A NEW OPERA, COMMISSIONED BY A SEATTLE GROUP, BRINGS TO LIFE THE WORKS OF A JEWISH HUNGARIAN POET WHO DIED IN THE HOLOCAUST
By Thomas May
Special to The Seattle Times
When Mina Miller founded Seattle-based Music of Remembrance in 1998, she could hardly have foreseen that its mission would become even more distressingly relevant over two decades later.
The organization’s focus on the impact of the Holocaust has recovered numerous composers who were its targets from oblivion. But MOR’s scope extends beyond such salvaging efforts that are anchored in the past. It regularly presents newly commissioned works reflecting on Holocaust-related issues with enduring relevance — and celebrating the power of resistance to institutional persecution, injustice and cruelty.
“We are finding new ways to give voice through music to people who speak out against persecution in today’s world,” says Miller, under whose guidance MOR has commissioned more than 30 works to date. MOR’s latest new creation, a chamber opera titled “The Parting,” will be the centerpiece of its annual spring concert on May 19 at Benaroya Hall — alongside chamber works by little-known Hungarian composers who were murdered in the Holocaust.
A collaboration between composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason, “The Parting” dramatizes the last night that the Jewish Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) is able to share with his wife, Fanni Gyarmati, the inspiration for much of his verse.
Radnóti had already survived two periods of forced labor when he got called up by the Hungarian fascists to a mining labor camp in the last year of World War II. After being murdered during a forced march, his body was recovered from a mass grave. Found in Radnóti’s overcoat pocket was a notebook of poems, including some of his most inspired lyricism.
Recognized as a major literary achievement of the era, Radnóti’s poems form the spine of Mason’s libretto for “The Parting.” The opera begins on the spring evening when the poet and his wife, at home in their Budapest apartment, learn that he must again leave for forced labor.
“It’s the riskiest opera, and the most ambitious, that I’ve undertaken,” says the New York City-based Cipullo, 62, whose composing career revolves around writing for the voice — in song cycles and stage works alike. “Radnóti had such an interesting but tragic life. How extraordinary, after being killed at such a young age, to find life again and live through his poems. The drama comes less from actions on stage than from the beauty of the words and the power of the emotions.”
Lasting about an hour and scored for a five-piece chamber ensemble, “The Parting” includes three characters: the poet, his wife (who lived until 2014) and the allegorical figure of Death. “The opera works on two planes: that of ordinary human life and happiness, and that of Death — who might be in love with poetry,” explains Mason, originally from Bellingham and now based in Tasmania.
Mason has himself had a distinguished career in poetry — including a stint as poet laureate of Colorado — and authored the historical verse novel “Ludlow,” about a notorious coal-mining massacre in 1914.
Miller initially paired Cipullo with Mason when she engaged them for their first MOR commission, the chamber opera “After Life.” Premiered here in 2015, “After Life” imagines an encounter between the ghosts of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein — both of whom lived through the Nazi occupation of France — and their responses to the voice of a young girl who had perished in the Holocaust.
“I had asked David to explore the role of art in a troubled world. How do these people exist in the same world where these things are happening? What are their responsibilities as artists?” says Miller. She sensed that Cipullo would be a good match as composer on the basis of his highly acclaimed 2007 opera “Glory Denied.” Dramatizing the story of America’s longest-held prisoner of war from the Vietnam era, “Glory Denied” has had powerful resonance with audiences, tallying more than 20 productions to date.
Cipullo recalls that he was attracted by the challenge of giving voice to Radnóti’s story and the power of art that it conveys. “I was struck by the timelessness of it. This happened in World War II, but it reminds us that we still have to be on guard against this kind of hatred.
Reuniting with the MOR team will be mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who created the role of Stein in “After Life” and who is cast as Death. Baritone Michael Mayes, a longtime collaborator with Cipullo, will sing Radnóti and soprano Laura Strickling takes on the role of his wife. Conducted by Alastair Willis, “The Parting” will be directed by Erich Parce, a familiar presence at MOR whose staging of “After Life” left a memorable impression.
“The Parting” offers “a powerful and poignant look at how we use art, and in this case poetry, to survive,” says Parce. “It is a confrontation between Death and a couple’s desire to live in a world where life seems hopeless. I love the fact that the character of Death considers herself a poet, since she has come to accompany the poet Miklós Radnóti to his death.”
Yet the couple is able to see Death “with open eyes even as she slowly and lovingly weaves her terrible web. There is no way out … only embracing each other on their last night together with the poetry of their lives.”
Despite the darkness of the story, Miller emphasizes that it brings home the purpose of MOR’s concerts. “We’re making these stories relevant to us today. We honor victims by recalling their hope. Both ‘The Parting’ and ‘After Life’ teach us how to live.”
“The Parting” by Tom Cipullo and David Mason. The program also includes chamber works by three Hungarian composers who perished under Nazi hands. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19; Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $55; 206-215-4747, musicofremembrance.org
Thomas May writes about the arts for publications in the U.S. and abroad. Blog: www.memeteria.com; on Twitter: @memeteria. This report is supported, in part, by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty