Again and again

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photo: Göteborgsoperan

Do you know the Spotify Review of your year? It shows you what you most listened to during the past twelve months. For me, it showed as most listened playlist “Kristina från Duvemåla”, as most listened artist ”Helen Sjöholm“ [lead actress in Kristina] an as most listened song „ Duvemåla hage”.

Last Saturday, my friend Tabea and I took the opportunity to see the musical again. It had moved from Gothenburg to Stockholm and as they only seem to set it up every 20 years, I felt I had to see it again. When I talked to my friends who had been with me when I first saw it in February, many of them said they had also been to Stockholm to see it again. My former boss has actually seen it seven times.

I was cold during almost the entire show. Not because the theatre wasn’t heated (on the contrary) but because I had goose bumps all the time. Next to me was a man sitting whose lips moved with every song. He knew every line.

When I first saw the musical, I was not as familiar with the story or the music so it was a stupendous experience. This time, I had the opportunity to pay attention to little things and just like in February, the four (!) hours passed by in the blink of an eye.

The first time I saw “Kristina från Duvemåla” was before the September wave of countless refugees seeking shelter in Germany and Sweden. While it had already been an issue then, last Saturday, it was perfectly impossible to not see the striking similarities between Kristina and any refugee woman today. I don’t think anyone with a brain sitting in that theatre did not think of the current situation. ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus who wrote the musical, said: ”Kristina sings ”I am a refugee and a foreigner”. If we can open some eyes to what it can mean to be a refugee and a foreigner, then we have succeeded with something important”.

The day after I saw it was the last show they played. Let’s hope it comes back soon.

Carthasis: Kristina från Duvemåla

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Almost a year ago, my friend Michelle asked me if I wanted to travel to Gothenburg to see the musical version of “Utvandrarna”. I replied that I did not even know where I would live then and also “then I am 27” (as if that would change anything really) but I knew that I would come from wherever to see this musical, Kristina från Duvemåla. The world premiere 1995 is one of the things, alongside with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, that make me want to have been born earlier. Because then, I might have had a chance to see the musical with its original cast featuring Swedish national icons Helen Sjöholm and Peter Jöback.

But even this new version with different singers was deeply moving. When the show was over and we walked to the restaurant to have dinner, we were rather quiet. “I think we need some minutes to gather ourselves before we can discuss”, one in our company said.

It is hard to fail when you are working with such excellent material as Moberg’s story and Björn Ulvaues’ and Benny Andersson’s music. I remember how my mother taught me the word congenial and it certainly applies to “Kristina från Duvemåla”. The music doubles and triples all the feelings the story depicts and makes it possible to connect to the emigrants’ fear, hope, desperation, joy and love on a different level. The musical has to leave out parts, of course, but those that it covers are intensified.

Even here, all the words are carefully chosen and in a poetic union of sound and language, a whole world is built up in Gothenburg’s opera house, a venue only metres away from the port through which countless Swedes emigrated to America.

There is one song in the musical that corresponds to the main aria in an opera,”Du måste finnas”, the song I would use if I was a history teacher trying to convey how people in the past felt about faith and God. The song is very much associated with Helen Sjöholm, the singer who sang it when the musical first premiered. Her face is even on the poster –even now in Gothenburg where she is not playing Kristina. It must therefore have been a great challenge to make an own version of this piece and I found that the Swedish-Finnish singer that played Kristina succeeded to vary this grand song and give her touch to it, especially in the angry passages when Kristina in her deepest despair asks God if he exists and why he has abandoned her.

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

Photo: Göteborgs Opera

However, the song that made me lose my composure entirely (I never cry at movies or musicals) was another one, “Gold can turn to sand”. I have listened to this song time and again but it almost felt like it was the first time I heard it. In this piece, all the heart-breaking themes come together: the loss of a dear friend, the end of all high hopes they have worked so hard for, the death of two men much too young. Who would not sob when an 18-year-old sings about how they got lost in the desert and how his only friend, “a brother”, died from drinking from a poisened well? (And yes, the two dying ones happened to be my favorite characters as well.)

The events are from more than 150 years ago, the story is 66 years old, the musical turns 20 this year – but the strength and beauty is still there, as one press reviews put it. 

Kristina från Duvemåla is still playing at Gothenburg’s Opera and will move to Stockholm Circus for the fall. You should go see it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

As this story is part of American Immigrant History, there is even an English version of it. Many of the songs are excellently translated: Kristina at Carnegie Hall (not available in Germany) and on Spotify. My favorite songs, although all are terrific, are: Path of Leaves and Needles, Where you go I go with you, Down to the Sea, We open up the Gateways, Summer Rose (can’t listen to it because I start crying), Gold can turn to Sand, You have to be there. 

Sweden’s best book

utvandrarna

One of the most pressing socio-political problems of our time must be the migration and refugee movements. Who would have thought that a Swedish book could – in my humble opinion – contribute anything to the question?

A couple of years ago when I took a Swedish course in Göttingen, our teacher made us watch a movie where everything happened in what felt like real-time. I did not fully appreciate the movie but one scene was etched in my memory and the name “Utvandrarna” (“The Emigrants”) stuck with me.

When I came to Uppsala, my friends Michelle and Malin must have brought up the story and introduced me to the musical whose name I had heard before but as it is not the same as the film/book, I had never connected it to the story. To me, it was a musical about something on the Swedish countryside and despite the fact that ABBA’s Björn and Benny wrote it, it never succeeded to catch my full attention. When my favorite magazine published an article on the new, elaborate –redesign of the book covers in 2012, I decided that I would give the story a try. That’s where my story with Kristina, Karl Oskar and Robert finally began.

It is the story of a group of peasants from the South of Sweden who suffer from bad harvests and famine so that they decide to emigrate to America. My friends make fun of me because I read the books so slowly. One reason for that is certainly the advanced linguistics (with dialectal dialogues) but I also find the book series by Vilhelm Moberg to be very emotionally exhaustive. Every word in the thousands of page is carefully arranged, every character is fully thought-through and in every little substory, there’s a whole own drama going on. Moberg succeeds in sucking me into the life of Swedish peasants during 1860s in a way that only a skilled author can. Sometimes, I want to read with a highlighter to mark the passages that remind me of my own very much smaller-scale migration. And many times, I am amazed by the striking parallels between today’s refugees and Kristina’s family. Hundreds of years in between and yet, so much is so similar. This story, a national treasure in Sweden, manages to evoke such empathy for the characters that transcends the place and time and should contribute to changing one’s outlook on the Kristinas that come to Europe these days.

It is certainly true that I have no read all of Swedish literature but I am sufficiently impressed with both the story itself and the masterly way it is told to proclaim this one of the – if not the – best Swedish book. (Astrid Lindgren is, of course, standing outside all competition.)

The books in English and the movie trailer as well as the musical which goes under the name of Kristina från Duvemåla.

Coming up next: The Musical, Kristina från Duvemåla.

"Invandrarna", The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

“Invandrarna”, The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand