who incorporates the types of knowledge associated with witches, and partly through the scene between the child Johannes and his mother. One of his earliest memories was of watching a comet with her from a hilltop – it’s telling of her encouragement of him.

The opera successfully recreates the world around Katharina, as well as her and Johannes’s states of mind. And yet an interdisciplinary project of this breadth is akin to curating an exhibition: many precious objects cannot make it into the final outcome simply because one is forced to make tough choices. Which ideas and/or themes do you wish you could also have included but couldn’t?

The relationship between the siblings. It would have shown how the accusations and trial affected the whole family, but it would have made the opera much longer. One of Johannes’s two brothers distanced himself from his mother, while his sister’s husband forbade her from seeing Katharina.

Which themes proved most challenging to convey through an opera? Conversely, which concepts did opera prove ideal for putting across?

The notion that Kepler was a highly inventive and flexible thinker, who looked at issues from multiple angles, is challenging to communicate through music and text alone. We therefore used film elements and choreography, focusing on the ideas of rotation and movement. Opera was ideal for bringing to life the social context, with the chorus’s music and action interspersing the solo parts.

Which audiences would you like this production to reach next? Where would you hope to see future performances take place?

I hope the opera will have wide appeal, by virtue of its range of topics and themes: Kepler as a man of the scientific revolution; gender inequality; witch hunts… It can draw young people to opera, which they so often regard as an alien art form. And it can broaden the scope of a subject-matter, giving female leads an unusual role to dramatise. I hope future performances will take place at music festivals, and in places associated with Kepler, such as Linz, Prague and German cities. The Proms, of course, would bring it to a large audience.

Read Valeria Vescina’s review of Kepler’s Trial in Seen and Heard International

Valeria Vescina (right), Goldsmiths, University of London alumna, is a writer, reviewer and creative writing tutor. Her first novel, That Summer In Puglia, will be released by Eyewear Publishing. She is currently researching her second book, which will be set in 16th-century Italy.

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