Triumph of Memory

Bay Area Reporter
Publication Date

This week's deeply moving world premiere of gay composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer's newly reworked two-act opera Out of Darkness was a must-see. Sponsored by Music of Remembrance, the remarkable Seattle-based organization that has devoted 18 years to presenting and commissioning Holocaust-based music, Out of Darkness' beautifully poetic depiction of oppression against Jews, homosexuals, and others played San Francisco's Conservatory of Music on May 25 & 26, just three days after its Seattle world premiere.

Robert Orth and Michael Mayes in composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer's two-act opera Out of Darkness. Photo credit: Michael Beaton

The premiere's timing seems prescient. It arrives at a time when, given the legislative acts in North Carolina and Mississippi, LGBT rights are on everyone's mind. It also surfaces a week after Libertarian VP hopeful Bill Weld, former Gov. of Massachusetts, equated Donald Trump's promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants from the U.S. to the 1938 Nazi Kirstallnacht destruction of Jewish synagogues and murder of Jews. As the opera makes clear, Weld's understanding is right on.

Out of Darkness tells the stories of two Holocaust survivors, Krystyna Zywulska and Manfred Lewin. Zywulska's lyrics to popular songs and disguise as a non-Jewish Pole spared her death in Auschwitz. Lewin, who was 19 when he and his family were ripped from Lewin's lover, Gad Beck, was murdered in Auschwitz. Based on Zywulska's 1946 book I Survived Auschwitz and subsequent confessional interviews in Barbara Engleking's Holocaust and Memory, as well as on Beck's appearance in Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's documentary film Paragraph 175,Out of Darkness weaves their tales into an opera whose mixture of pathos and humor goes straight to the heart.

The work is the culmination of Heggie and Scheer's decade-long devotion to creating music on Holocaust themes. It is also a new distillation of the artistic duo's three previous one-act operas: Another Sunrise, Farewell, Auschwitz, and For a Look or a Touch. Although that one-act trio was recorded and released as Out of Darkness in 2014 by Naxos, this is a new retelling in a two-act format.

Seen at the May 22 Seattle premiere in Benaroya Hall's Nordstrom Recital Hall, Out of Darkness came across as one of Heggie and Scheer's finer efforts. Especially heart-rending are the tender scenes between Manfred (Michael Mayes) and Gad (Robert Orth), which contrast with Gad's subsequent attempts to numb his pain through aging and solitude. Erich Parce's direction and David Murakami's projections are also deeply affecting, bringing the realities of Auschwitz-Birkenau home without ever hitting us over the head. Save for a Broadway-like musical passage in the opera's first half, the music and story are presented in a manner that transforms the unbearable into a powerful evening of revelation and remembrance.

Out of Darkness composer Jake Heggie.

The cast is one that any opera house, from Seattle and San Francisco to New York's Met, would hunger for. Soprano Caitlin Lynch (Krystyna Zywulska), whose radiant high range floods the stage with beauty, has in fact sung on all three main stages, and seems destined for greatness. The more pungent and searing soprano of Ava Pine (Krysia), who plays the young Zywulska in Auschwitz, is allied with a perfect physical depiction of suffering that speaks to ideal casting. Equally typecast are the Bay Area's beloved Catherine Cook (Zosha), who plays Krysia's friend in Auschwitz with the same greatness that she brings to character roles; handsome baritone Mayes, who follows his sometimes shirtless role in Heggie's Great Scottwith a far more touching reprise that includes some stunning, full-voiced exclamations of passion; and Orth, whose heart-rending acting is as moving as was his singing in the world premiere of Stewart Wallace's opera Harvey Milk two decades ago.

Indeed, the manner in which this small cast melded flawlessly with conductor Joseph Mechavich's six-person ensemble and Parce's direction made the fact that everything came together in just five days of rehearsals near-unbelievable. The performance was a triumph, not just of dedication and will, but also of artistic coherence.

A few weeks ago, after I visited the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, many people told me that they would never have the courage to do such a thing. One lovely German woman even asked me if I was Jewish (I am) as though the systematic massacre of at least 6 million Jews (as well thousands upon thousands of my gay brothers, over 2,000 Catholic priests, and untold others) would explain why I would go. The answer is far simpler. I went because I am a human being. Suffering rooted in oppression is intolerable. Only by remaining awake to what is going on can we begin to empower ourselves to change things.

Out of Darkness is not a polemic. Rather than assaulting you, it presents a deeply moving and occasionally delightful musical moment in time with soul-touching resonance. As deserving of a large audience as Heggie and McNally's Dead Man Walking and Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick , it calls out to be heard.

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