'The Cabbage Field': a community opera in the making

In June 2018, I spent a week in Kaunas (Lithuania) for a community art summer school organised by Ed Carroll and Vita Geluniene and the Šančiai Community Association (Žemųjų Šančių bendruomenė). The association is fighting to protect a historic part of the city, centred on the old Russian Imperial barracks around which are clustered streets of small houses that stretch down to the wide loop of the Nemunas River. It’s a district with many artisans and artists, and the community association has used local creativity in its campaigns to preserve the genius loci – the spirit of place that makes Šančiai unique. Among the areas that face immediate threats are the pedestrian path that follows the river, and a green space on the site of the barracks known as the cabbage field, where the cellars that once stored pickled cabbage and other foods remain as mysterious bumps in the ground. In the local effort to protect these spaces for public use, community art making and activism are indistinguishable: the one expresses and supports the other, as you can see from this video of a recent protest action

The music that accompanies this film is the prologue of Šančiai Opera – The Cabbage Field, which began life in the lead up to the 2018 Community Art Summer School. During those hot June days we worked on narrative, music, dance and visual ideas, in English and Lithuanian, finally testing some of the results on the cabbage field at lunchtime on the Friday. in the subsequent two years, steady work has continued with a choir, dance group and music composition, and there have been two performances of work in progress, between Christmas and New Year in 2018 and 2019. The video below gives a glimpse of the latest iteration of a work that continues to evolve with the community and the artists contributing to it.

It’s already a lovely work, with music composed by Vidmantas Bartulis, on a libretto developed in creative writing workshops. The input of professionals – choir director, choreographer, sound engineer, visual artists and others – is evident, but so is that of the non-professional artists. A balance has been found where everyone can bring what they have but no one dominates, partly because everyone involved lives locally. This is home. The story tells of Šančiai’s experience of war, totalitarianism, the end of communism and now a corporate urbanism that the community feels is hostile to its values even as it seeks to marketise them. Themes and form, values and politics are all local concerns: there is no real distinction between art and activism.

Making an opera is a huge undertaking, even when you have the expertise, resources and experience of an established opera company. The people of the Šančiai Community Association have none of those things. The two years of work have been sustained on a few thousand euros raised for moments like the summer school and the performances. No one is getting paid. They are inventing everything as they go. As Ed Carroll explains:

Opera needs funding to bring it to completion, yet its absence is a godsend because as a community we were able to learn-by-doing, to make mistakes and to integrate these back into the work.

Working at their own pace, without outside donors to please, the community has been able to enjoy the process for itself, adapting it in response to changing life and circumstances. A community opera is ambitious, but its very scale means that there is room for everyone, not just singers but makers, designers, cooks, photographers – the range of tasks is wide. And because the only rule is that this is a story told through music, the work can change shape too, taking on new ideas or, sometimes, adjusting to losses. The sad death of Vidmantas Bartulis in January 2020 means that, as he advised, his score will be completed by other hands. His music and his loss will be always be part of this opera. Such shared memories are part of what makes community.

The Šančiai Community Association’s efforts to protect their home through creative action are gaining attention too. In 2019, they received the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment’s Genius Loci Award for the ‘Best Work of Urban Design’ in safeguarding the identity and cultural heritage of the district. Šančiai Opera: The Cabbage Field walks on, holding fast the spirit of a community, knowing that the shared journey matters more than the destination.

All photos in the post by Darius Petrulis.

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