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“Kepler’s Trial” to be performed at V&A opera exhibition

Statue of Johannes Kepler in Linz, via Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Johannes Kepler in Linz, via Wikimedia Commons

The Victoria and Albert Museum is to host a complete opera for the first time with a public performance of Kepler’s Trial on November 9, it has been announced. Tickets for the event, which is also the opera’s London premiere and takes place as part of the V&A’s new exhibition, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, are available now through the museum website.

Kepler’s Trial tells the story of Katharina Kepler, the mother of the famous German Renaissance astronomer, Johannes. In 1615, Katharina was accused of witchcraft at the height of the European “witch-craze”, a frenzied period in which thousands of women were executed for alleged dealings in the occult.

Johannes, who was at the peak of a successful scientific career as the mathematician of the Emperor, abandoned his work and moved his family to southern Germany so that he could lead his mother’s defence. In the autumn of 1621, six years after her ordeal first began, Katharina was finally set free. Her family was torn apart by the affair and, exhausted, she herself died just six months later.

The opera was developed by a team based at the University of Cambridge, and involved academics and artists from Cambridge, London and elsewhere. It is based on The Astronomer And The Witch, a new, research-based study of Kepler’s unique defence and his mother’s life by Professor Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History at St John’s College, Cambridge, while the libretto and score were written by Tim Watts, a composer who teaches music at St John’s. The Director, William Ashford, is an alumnus of St John's, and producer Kate Romano also studied at Cambridge.

They collaborated in particular with Aura Satz, an internationally-acclaimed artist who has created new film content for the V&A performance, using and animating artefacts from the museum itself to complement  the story. A rare, naturalistic German Renaissance sculpture of an old woman is central to her visual explorations.

The V&A exhibition runs until February and explores the story of opera from its origins in late Renaissance Italy to the present day. Watts described it as an ideal context and setting for the first performance outside Cambridge of Kepler’s Trial, in particular because of the opportunities it presented for the audience to explore the links between the museum space, its collections, and the opera itself.

“It’s about more than just doing an opera in the V&A, but doing something that’s connected with it,” he explained. “The project grew out of the idea that something creative can emerge from interdisciplinary work whether it’s happening in a university or a museum. It’s a tailor-made opportunity, really, for bringing together music and theatre, science, history, and the visual arts.”

Kepler’s Trial also brings the story to life by using a colourful range of historical musical sources, including 17th century hymns and drinking songs, and with contemporary instruments such as the cornett and sackbut. The words used include extracts from the original courtroom records, which enable us to explore the position of old women in local communities and the fears which led to the witch-craze. Katharina has often been presented as witch-like herself, including in operatic treatments of the story. “This is far from historically true,” Rublack said.

Watts hopes that the opera will continue to be performed and a possible future tour, including potential performances in Germany, is already being considered. In addition, the piece is being used as the basis of workshops and teaching programmes for schools, run through the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Music.

“We want to do much more with it after this,” he added. “I think that there is particular scope for taking it into schools and using it to develop activities for younger audiences who learn about witches. These were not women with broom-sticks. It makes it all real.”

The V&A Performance of Kepler’s Trial will take place on Thursday, 9 November 2017 from 18.30 to 22.00. The performance will be preceded by a discussion in which Rublack, Watts and Satz will be joined by Dame Marina Warner, an expert on fairy tales and magical thinking, as well as Simon Schaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge, who contributed to the opera’s development and will introduce Kepler’s scientific work. The event also includes a wine reception. Tickets, priced £25, are available from the V&A website now.