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An operatic chorus of angry penguins « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

An operatic chorus of angry penguins

Earlier this week, some of our team went to a performance of On the Axis of This World, a new opera about Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. The opera will be next be performed here at SPRI, in March 2016: more information will be coming soon on our website. In the meantime, here’s a guest post from SPRI’s Library Assistant, Martin French, about a very different opera inspired by the same expedition:


“Das Opfer (The Sacrifice): Klavier-Auszug mit Gesang – Winfried Zillig, (*7) : 91(08) [1910-13 Scott] [Zil]

Opfer - cover

This two part opera is loosely based on the story of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The fact that the original explorers did not return from the expedition does not prevent Zillig from writing a triumphant ending – Oates leaves the team (the titular sacrifice) so that the others can survive and return.

And just in case there wasn’t enough tension, choruses of angry penguins express their displeasure at their realm being invaded. The work begins with a 4-part chorus introducing the work. However, on page 9 of the work, the following stage direction is given:

Opfer - stage direction

‘Der Chor beginnt seine Verwandlung in den Chor der Pinguine anzudeuten: da wird ein Kostüm umgeworfen, dort eine Maske aufgesetzt. Noch im Anfang dieser Entwicklung, beim Einsatz des Orchester-Zwischensatzes (Ouvertüre) wird es dunkel.’ [The chorus members start their transformation into the Penguin Chorus: here, a costume is put on, there a mask is worn. While this transformation is happening, when the Orchestra interlude (overture) starts, the lights go out.]

For the rest of the show, the chorus must sing and dance whilst dressed as penguins – they sing a ‘Spottchores’ (song of mockery) and a song of triumph with a victory dance. The chorus soon takes up the following cry:

“Niemals! Seit Ewigkeit sind nur wir hier, und so soll es in Ewigkeit sein. Oder es müßte ein neues Geschlecht von Männern entstanden sein und eine neue Weltzeit beginnen.” [Never! We have been here forever and we will be here forever. Unless a new type of Man comes into being and a new era begins.]

However, a soprano-alto duo reminds the chorus that “Verzweifelte sind am meisten zu fürchten” [Desperate men are the ones to be feared most]. The movement ends with the summoning of blizzard and hurricane to kill off the explorers and the victory dance begins.

All in all, the penguin chorus seems to be a surreal addition to the story. According to an article I found referring to this opera, the anti-human penguin chorus was added to find favour with the Nazi regime, since the explorers were supposed to conquer ‘envious subhuman races’ – however, since there aren’t actually any people indigenous to the Antarctic, they had to be replaced by penguins.

In a way, the penguin chorus and their antics almost seem to take precedence over the fate of Oates and his travelling companions. Whether this was intentional or not is uncertain, however it does effectively symbolise the perceived battle between Man and Nature in the extreme parts of the world.”



We couldn’t find any pictures of this opera in production – a shame as we would have loved to see the chorus of angry penguins! Instead, here are some pictures of angry penguins from around the Polar Museum:


(Clockwise from top: cuddly penguins from our shop (£8), penguins on our prize-winning cake, and Greta pretending to be an enraged spheniscid)

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