World premiere: May 14, 2012, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance's Holocaust Remembrance Day concert.
A dramatic song cycle commissioned by Music of Remembrance.
This is MOR’s second commission from composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer (after 2007’s For a Look or a Touch), and it tells of the day-to-day fight for survival of Krystyna Zywulska. Published just after the war, her memoir I Survived Auschwitz has long been a landmark in Polish literature on the Holocaust, but her songs and poems of resistance are just beginning to receive real attention.
With her mother, Krystyna walked out of the Warsaw ghetto in broad daylight in 1942, and joined the Polish resistance. Under the name Zofia Wiśniewska, she counterfeited identity cards and other documents. Captured by the Gestapo in 1943, she gave them the name Krystyna Żywulska and was eventually sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, she began to write satiric poems that became camp anthems of resistance. One caught the attention of a more highly placed prisoner, who arranged to have the near-death Żywulska transferred to the Effektenkammer detail at Birkenau--staffing the storage rooms for prisoners' personal effects. Her poetry had in all likelihood saved her life, but since her new barracks were right next to the crematorium, Żywulska no longer had any protection from the horror of a death camp's purpose.
Professor Barbara Milewski writes in her entry on Krystyna Żywulska at the site Music and the Holocaust:
The exact number of Żywulska's camp poems and songs remains uncertain, but at least eight complete texts survive. These are all invariably marked by a vivid realism, a quality of direct and sober reportage. Some like "Wycieczka w nieznane" very poignantly juxtapose the peaceful sounds and images of nature and life beyond the camp with the grotesque, death-ridden environment of Birkenau. Yet while sarcasm and irony prevail, Zywulska's compositions seldom lapse into despair. Rather they most often exude life, specifically Żywulska's own will to live, and deliver a powerful message of resistance.
Soprano Caitlin Lynch—a former Seattle Opera Young Artist who made her mainstage debut at Seattle Opera in 2011, as Micäela in Carmen—created the role of Krystyna.
Composer Jake Heggie, who was in touch with Zywulska’s son before embarking on the commission writes:
As a theater composer of opera and song, I’m particularly inspired by stories of social justice, the inequities of life, and how we are all connected as human beings despite those inequities. Stories of personal redemption, transformation, and transcendence speak loudly to me in musical terms. My opera Dead Man Walking dealt with families involved in the issue of capital punishment; the short opera To Hell and Back is about abused women; and Three Decembers explores how a family responds to mental illness, suicide and separation.
The full breadth of Krystyna Zywulska’s work as a memoirist, poet and satirist is still being revealed and given new appreciation; her story cries out to be told through theater and poetry.