More than 30 years since its premiere in 1976, We come to the River still resonates with audiences. The plot centres around a General in the midst of a war between a fictitious nation and its imperial rulers. When a doctor informs the General that the long-term effects of an old injury will irrevocably lead to progressive blindness, he begins to see misery as a direct consequence of the war and his becomes the voice of protest, leading to his arrest and imprisonment in a mental asylum where the lunatics are building an imaginary boat that will take them to freedom. The General is blinded by two murderers, yet he still cannot escape the events of war and his own feelings of guilt. The lunatics, afraid the disfigured General is a danger to their plans to flee, smother him under large sheets, imagining that these represent the water of the river.
Despite the ill fate of the General, there is hope for the repressed nation at the end of the story:
We stand by the river / we will stand on the other shore / now our steps are certain / we can’t go down anymore.
The complexity of Henze’s opera begins with the staging, where multiple scenes are played at a time on a stage divided into three sections. Though there is no choir, the opera requires a huge number of singers – about a hundred roles – making it one of a kind in the history of opera. There is also a huge effort involved in the placement of so many singers and three large orchestras – one for each section of the stage. The stage itself, Henze insisted, “must go as far as possible into the auditorium”, covering the orchestra pit. Consequently, the Semperoper has been remodelled specially for this production to include parts of the stage rising into the auditorium and a 40 meter long footbridge.
We come to the River points to the global politics during the 1960’s and 70’s: The wars in Vietnam, Angola, and the Middle East; the latent conflict between east and west; the dictatorship in Chile. Henze integrates recordings of Chilean refugees directly into the music in order to show clearly the inhumanity during a war. He shows this also by not giving any of the characters names, reducing them to their military ranks, and through certain musical devices. He writes:
The music of violence has a certain number of parameters. There are signal-like calls, which can be understood typically as the music of the military. But beyond this, there are motifs, interval arrangements and also twelve-tone rows…which should be characteristic of smoothness, hypocrisy and indifference.
Considering the opera’s strong representation of terror, it is surprising that the piece ends on a note of hope, but Henze is showing that hope is integral to revolt against repression and fight for liberty.