Financial Opera Team Takes on Diplomacy and Demarcation

Eugene Birman (left) and Scott Diel (Kaupo Kikkas)
2/4/2014 12:04 PM
Category: Culture

Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Marko Mihkelson may have called on people to refrain from mythologizing Estonian-Russian border treaties, but the creative team behind a "financial opera" last year didn't get the memo.

Amid preparations by diplomats to finalize the last section of the EU's external border with Russia, composer Eugene Birman and librettist Scott Diel are back with "No. 289," a nine-minute choral work written for "50 voices and one megaphone."

“No. 289” takes its name from the number the League of Nations assigned to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, a frequent stumbling block in Estonian-Russian relations, said Birman and Diel in a statement.

"[The choral work] features a chorus of 'Russia unreservedly recognizes' in Russian, English, French, and Estonian," they said. The phrase is Russia’s renunciation in perpetuity of rights to the territory of Estonia.

Some nationalists have seen the 1920 treaty as sacrosanct, and the technical border treaty to be signed in Moscow on February 18 as a grave foreign policy error. The new border does not follow the original 1920 line, and compared to the end of the War of Independence that year, Russia nets about 2,600 square kilometers of territory. 

But, says Birman, "the 1920 treaty is more complicated." He says that parts of the treaty gave Estonia concessions to harvest one million hectares of Russian forest and gave the Soviet Union the rights to a duty-free port in Tallinn.

“We’re not here to say what belongs to whom, or what should belong," he continues. "But without music, this whole event merely becomes a footnote in history. With ‘No. 289’, the story will live on for future generations.”

Birman and Diel, both of them American, are respectively musical and literary professionals who take obvious delight in sending up some conventions of their trade, and, perhaps, in the notion that every major dialectical opposition in Estonian current affairs - free-market vs Keynesian economics, Estonian-Russian relations - should have its own choral soundtrack.

This approach served them well in "Nostra Culpa," a mini-oratorio that premiered in Tallinn last April to international acclaim and featured some of the most unlikely phrases ever to be heard from the mouths of opera singers. Lines such as "Devalue!" and "Austerity in the wasteland" were sourced from a "tweet war" between Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and economist Paul Krugman over Estonia's recovery from the recession.

"No. 289" premieres in April 1 in Tallinn, and will be performed by the Estonian National Male Choir conducted by Benjamin Kirk, a music student from the UK. The venue is to be announced. As the border treaty heads to ratification after signing, some rehearsals may be open to the public, Diel said, if conditions allow.

 


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