Chemistry-themed opera Breathe Freely sheds light on the story of Stanislaw Hempel

Chemistry-themed opera Breathe Freely sheds light on the story of Stanislaw Hempel

The Polish independence fighter came to Edinburgh to undertake scientific research in WWII

Apparently, listening to music releases a chemical in the brain that puts us in a good mood. How apt then that Edinburgh University’s School of Chemistry celebrates its 300th birthday with a brand new short opera. Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff’s Breathe Freely is, however, linked to chemistry teaching in Edinburgh in a way that is not only tangible in the history of its students and staff, but tells a fascinating tale that has previously lain undiscovered.

Polish independence fighter Stanislaw Hempel came to Edinburgh during World War II to undertake scientific research in support of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Edinburgh extended hospitality to the revolutionary Hempel that included the use of a laboratory from the top professor at the time, James Kendall, a key character in the opera along with Dr Chrissie Miller, the first female scientist to be a member of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Given 300 years from which to choose his subject, Wagstaff decided to focus on a period of confrontation and turmoil to provide him with suitably dramatic material. ‘There was a page of research produced by a Polish student on a number of Poles who had studied at Edinburgh through the Second World War,’ he explains. ‘What exactly they were doing is not clear.’ Wagstaff, who has written the text as well as the music, researched thoroughly, but the trail kept going cold. ‘It is my job as librettist to pick up from where the known facts tail off,’ he says. What these Polish scientists may have been doing is, therefore, left to the imagination. The fact that Kendall was an expert on poison gas may be the clue to the direction Wagstaff took to complete his story. Not quite as happy as that chemical in the brain.

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Thu 24 Oct.

Breathe Freely

A new opera by Julian Wagstaff for voices, clarinet, cello and piano, commissioned by the University of Edinburgh to commemorate the 300th anniversary of its School of Chemistry. Derek Clark conducts, with Laura Margaret Smith (mezzo-soprano), Nigel Robson (tenor), Phil Gault (baritone), Pete Furniss (clarinet), Su-a Lee…