Single droplets of instrumental notes slowly meld into a haunting flow of melody that evokes a memory of another time, another place. The stunning music alerts that what is to follow is intimate, intense, and important. From such beginnings, two stories of survivors -- survivors of the most abhorrent tragedy humans have ever conceived and executed against other, innocent people – unfold in the soul-shattering music of Jake Heggie and in the poetic words of Gene Scheer in Music of Remembrance’s world premiere, Out of Darkness.
The Cast of Out of Darkness; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
Two victims who somehow withstood the tortures of Holocaust death camps and who have done all they can to silence in their minds those horrors are revisited late in life by the ghosts of those friends and lovers who did not survive. The apparitions bring the two a singular message: “Remember.” Each resists returning to those horrible days and seeing the faces of those long lost; but both discover they can no longer ignore the memory of such pleas as “Do not forget us when you are older.”
Ava Pine, Caitlin Lynch, Michael Mayes & Catherine Cook; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
Krystyna Zywulska opens Act One, simply entitled “Krystyna,” sitting at a typewriter and staring at a reel-to-reel tape recorder, debating with herself whether to tell her story of her Auschwitz nightmare. Imprisoned there as a Polish dissident and active member of the Resistance, she survived by becoming a song writer and using her much-loved lyrics set to tunes familiar to all around her in order to help herself and others face yet another day of hell on earth. As she argues furiously to herself, “I don’t need to say nothing anymore ... It’s just words,” the memories she is trying to block begin to come to life all around her – herself as a teenager in the camp and two friends, Zosha and Manfred. Their urging her not to forget them helps her slowly to have the courage to recall both their former, good moments together as well as the inexplicably horrible ones.
With a voice that floats effortlessly in soft remembrance and then expands to reveal depths of emotion as the reality of those memories become clearer, Caitlin Lynch as Krystyna is astonishing and arresting as both singer and actor. She agonizes in a voice beautiful and in expressions so telling as she sings, “The words of a survivor are like stars in the sky ... There will always be more darkness than light.” As she sings in anguished, moving tones in harmony with her younger self (Ava Pine as Krysia), pieces of that past begin once again to emerge for both of them. “Amid the screams, the cries, and the stench, I could always find the words,” she tells the young Krysia.
With crystal clarity in her sweet and innocent soprano voice, Ava Pine sings the poetic lyrics Krysia once wrote, words that often tell of her search for anything that can remind her of the world outside her horrendous surroundings. To her friend Zosha (Catherine Cook), she recalls, “Last night I heard a skylark song,” leading the two of them to sing longingly in a heart-touching duet of “a song of flight ... a song of love ... a song of freedom ... not of cages.” Ms. Cook’s rich mezzo soprano time and again tells her own sad story with such depth of purpose and poise, and yet she also brings welcomed moments of teenage silliness and defiance as she plays forbidden solitaire with a smirk on her otherwise pain-filled face.
Zosha (Catherine Cook) & Krysia (Ava Pine) in Duet; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
Manfred Lewin, another teen who dies at the hands of Auschwitz murderers, reminds Krstyna that “a survivor is not a hero ... a survivor is just a survivor.” With his eyes closed in painful recalling, Michael Mayes voices Krystyna’s memories of him and what he and others like him suffered. He does so in a majestic baritone that rises from tortuous depths to a volume that startles and then backs off effortlessly, leaving in the air a memory now silenced no more.
Michael Mayes as Manfred & Robert Orth as Gad; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
Manfred returns in “Gad,” Act Two of Out of Darkness, this time in a dream of Gad Beck, one of tens of thousand gay men sent to Hitler’s camps under a German 1874 law (Paragraph 175) that remained on the books until 1994, long after World War II and the Holocaust. Sixty years prior, Gad and Manfred had been lovers until the Nazis shattered their world and sent Manfred and his family to Auschwitz. Now as tired, old Gad retires to his bed, his sleep is interrupted by the still-nineteen, still-handsome-as-ever Manfred, who evocatively, plaintively sings, “Do you remember? Do you remember when night was for more than sleep? Oh my love, my love.”
But like Kyrstyna, Gad at first wants nothing of such memories. Robert Orth is the stubborn Gad who will speak with his lingering German accent in response to the sung promptings of the returned Manfred. “You want me to remember, Darling ... I have done everything I can to forget,” he says with some impudence and annoyance, trying to whisk away with the flip of his hand the specter before him. But a recalling of “those golden years,” when “with a look or a touch ... a wink or a nod or a glance” two men in a club would know, just know that there was a possible match – with that memory he gives in and begins a trip with Manfred through both happy and horrific recollections of their short life together and of what happened to each after Manfred’s disappearance.
Michael Mayes as Manfred; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
What we saw and heard in a glimpse in Act One of Michael Mayes as Manfred now becomes a tour de force performance in Act Two where he is the sole singer, bringing a range of vocals astounding to behold. He playfully flirts in lilted notes full of tease the aged Gad (and even mounts Gad’s bed with chest bare and hips pumping). But he also recalls in a powerful voice that strikes like a lightning bolt the screams of an eighteen-year-old’s death and of his own pain and terror being strung up on poles in “Der Singende Wald” (“the singing forest). When he finally utters in shaking voice how the horrors were “beyond comprehension,” that final word is sung with such a vibration of feelings to send shutters through the audience.
Robert Orth, himself an accomplished baritone, never sings in “Gad,” but he is superb in his acting ability as he sensitively, sincerely portrays Gad Beck. When he finally succumbs to the fonder part of his memories of Manfred and puts aside for a moment the guilt, pain, and even anger associated with losing him, his Gad is heartbreaking in his pleas for Manfred not to leave until they have had one more dance.
Michael Mayes; Photo Credit: Cory Weaver Photography
Erich Parce directs these two stories with much understanding of how to be respectful of the memories of these real people and yet fully representative of the horrors they and thousands of others faced. He is greatly aided by the projections of David Murakami, who brings to full life the scenes recounted with pictures of Auschwitz then and now, of a prisoner line-up that slowly moves in to focus on one of the six million, and of raindrops that fall like heaven’s tears in hearing the pained memories. Matthew Antaky’s simple scenic touches and his powerful lighting decisions zero in with much added meaning to the words and lyrics of the opera.
Finally, like the principals themselves who bring such proven talent to bear in these portrayals, Joseph Mechavich conducts with mastery an orchestra of six, each of whom plays beautifully, emotionally Jake Heggie’s poignant score. Each instrument has moments to speak its own truth and passion in recalling this important past; and together, they blend in a sound that sinks deep into one’s soul.
Founded in 1998, Music of Remembrance is fulfilling a unique role in recalling the Holocaust and so many of its stories through the power of music. This shared world premiere of Out of Darkness being staged only one night in Seattle and two nights here at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will hopefully make its way onto many more stages across the globe. The stories of Kystyna and Gad, of Manfred, Krysia and Zosha must be told again and again and never forgotten.