The "Good Soldier" Returns

By Bruce Duffie

The Chicago Opera Theater, that feisty little company which has made a name for itself by doing varied and unusual repertoire in splendid productions, is about to launch its next presentation: "The Good Soldier Schweik" by composer Robert Kurka, who was born in Cicero in December of 1921, and died just 10 days short of his 36th birthday.  Barely four months later, "Schweik" was given its premiere at the New York City Opera.

Like Bizet, who never saw the success of his "Carmen," Kurka never knew that "Schweik" would become his best-known work.  During his very brief life, he also wrote some orchestral, chamber, and vocal pieces, along with this opera.  Granted, it's not in the same league as the Spanish gypsy-tale, but "Good Soldier Schweik" is the one opus with which the composer is now totally identified.

In 1981, Frank Galati directed this piece here in Chicago, and now, 20 years later, with new artists and administration, COT is bringing it back in a new production by John Conklin, led by their newly-named Resident Conductor and Music Advisor Alexander Platt, and directed by Lyric Opera veteran and DePaul University professor Harry Silverstein.

Adapted from the novel by Jaroslav Hasek written in the 1920's, it's a ‘primer on world war madness survival.'  It also inspired a play by Bertold Brecht.  Currently billed as being in the spirit of such films as "Catch 22," "M*A*S*H," "Forest Gump," and "Hogan's Heroes," the soldier, Schweik, is a naive, happy-go-lucky Czech conscript caught up in the Austro-Hungarian war machine of WWI.  The main character has become a folk hero for many people.

Bringing the work to life, director Silverstein says it's like an unfolding flower.  "I'm tremendously surprised by what reveals itself to me as a result of study and working with the performers."  And he's worked on many operas, including the famous and often-done, as well as rare and even brand new works.  He says that doing an unknown piece is "spectacularly different" from a standard opera.  "The pre-conceptions are not there. It takes the pressure off the production team."

Clarity, however, is the ultimate goal.  "When operas come to performance, we have done what we can in order to express what we have to say with the piece."  And he usually succeeds, though not always the way he expects.  "It's not necessarily disappointing when an audience views it differently than we had envisioned.  That can be instructive to me in future projects.  The most exciting part of what we do is the opportunity to learn more."

Silverstein likes to have about a year to work on each project, "To learn everything I can about how it was constructed, what it was based on, what was happening during time of composition and during period of play."  The score inspires him, so he looks to how the text was set to tell the story and express the most important theme that he can find in the work.  Then he takes that knowledge to work with scenic designers to create a context in which the story can successfully unfold.  But he doesn't work in a vacuum.  He takes visual ideas and thoughts about the piece and rehearses with the performers who bring a significant number of their own ideas.  Then he joins all these facets together to make a single story.  "Opera is an extraordinary undertaking," he says.  Each work has, "its own personality."

Being a theater man, Silverstein's rank at DePaul is actually Associate Professor in the School of Music, so the sounds of the score truly resonate with him.  He was with the Houston Grand Opera before Lyric Opera of Chicago persuaded him to relocate his family here 11 years ago.  "The subtext of the composer's genius comes through how they scored the piece.  I try to stage the opera based on how I'm inspired by the musical score."

Ironically, that's a bit like the way the piece itself was written.  Usually, a large work is done and a small suite extracted from it.  Kurka, however, had written a set of 6 character pieces about this hapless soldier in 1956, and the following year, it was expanded into a full two-act opera.  The score was completed after the composer's death by Hershey Kay.  Silverstein concluded by saying, "We have high expectations for the piece."

This new production opens March 21 at the Athanaeum Theater, on Southport, and runs 5 performances including one matinee.  Call (312) 704-8420, or visit the Chicago Opera Theater website at

Bruce Duffie was an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for just over 25 years.

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This article was linked from the Chicago Opera Theater Website, March, 2001

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To visit Bruce Duffie's personal website, click  HERE .