This Sunday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and ahead of this, in fact this afternoon, the Austrian Parliament will host the premiere of Peter Androsch's opera Spiegelgrund. Part of the vast Steinhof psychiatric hospital complex designed by Otto Wagner, Am Spiegelgrund was a Viennese children's clinic that became a place of mass euthanasia following the Anschluss with Nazi Germany.
The performance takes place at 17:00 Vienna time and will be broadcast on ORF III starting at 17:20, and also available to watch for free via a live internet stream provided by Samantha Farber and the team at sonostream.tv. The live stream starts at 17:00 and offers subtitles in English.
A press release has been made available in English with further information about the opera and some comments from Nationalrat president Barbara Prammer:
Austria’s Parliament is breaking new ground in its commemoration of the victims of National Socialist tyranny. “There will be a time when Holocaust survivors will no longer be among us and will not be able to tell subsequent generations of their horrific experiences,” National Assembly President Barbara Prammer said of the upcoming world premiere of the opera Spiegelgrund this Friday, 1/25/2013, at 5:00 PM in the historic Federal Assembly Chamber. In this work, composer Peter Androsch of Linz thematises the murder of at least 790 sick or disabled children at the Children’s Department of Vienna’s Spiegelgrund psychiatric hospital during the Third Reich. “This opera is touching, striking, and is an appeal to all of us to assume responsibility and to decisively reject discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism time and again,” Barbara Prammer said. The world premiere of the opera Spiegelgrund serves to commemorate the victims of Nazi euthanasia and is Parliament’s contribution to the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which since 2005 has reminded the world of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on 27 January 1945.
What happened at Spiegelgrund?
After the “Anschluss” in which Austria was annexed to National Socialist Germany in 1938, the ideology of “racial hygiene” also gained a dominant role in Austria. The medical community was assigned the task of “eradicating inferior persons from the National Socialist ethnic community.” The murder of the mentally disabled, psychologically ill and maladjusted was a precursor to the policy of exterminating Jews, Romanies and Sinti.
A centre of National Socialist death medicine was the state psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof. There, thousands of patients were murdered, among them at least 790 disabled children and youth in the children’s department Am Spiegelgrund; they were poisoned with barbiturates, enervated with cold water showers and Speibinjektionen and suffered fatal infections as a result. These crimes remained unpunished, as it was not until the 1990s that criminal proceedings against the doctor in charge, the prominent neuropathologist Heinrich Gross, were initiated. After the war, Gross still published his “research” at Spiegelgrund and acted as a forensic expert. The trial against him could not be completed due to the accused’s inability to stand trial. The mortal remains of the children of Spiegelgrund, which continued to be used as medical compounds for a long time, only found eternal peace in the 21st century, in an honorary grave from the city of Vienna.
The opera Spiegelgrund
The composer Peter Androsch describes his opera as a triptych with three panels and three spheres: Law, Children’s Song and Memory. Spiegelgrund contains texts by the literary scholar and cultural journalist Bernhard Doppler, the dramaturge and author Silke Dörner and the ancient historian and biographer Plutarch. Recitatives bring historical explanations. In grappling with the ideology of National Socialism, Androsch leads the spectator all the way back into antiquity. For good reason, too: Hitler admired the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus and the Spartans’ military state, where—according to Plutarch—all life was subordinate to war, where deformed children were abandoned at birth, where gruesome methods of raising children reigned and slaves were regularly killed. At this point, the contrast between Hitler’s archaic Sparta image and the stage ambiance of the world premiere might become noticeable, the cheerful Greek style of the architect Theophil Hansen, who gave the Reichsratssaal an amphitheatre shape and decorated it with images and statues of Attic democrats and Roman republicans in order to reveal the ancient roots of democracy.
By contrast, in Peter Androsch’s opera, the children’s song “Kommt ein Vogel geflogen” (A Bird Comes Flying) makes the homesickness of the tortured children at Spiegelgrund palpable, while Memory quotes reports of survivors, in order to gradually overcome speechlessness and find words for the horror: “carts full of dead little children, like thrown-away dolls.”
Responsible for the production of the opera Spiegelgrund by Peter Androsch is the Anton Bruckner Private University of Upper Austria, which is dedicated to classical music education and simultaneously fosters contemporary opera and the reappraisal of works by persecuted and ostracised composers.
Collaborating on the performance are: Thomas Kerbl (conductor), Katerina Beranova (soprano), Robert Holzer (bass), Alexandra Diesterhöft (child’s voice), Karl M. Sibelius (narrator), Ensemble 09, Alexander Hauer (stage direction) and Ingo Kelp (stage lighting).