Sarah Nemtsov und the music-theatre

Sarah Nemtsov und the music-theatre

Sarah Nemtsov has written over 100 compositions in nearly every genre: from acoustic solo to large orchestral and multimedia works, including two full-length operas and three chamber operas, as well as in other forms bordering on music theatre. Her projects up to 2024 include two opera commissions for two larger German houses. In 2012 she received the German Music Authors Prize for upcoming composers from the German collective rights association (GEMA). In 2020, she was nominated for the Music Authors Prize in the category “Music Theatre”. Following the nomination, music critic Julia Spinola has written an essay about Nemtsov's operas Sacrifice and Herzland.

Surrounded by paintings, music and literature, Sarah Nemtsov grew up in a domestic environment where the arts interpenetrated each other almost as if by osmosis. Her mother, the painter Elisabeth Naomi Reuter, was also a great music lover. The presence of music in Nemtsov’s childhood was as much a matter of course as painting and literature. For the budding musician, this opened her eyes to an artistic vision that looked beyond and broke free from narrow genre conventions. Interestingly, although her stage works have already made a highly idiosyncratic and innovative contribution to contemporary music theatre, Nemtsov nevertheless describes her attitude towards opera as ambivalent. Opera as a genre has often seemed to her entrenched and outdated. The vocalism has in many cases struck her as too masklike, the agglomeration of music, singing, stage and action too superficial. And so she was attracted all the more to the challenge of exploring the immense possibilities of genuine musical drama, of leaving behind the conventions that force music into a more or less decorative supporting role. Literary, theatrical and visual impulses also frequently play a major role in Nemtsov’s concertante works. The staged chamber-music cycle A Long Way Away: Passages, in which musical and visual-dramatic impulses permeate one another, was composed in 2010-11. It was followed in 2018-19 by the orchestral work en face, after the story “Loneliness” by Bruno Schulz, in which a solo percussionist and actor extend the musical expression into the realm of theatre. The important thing for Nemtsov is that every music-dramatic work also “must function” on the genuinely musical level, as she puts it, without text and staging. And it is precisely this requirement that helps her music-theatre works approach the vision that drives her as a composer: in opera one can “dream bigger”, she says, and thereby reach people more intensely – touching all the senses at once – than is possible on the concert platform.

Paul Celan and Herzland

Since her earliest youth, she has admired the German poetry of Paul Celan, the eastern European Jewish lyricist, whose centenary occurs on 23 November 2020. She hit upon the idea of taking as the subject of her opera the newly translated correspondence between Celan and his wife, the artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. Tragically impacted by circumstances, the deep love between these two artists against the background of the Holocaust moved the composer profoundly. The time-displaced nature of dialogue, inherent in correspondence, offered her a dramatic point of departure for her chamber opera for two voices, flute, clarinet, viola and accordion, which had its premiere in Hanover in 2006. In 2009, Nemtsov revised the opera for two voices and chamber orchestra. In this version, the work was seen in a new production at the Bavarian State Opera and elsewhere. Two dramatic events in the relationship of Paul and Gisèle form the narrative axis of this opera in five miniature acts, playing for some 30 minutes. Twice in his life the desperate Celan reached for a knife: the first time to attack his wife, who subsequently had him admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Even more consequential for their relationship was the second knife attack, which Celan directed at himself. It resulted in his wife’s decision that they could no longer live together. Yet the two remained close for the rest of their lives. 

Spanning the narrative axis of the two knife scenes, at the end of the second act and the beginning of the fourth, Nemtsov has constructed a compositionally highly concentrated, partly symmetrical form. The musical language strictly but suggestively incorporates elements from Jewish music. For example, the vocal lines are formed from various Jewish liturgical scales. Additionally, there are various formal models from traditional klezmer music; Nemtsov is particularly fascinated by the slightly halting triple metre of the old hora form, in which the “limp”, she explains, is created by a little rhythmic gap that, metaphorically, could be viewed as an embodiment of failure, as stumbling. There is a paradox, or inverse ambiguity, here in that this rhythmic irregularity is what, in the midst of tragedy, lends the form its dancing lightness.

