‘Death With Interruptions,’ a new chamber opera by historian Tom Laqueur

Death comes to us all. But in a new chamber opera conceived and co-created by professor Tom Laqueur, death takes a holiday — and drama ensues, with music.

Thomas Laqueur

Thomas Laqueur

Laqueur, a historian, is a scholar of death, as well as a cellist. He wrote the opera’s libretto, basing it on the novel Death With Interruptions by an author he admires, Portugal’s Nobel-winning Jose Saramago. Composer Kurt Rohde, a music professor at UC Davis and founding artistic director of San Francisco’s Left Coast Ensemble, wrote the score.

Now, the UC Berkeley campus will be the first to experience the new opera, in a music-only version taking place at noon Monday, March 16, in Hertz Hall as part of the Noon Concerts series. The Left Coast Ensemble, where Rohde is violist, will present the premiere of the full opera later in the week, with performances Friday, March 19,  and Sunday, March 21, in San Francisco.

Acclaimed soprano Nikki Enfield will sing the role of death. The human whose life she becomes caught up in — a cellist — will be played by Leighton Fong, who teaches cello in Berkeley’s Department of Music.

The campus performance of Death With Interruptions is the highlight of a constellation of events planned at Berkeley around the opera’s premiere. Saramago’s longtime translator, Margaret Costa, will take part in a discussion, “The Art and Craft of Translation,” on Wednesday, March 18, 5-7 p.m. at Doe Library.  And both Laqueur and Rohde will be on a second panel, “Making an Opera,” planned for Thursday, March 19, noon-2 p.m. in 3335 Dwinelle. Both events are sponsored by Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Nikki Enfield

Nikki Enfield

“Death With Interruptions” came into being as part of the work Laqueur has carried out with the $1.5 million Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, which he won in 2007 for his erudite study of sexuality, death and the body and gender.

“One of the things that I wanted to do from the beginning was to help integrate the arts into the humanities and social sciences at Berkeley,” says Laqueur, who is Helen Fawcett Professor of History at Berkeley. His arts projects included supporting the Magnes museum exhibit on Berkeley as a refuge for those escaping fascist Europe and the rise of Nazism, for example.

The opera grew out of Laqueur’s scholarly interest in the history of death. His fifth book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press), is due out in September. His work has been translated into 16 languages.

The campus performance will feature Enfield and two other solo singers, Fong as the solo cellist, an ensemble of seven instrumentalists and a chamber chorus of 16. Because of time constraints around the Noon Concert, they will perform the music from the first two acts of the opera. The director is Majel Connery, executive director of Chicago’s Opera Cabal, who is a Townsend Center fellow.

Laqueur is former Townsend Center director, is on the board of the National Humanities Center and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

More information about Death With Interruptions can be found on the Left Coast Ensemble website.