Jake Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking, premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera with Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade among the singers, has become one of the most played modern operas. The Guardian wrote: ‘Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story’. I have heard only snatches of the music, but what I heard was very appealing, so I wanted to explore more Heggie and asked for this disc with even more recent music, composed in 2012 and 2013. That said, For a Look or a Touch started life in 2007 as a drama but was reworked into the song cycle heard here in 2013. The original is also available (Naxos 8.559379).
The overriding title Out of Darkness – An Opera of Survival refers to the fact that there were enough Jews who survived the Holocaust and were able to tell the world about the horrors of the concentration camps. The first two acts are based on the remembrances and poems of Polish-Jewish Krystyna Źywulska. She worked for the Polish underground resistance until she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner – not as a Jew. She created poems to well-known folksongs and popular melodies that were passed along orally to her inmates – to write them down would have been suicide. After the war she wrote her memoirs, entitled I Came Back (1946). Another Sunrise is based on this book, while Farewell, Auschwitz is based on the poems she created in the camp.
For a Look or a Touch was inspired by the fact that a ‘look’ or a ‘touch’ was enough to be arrested by the Nazi authorities. Blacks, Jews and homosexuals were in the same division according to the Nazi ideology. In this case two young men, Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin, were lovers in Berlin until Manfred and his family were sent to Auschwitz, where they all died. Gad joined an underground group that helped Jews flee to Switzerland. He was imprisoned near the end of the war but survived and also kept Manfred’s poetic diary, which he donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999. Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer based For a Look or a Touch on parts of this diary.
Out of Darkness is an intensely moving and terrifying trilogy and should be read by every single person in the world to create disgust at what sick brains indoctrinated a whole nation to do; in particular now, when Nazi-influenced parties gain followers around Europe. It makes even greater impact when listened to in these musical settings. Heggie has created tonal, listener-friendly but far from innocent music. Another Sunrise is melodious and utterly beautiful, dramatic, gripping. The scoring is for the same instrumental combination (amended with a double-bass) as in Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, also written in a prison camp. The voice (Caitlin Lynch sings wonderfully) blends beautifully with the instruments, especially with the clarinet. This is essential listening and those still sceptical towards contemporary music should feel no fear: this music goes straight to anybody’s heart.
This also goes for Farewell, Auschwitz, where Heggie adopts or borrows various musical styles. Thus Soldiers (tr. 3) is in cabaret style, In the cards (tr. 5) is rhythmically alert, rather many-faceted, Irenka (tr. 6) is warm and compassionate and very beautiful, romantic with quotations from Chopin, Miss Ziutka (tr. 7) is jazzy and Kurt Weill’s shadow hovers in the background. The final song is almost euphoric. The three singers are very good.
For a Look or a Touch is also rather kaleidoscopic. Golden Years (tr. 11) opens with a tremendous, swinging clarinet solo. A Hundred Thousand Stars (tr. 12) is in ballad style with a catchy tune. The Story of Joe (tr. 13) is a cruel, knotty song with a celestial postlude while the concluding Silence (tr. 14) is a soft vocalise. The flute gives added variation of instrumental colours and Morgan Smith is excellent as Manfred, returning from the other side to see Gad in present time.
This is a disc to savour and return to for the beauty of the music, for the excellence of the performances and – most of all – for the message. Never forget the sufferings of millions of innocent people.
Read the original online publication here.