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About An Enlightened Disciple of Darkness

Bernhard Schmidt (1879-1935) was an inventor from the Estonian island of Naissaar. Most of his working life was spent in Germany, and he achieved renown before World War I as a maker of high quality large scale lenses and parabolic astronomical mirrors. With his single but unusually sensitive hand and using relatively primitive tools he was able to perform fantastically precise work. His invention – a mirror telescope with a huge field of view – forever marked his name in the history of astronomy, and very soon many such telescopes were watching the sky. The name Bernhard Schmidt, a man with an unusual life story, is however not widely known in his home country, despite his achievements in optics and astronomy. This musical work about Bernhard Schmidt's life, specially created for the Nargen Festival, goes some way towards filling in this blank. The author of the libretto and music is British/Dutch composer Dominy Clements and the production is staged by a renowned Italian director Giuseppe Frigeni. The performance is exceptional, with an orchestra consisting solely of flutes – eight musicians playing flutes of all sizes from piccolo to subcontrabass flute, and the score enhanced with thrilling electronic effects.

Dominy Clements writes about his opera:

An Enlightened Disciple of Darkness is a chamber opera performed by two soloists, a small choir and an instrumental ensemble made up of flutes of all sizes. The music is expressive and eclectic, including catchy arias, quotes and passages taken from Bach and moments of intense beauty as well as a Foxtrot from 1929 to conjure a period feel. Events are also illustrated with moving electronic enhancements and visual projections, and the piece forms an unforgettable drama filled with elements of recognition and surprising twists.

The opera tells the story of the life of the renowned Estonian optician and inventor Bernhard Schmidt, who was born on the island of Naissaar in 1879. His childhood was one of resourceful adventures and the first experiments with lenses, and his life was one of single-minded purpose and hard work in the face of adversity. As a youth he attempted to make a rocket with gunpowder, blowing two fingers off his right hand, which was subsequently amputated. This moment defined the direction of his future. He established a successful optical workshop in Germany but saw his business ruined by the First World War. He continued inventing, including a mechanism for sailing against the wind. Defeated by economic circumstances Schmidt moved to Hamburg, taking up an offer to start a workshop at the observatory. The idea for his distortion-free lens was brought back from an inspiring journey to the Philippines, but again he was overtaken by events, and an acute sickness led to madness and death. Success and recognition came only after Schmidt’s death, and the apotheosis of the opera grows out of the inscription on his tombstone, Per Aspera ad Astra.


1-4 Aug. 2013, Noblessner's foundry (Tööstuse Street) Tallinn, 19.30 hours

Libretto and music: Dominy Clements
Director and designer: Giuseppe Frigeni
Musical director: Tõnu Kaljuste
Costume designer: Reet Aus
Soloists: Endrik Üksvärav, tenor; Maria Valdmaa, sopraan
Flute octet BlowUp! (Netherlands)
Nargen Opera Choir
Choirmaster Endrik Üksvärav

The opera is performed in English with Estonian subtitles. Translated into Estonian by Joel Sang

Independent Review

"An English-Dutch flautist-composer and Italian designer Giuseppe Frigeni staged the musical spectacle "An Enlightened Disciple of Darkness" at the Noblessner foundry, about the life of a famous Estonian Bernhard Schmidt who was born on the island of Naissaar. Tõnu Kaljuste's musical directing was done so nicely that women's eyes were wet by the end. I asked for Erkki-Sven Tüür's comments, and it turned out that both Erkki-Sven and his wife liked the music very much, especially the use of the flutes, which gave the music a wonderful magical feeling. Erkki-Sven thought for a long time about the style of this show, and finally decided that it was 'magical naivism'."

Sirp Eesi Kultuurileht

"The smell of the sea, wind and darkness. The clean air atmosphere of the beginning throws out a vast scale... [and] from this moulded silence grows the beginning of an epic flow which unfurls Schmidt's tragic and fruitful life. The singers are natural and free, with convincing acting... in particular in their movement over the stage and through its special atmosphere - sensitive to the pure sound of the flutes.
....[With its origins in] the great tradition of minimalism... Clements' opera is embedded with citations, [including] Bach...
If [Jaan Kross's novel] "Sailing Against the Wind" is the subject's Literary work, then the "Enlightened Disciple of Darkness" may conditionally called its Documentary opera."