United States PROTOTYPE – OPERA ǀ THEATRE ǀ NOW : Frost & Ekman, The Murder of Halit Yozgat: co-production of Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, New York, 8-16.1.2021. (RP)
Production: Co-production of the Staatsoper und Schauspiel Hannover and the Holland Festival
Composers – Ben Frost & Petter Ekman
Director – Ben Frost
Librettist – Daniela Danz
Choreographer – Sasha Milavic Davies
Sets – Lisa Dässler & Mirella Weingarten
Costumes – Kerstin Krüger
Sound – Carlos Boix Larrey
Film – Ben Frost, Richard Mosse & Trevor Tweeten
Sabrina Ceesay, Mathias Max Herrmann, Nicolas Matthews, Tahnee Niboro, Gudrun Pelker, Yannick Spanier, Hubert Zapiór, Members of the Niedersächsische Staatsorchester Hannover / Florian Gross (conductor)
The storyline of Ben Frost’s The Murder of Halit Yozgat is disturbing but not out of the ordinary – such crimes occur daily. Murder mysteries and crime dramas, many with equally complex plots involving far more gruesome deeds, are mass entertainment. It’s the subthemes that are so unnerving – systemic injustice, racial hatred, abuse of state power and the failure of governments to respond effectively, if at all, to them. The deadly riot at the US Capitol on 6 January by a pro-Trump mob is proof enough of the latter, but Yozgat was murdered in Germany, not America.
Frost’s interest in crime reconstruction grew out of his work with Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at the University of London that uses architectural techniques and technologies to investigate cases of state violence and violations of human rights around the world. In 2015, Frost worked with the company in Lesbos documenting the migrant crisis. When Frost later decided to use a Forensic Architecture case study as the basis for a new work, he was directed to the unsolved murder of Halit Yozgat.
The 21-year-old was killed in broad daylight in his Turkish immigrant parents’ internet cafe on 6 April 2006 in Kassel, Germany. Five witnesses were present in the 77-square-meter space when Halit was shot twice in the head. He was the ninth and last victim of a series of murders in German cities from 2000 to 2006, perpetrated by the neo-Nazi group known as the National Socialist Underground.
Andreas Temme’s presence at the crime scene was discovered due to his use of a computer in the cafe at the time of the murder. His wife was pregnant at the time, and he frequently came to the cafe to pass the time with an online affair. He was arrested and questioned, but denied being a witness to the incident, claiming that he didn’t hear the shots, smell the gunpowder or see the body. Temme would later repeat those denials in court and in multiple official inquiries.
Temme worked for the Hessian State Office for the Protection of the Constitution handling informants within Hesse’s far-right underground scene. When investigators searched his apartment, they found numerous weapons and Nazi literature, including a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Temme, who was called ‘Little Adolf’ in his youth, was never charged for any crime, including perjury.
The Murder of Halit Yozgat is a gripping study in the reconstruction and deconstruction of a crime. There is no blood and gore. The stark set is the exact layout of the internet cafe were the murder occurred. Three actors and four opera singers in street clothes alternately assume the roles of the people involved in the incident. The scene is played out multiple times. With each repetition different words are emphasized and bits of the set are removed, so that at the end only a body is lying on the bare white stage. Snow begins to fall, and people from a northern clime appear and stare at the body.
Frost’s compositional style is described as minimalist, instrumental and experimental, with influences ranging from classical minimalism to punk rock and black metal. That’s all fine and good, but his orchestral score for The Murder of Halit Yozgat is just great music. The vocal lines propel the narrative, but the orchestra creates the drama. Violent bowing from the strings and the incessant beat of a drum create tension and intensity that never abate until the end of the piece, when an unearthly calm descends.
In an online discussion, Frost said that his criteria for casting the seven roles was finding people he could work with who wanted to perform the music of a living person, not a dead man. It was impossible to determine who were opera singers or actors in the racially- and age- diverse cast. Their commitment and focus were etched in their faces, as it was for the players from the Niedersächsische Staatsorchester Hannover, expertly conducted by Florian Gross.
There were two weeks of rehearsals in March before Germany went into lockdown. Several weeks later, rehearsals resumed with all involved adhering to COVID-19 transmission and protective measures. A further surge meant that the run was cancelled, but the production was filmed.
Two versions were made: one with masked performers enacting the drama on stage, and the other of the cast performing their roles in front of music stands. Trevor Tweeten filmed both in one take without ever having seen it, as that’s all the time he had. It was the only time he ever saw The Murder of Halit Yozgat performed. That man is a genius.