Festivals, opera premiere, more await Vonnegut fans

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Two festivals and the world premiere of an opera that Kurt Vonnegut finished shortly before his death will celebrate the writer's legacy this fall in Indianapolis, his hometown.

"Happy Birthday, Wanda June," based on Vonnegut's play by the same name, will be performed for the first time Sept. 16-18. The opera will be staged right after the Vonnegut's World festival, Sept. 7-14.

The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library will host events Sept. 26-30 coinciding with the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" was banned by some schools and communities for its anti-war, anti-establishment themes.

Vonnegut fans get another chance to honor his legacy during VonnegutFest 2016, Nov. 10-13.

Though he lived most of his life in New York and Massachusetts, Vonnegut once said: "What people like about me is Indianapolis." And for those who can't make the opera or festivals, spending time in the city where he was born and raised is a great way to channel his spirit. Attractions include the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, a mural depicting the writer, a beer hall in a building built by his grandfather, and Bluebeard restaurant, named for a Vonnegut novel.

Vonnegut's legacy: So it goes

Vonnegut's fiction blended counter-culture themes with satire, tragedy and even elements of science fiction. "Slaughterhouse-Five" was inspired by his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany during the Allied bombing of Dresden, which killed thousands of civilians near the end of World War II.

"So it goes," a phrase repeated throughout "Slaughterhouse-Five," has become a mantra for fans, a collective shrug and sigh at the world's inhumanity and absurdity. "So It Goes" is also the name of an annual literary journal published by the Vonnegut Museum. Many journal contributors are veterans or active-duty military.

For those who haven't read Vonnegut, museum founder Julia Whitehead recommends "Slaughterhouse-Five" as a good introduction. "It defines him and also his success as a pop culture figure in addition to being an American thinker from the 1960s, '70s and later," she said. Sales of Vonnegut's books are "as high if not higher than ever," she added, with versions on Audible.com and plans for film and TV adaptations.

Opera premiere and Vonnegut's World

Vonnegut finished the libretto for "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" in 2007, a few weeks before he died at age 85 from a fall he suffered at his New York home. "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," originally a play and later a movie, tells the story of a mercenary soldier and hunter who returns to his wife after eight years away. It was interpreted as a protest against the Vietnam War.

The opera will be performed Sept. 16-18 by the Indianapolis Opera at Schrott Center for the Arts.

Vonnegut's World events Sept. 7-14 include a staged reading of the "Wanda June" play at Butler University and a screening of the 1972 movie "Slaughterhouse-Five."

Banned books

Each year during Banned Books Week, the Vonnegut Museum and Library invites a writer to live as a "captive" behind a wall of banned books. This year's invitee, Josh Johnson, will spend the week inside the museum writing a children's book.

Other events taking place Sept. 26-30 include programs about censorship, including a simulation of the process schools go through when they ban books, and a public forum led by NPR Marketplace host David Brancaccio about Vonnegut's proposal for a "Secretary of the Future" as a government post akin to secretary of state or secretary of the treasury.

VonnegutFest  2016

VonnegutFest events include a clambake, presentation of a humor award, release of this year's "So It Goes" journal, and a Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day panel on how the arts and humanities can heal the traumas of war. The dates include Vonnegut's birthday, Nov. 11, which is also Veterans Day.

"We can guarantee there will be laughs, we can guarantee there will be tears," Whitehead said. "There will be thoughtful dialogue with an element of whimsy and silliness and absurdity because it's Vonnegut. He thought people should laugh to deal with the tragedy of life."

Vonnegut anytime

Visit the 40-foot mural depicting the curly-haired writer at 345 Massachusetts Ave. Called "My Affair with Kurt Vonnegut," the artwork was created by Pamela Bliss in 2011.

Raise a glass to Vonnegut at the nearby Rathskeller, 401 E. Michigan St., an old-school German beer hall with a beer garden. The building, the Athenaeum, was built by Vonnegut's grandfather as a German cultural center in the 1890s.

Explore exhibits about Vonnegut's life and career at the Vonnegut Museum and Library, including rejection letters he received early on and a sealed letter his father sent to him during World War II. Vonnegut had been taken prisoner and the letter was returned to his family, marked "Missing." It has never been opened.

The museum plans to move to larger digs near the Vonnegut mural, but for now, it's located at 340 N. Senate Ave., open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., free admission.

Finally, have a bite at the trendy Bluebeard restaurant, 653 Virginia Ave. It's named for a Vonnegut novel about a painter, and your check might be brought to the table tucked inside a copy of the book.

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