Herzland (2005-2009)

chamber opera in 5 acts with excerpts from the correspondence Paul Celan – Gisèle Celan-Lestrang
for 2 voices (mezzosoprano, baritone) and 4 instruments (flute, clarinet, viola and accordion)
Duration: 30‘
WP: 24.11.2009, Munich

Composer's note

I composed the chamber opera Herzland (Heartland) when I was 24. I wanted to show in and at various stages how the relationship of Paul Celan and his wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange develops and how – in spite of their deep love and intimate bond – it shatters. My aim was not to depict Paul Celan and his wife as individuals but rather to show a conflict. The relationship ultimately breaks down over the story that happened but isn’t really past, instead reappearing again and again as painfully present. The Shoah, which claimed Celan’s parents, remained the focus of his literary work throughout his life. German was Celan’s mother tongue as well as the language of his mother’s murderers. He found his principal readership in Germany but repeatedly was confronted there by anti-Semitism. Judaism was continually present in Celan’s life, but always in the conflict between “wanting to believe” and “being unable to believe”.

The Jewish themes are also significant for the music: I’ve made multiple references to traditional Jewish music – both liturgical and folk. These worlds are virtually always present beneath the surface in some form – structural, melodic, rhythmic or harmonic. I’m attracted by the idea of a “klezmer band” lost in an orchestra pit. I associate it with Paul Celan, so often described as lost, uprooted and homeless.
–Sarah Nemtsov

Score of Herzland


Nemtsov splits up the compositional space of Sacrifice, composed in 2016 to a commission from the Halle Theatre, into a multiple perspective. Instead of setting the text in a more or less linear fashion, she has attempted a simultaneity of events, something new to her composing practice. “I’m interested in an open, contemporary form – a reaction to our discontinuous, fragmented experience that grows inexorably in its complexity,” she explains. The subject of the opera, with libretto by the dramatic Dirk Laucke, is the social and political upheaval connected with the so-called refugee crisis of 2015: radicalization, ISIS terror, the growing strength of right-wing populism in Europe and the ways in which societies and the media have dealt with the influx of people fleeing war zones. Serving as a point of departure was a true story from 2014 that was reported for weeks in the newspapers. Two girls from the town of Sangershausen in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt went to Syria to wage jihad. The opera asks: what drives two girls from the middle class to want to take part in a brutal war that isn’t even their own? What must be going through the head of a well-liked and successful schoolgirl that would lead her to give up a sheltered life in order to identify with an archaic fanaticism and to dream of beheading other people? Yet the subject goes far beyond the concrete background story. It is basically about the various tendencies and manifestations of social fanaticizing and brutalizing.

Watch the excerpts from  Sacrifice 

Nemtsov uses the romantic orchestra as a cipher for Western art. She pits it against a “band” of instrumental soloists with keyboard, electric guitar, drum set, electronically distorted harp and piano. Also featured are electronic, pre-recorded and live sounds electronically distorted with different effects. This instrumentation would lead one to expect something hard and ear-splittingly aggressive, but Nemtsov’s music only occasionally unleashes frightening noise-like sounds to capture the horrors of the subject, as when blaring sirens emerge from her music’s continuum of rushing sounds or when hard bangs in the orchestra awaken the association of a quick series of detonations. But what stands out is not so much the occasional brutality of the sounds as a delicate art of seamless transitions. The composer ingeniously binds together the most dissimilar textures, letting one originate out of another as though seeking to patch over – at least on a small scale, around the edges – the many cracks running through the deliberate raggedness of her musical landscape.

Nemtsov’s music conveys the impression of a constant current which sweeps up the most heterogeneous elements. There is nothing in it than one can hold on to: no clearly outlined identities whose developments can be traced. Tenderness and brutality, menace and promise confront each other but ultimately without devolving into a conflict between the different levels of expression. The compositional techniques range from medieval hocket to suggestions of rock music. Finely etched instrumental sounds mix with live electronic spatial sounds. One is suddenly jolted out the two protagonists’ sensually shimmering vocalises by seemingly unsublimated samples such as snatches of news and threatening noises. At times echoes of rock, pop or jazz can be sensed, only to be followed again by vestigial sounds of a traditional orchestra.

Sacrifice (2016)

opera in 4 acts - - - 3perc -
Duration: 120‘
WP: 5.03.2017, Halle

Read our article about the world premiere of Sacrifice.

Score of Sacrifice

Text by Julia Spinola, photo by Neda Navaee