Art And Culture

Opera Brings WWI to Stage

Opera Brings WWI to StageOpera Brings WWI to Stage

Whether you call it shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, war creates serious psychological wounds. A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War, Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian author and musician Nick Cave have written a new opera on this theme, depicting the horrors of the conflict through the eyes of soldiers, deserters, a nurse and an orphan.

‘Shell Shock’ debuted at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels, with eight further performances in the coming days, all but one of them sold out.

It depicts neither great battles nor heroism - instead it focuses on the traumatic effects war has on individuals.

Cave’s libretto is organized into 12 songs, or cantos, each focusing on one participant in the war. He said he struggled with the subject matter and the problem of expressing the feelings of soldiers at war.

“What do I know about killing a man or seeing a friend die,” Cave wrote in the program notes. “At the end it was a battle between me, the keyboard and my imagination.”

At the opera’s start, the auditorium is plunged into darkness only to be awakened by the wailing of the choir as the curtain pulls up and a war cemetery appears under faint light.


Lens’s music is not always melodic but uses the orchestra to paint the scenes, such as light wind instruments accompanying the lamentation of an abandoned orphan in the final scene.

Belgium was the scene of some of the heaviest battles between the Germans and British, French and allied forces entrenched in the west of the country and northern France.

Some 65 million soldiers mobilized between 1914 and 1918, of whom about 9 million were killed and 20 million wounded on both sides on all fronts. Civilian deaths are estimated at about 7 million.