We may be Boomers or Millennials, Gen-Xers or Generation Thumbs, but all of us alive in this era are witnesses to the Holocaust. Survivors are still among us. We hear their reports, document them, read them, and work to maintain them accurately in the face of a forgetful world. It’s a heavy burden to carry, this witness thing. Many of us complain, “enough!” and would happily bid farewell to the name “Auschwitz” and all the baggage it deposits at our 21st-century doorstep.
But it’s ours, this baggage, and thank goodness some of our contemporaries bravely pick it up, examine it, and work it into art. Their efforts reveal that in every generation, and in the most surprising places, human creativity both survives us and helps us survive.
That is what Krystyna Zywulska’s poems and songs did for her and her fellow prisoners at Auschwitz. And that is what American composer/librettist duo Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer are doing with Zywulska’s poems in their third work commissioned by Seattle’s Music of Remembrance. Their chamber ensemble version of Zywulska’s poetry, “Farewell, Auschwitz!” will receive its world premiere at MOR’s May 14 concert at Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall.
One of America’s most acclaimed contemporary opera composer/librettist teams, Heggie and Scheer created “Another Sunrise” for MOR last season. That one-woman show introduced the drama of Zywulska herself; that is, her struggle with the morally wrenching choices that allowed her to survive. Hiding her Jewish identity — she changed her name from Sonia Landau — she walked out of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was resistance work that landed her in Auschwitz-Birkenau, unacknowledged as a Jew and at first unaware of her gifts as a writer.
MOR founder and artistic director Mina Miller, a dogged researcher of such stories for over 15 years, didn’t learn of Zywulska until a presentation at a 2007 Holocaust studies conference in Warsaw by the American scholar Barbara Milewski of Swarthmore College, who researches amateur music-making in Nazi camps.
When Miller took Zywulska’s story and poems to Heggie, she said he “was more interested in social justice and the moral complexity of survival” than in simply setting Zywulska’s poems to music. In fact, the original poems had indeed been set to music — most of it lost — including resistance anthems and popular tunes of the day.
For “Farewell, Auschwitz,” Heggie says he composed music in the style of those tunes, ranging from sarcastic to comforting. The half-dozen songs are set for three voices — soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone — with clarinet, violin, cello, double bass, and piano.
Librettist Scheer says he “was surprised that it was such a diverse collection of concerns and hopes.” His Polish-speaking in-laws translated Zywulska’s work literally so that he could create his own poetic, singable versions in English.
“It was not what I expected,” he says. “There was gossip, all these sort of revealing cross-currents that were going on in the camps.” Scheer, who is Jewish, traces his own roots to Lodz and Warsaw, so “the cultural terrain for me starts here.”
Soprano Caitlin Lynch, who created the role of Zywulska in “Another Sunrise,” returns with mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program.
The baritone is Morgan Smith, who will also perform another Heggie/Scheer premiere at the May 14 concert, a song cycle version of their mini-opera “For a Look or a Touch.” Commissioned and premiered by MOR in 2007, with Smith as co-star, “Look” dramatizes a gay man’s heartbroken memories years after Nazis murdered his young lover.
Though Miller has been with MOR for 15 years and shows no interest in retiring, she has named Smith “artistic advisor,” with an eye toward the future. Even though he makes his home in Leipzig, Germany and travels constantly for his skyrocketing operatic career (his Starbuck in Heggie and Scheer’s “Moby Dick” had critics swooning), his connection to MOR has him thinking ahead.
In an interview for a Hadassah magazine story on MOR last year, Smith told me that even as he considers expanding the subject matter of MOR’s work, “The crimes of the Holocaust of course will always be central.
“There is value in telling stories through music,” he says, “especially as the generation that can give firsthand accounts is passing.”
Ironically, MOR’s spring concert on May 14 coincides with the first evening of Shavuot. Miller says she regrets the unfortunate timing, which will mean the absence of some valued staff and supporters.
But MOR is first of all a music organization, albeit one with an urgent sense of mission forged in Jewish tragedy. Just last week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced a grant of $15,000 to MOR in support of its Sparks of Glory community outreach concerts-with-commentary. These concerts are held on Saturday afternoons, further proof that MOR’s outreach stretches way beyond the observant Jewish community.
As Heggie puts it, “I don’t know anything quite like what Mina does. She is a force of nature. It’s almost like she’s a vessel through which these messages come.”
Scheer concurs: “It’s an amazing testament to what one person can do.”