Horror and hope - MOR presents thrilling premieres by Heggie and Scheer

Seattle Gay News
Publication Date

By Alice Bloch
May 24, 2013

Two new works by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer made last week's Music of Remembrance (MOR) concert an unforgettable evening of musical theater. Heggie and Scheer are a creative team of rare skill and dramatic instinct, and their abundant gifts have been put to good use by MOR Artistic Director Mina Miller, who has commissioned them repeatedly.

The first Heggie-Scheer world premiere on the program was a song cycle version of For a Look or a Touch, familiar to many in the Gay community as a dramatic choral work debuted by Seattle Men's Chorus in 2011. For a Look or a Touch is based on the diary Manfred Lewin wrote for his lover, Gad Beck, in 1941 Berlin, when both men were 19 years old.

The song cycle condenses the work into five songs for baritone and chamber ensemble. Paradoxically, this spare arrangement increases the impact of the songs, which contrast the heady freedom of pre-Nazi Berlin with the suffering of Gay men in Auschwitz, where Lewin was murdered. Baritone Morgan Smith, who has been the solo singer in all versions of For a Look or a Touch, used his gorgeous voice and impressive acting ability to convey every nuance of the piece. The tango-infused song 'Golden Years,' about 'topsy-turvy, joyful Berlin,' featured a jazzy clarinet introduction played to perfection by Laura DeLuca. At the other extreme of the emotional spectrum, the wordless song 'Silence' was a sad, beautiful duet for Smith and cellist Walter Gray.

The second world premiere of the evening was Farewell, Auschwitz. Written for a trio of singers and a quintet of instruments, this cycle is based on poems and song lyrics written at Auschwitz by Krystyna Zywulska, who concealed her Jewish identity and was imprisoned as a member of the Polish Resistance. The lyrics, set to popular and classical music familiar to Poles of the time, circulated through the camp and gave the prisoners hope. The surviving fragments of Zywulska's lyrics portray the reality of day-to-day life in the camp with exceptional vividness.

The original melodies of Zywulska's songs were never written down, so Heggie composed music to match Scheer's poetic translation of her words. With Farewell, Auschwitz, Heggie and Scheer show the extent of their virtuosity and subtlety, for the light, playful touch of most of the songs makes them all the more moving.

For the premiere of Farewell, Auschwitz, Smith was joined by soprano Caitlin Lynch and mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen. Alumni of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, all three sang with power and beauty. In the superb chamber ensemble that accompanied them, pianist Craig Sheppard and violinist Mikhail Shmidt stood out.

The final song, 'Farewell, Auschwitz,' is a rousing anthem of freedom and resistance. It seems impossible that these lyrics were written by a prisoner at the camp, but they were: Stand with me/Hold your shaved head high/The song of freedom upon our lips/Will never, never die. It also seems impossible that three singers and five musicians could make this song sound as big as any Broadway production number, but they did. The cast repeated 'Farewell, Auschwitz' as an encore, and the enraptured audience hummed it while exiting the hall.

By the next day, though, the song that kept haunting me was a smaller one, 'Irenka,' a devastating commentary on daily life at Auschwitz, set to a charming, delicate Chopin waltz and sung with sensitive phrasing by Lynch: Irenka, why are you crying?/ Is it because somebody took your chair?/ Irenka, are you crying because it isn't fair? Heggie's score cleverly paused the music before the word fair, driving home the irony of the lyrics.

The remaining two pieces on the program exemplified the European musical world destroyed by the Holocaust. A suite from Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera was played expertly by violinist Leonid Keylin, with able piano accompaniment by Miller. And a fine 1938 string trio by László Weiner showed how much was lost when this promising composer was killed by the Nazis at age 28.

If you missed the spring concert, you'll have another chance next month to hear a Heggie-Scheer work commissioned by MOR. Another Sunrise, a solo opera for soprano and chamber ensemble, will be performed free to the public at the Seattle Art Museum, June 15, at 2 p.m. Another Sunrise portrays an older Zywulska (to be sung by Corinna Quilliam) struggling to record her memories of Auschwitz. For more information about MOR, visit www.musicofremembrance.org.