“We’re making history,” says Music of Remembrance Artistic Director Mina Miller.
For its spring 2007 concert, called “Forbidden!” Music of Remembrance, the Seattle-based organization that commissions and performs music from or based upon the Holocaust, has commissioned a new work on a neglected subject: the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. According to Miller, it is the first such commission by any musical organization.
“The murderous assault on homosexuals during the Third Reich should remind us of the fragility of human rights in all periods, including our own,” says Miller.
Love forbidden to Germans under the Nazis is one subject explored in the concert. Another is the spiritual and emotional aftereffects that often haunt Holocaust survivors. A composer who was silenced in a concentration camp will be heard, as will musical styles from all over Europe and beyond. It’s all part of MOR’s theme this year — the diversity of those caught in the Holocaust.
The concert’s centerpiece is the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s “For a Look or a Touch.” Heggie is well-known to local audiences for his opera The End of the Affair, presented at Seattle Opera last season. He has also composed nearly 200 songs and the opera Dead Man Walking.
“Jake is an extraordinary collaborator,” Miller says. “I am so impressed by the emotional honesty of his writing, and by how expressively his music captures complicated human relationships…. If you’ve heard The End of the Affair, you know how Jake can evoke the lyricism of any period.”
Initial inspiration for “For a Look or a Touch” came from Manfred Lewin’s 65-year-old journal of poems and drawings, exhibited on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Web site. Lewin and his lover Gad Beck met in a Berlin Jewish youth group around 1940. During their relationship, Lewin gave Beck his journal as a keepsake. Eventually Lewin was killed. Beck survived.
When Miller commissioned Heggie, she pointed him to Lewin’s journal. Intrigued, Heggie began to steep himself in the subject of the Holocaust. He even made a special trip to Washington, DC to see the Holocaust Museum in person.
Then Heggie viewed the documentary Paragraph 175, the title of which refers to the anti-homosexual provisions of the German penal code. Under the Nazis’ strict enforcement of these laws, 100,000 gay men were arrested and 50,000 were sentenced. Approximately 15,000 died. According to one survivor interviewed, “You could be arrested for a look or a touch” — hence the music’s title.
Paragraph 175’s first-person accounts gave Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer additional material which, interwoven with Lewin and Beck’s story, form the narrative of the work. “For a Look or a Touch” evolved from a one-person song cycle into a more theatrical work where a singer portrays the ghost of 19-year-old Manfred Lewin, and an actor portrays the living, 80-year-old Gad Beck.
Heggie says he portrays Manfred’s “youthful optimism” musically “through the romantic lyricism of songs from the late 1930s, as well as a wild dance piece reminiscent of that period in Berlin when the city was a kind of gay mecca. That is juxtaposed against the world-weariness of Gad, who has witnessed and experienced unspeakable horror and prejudice…. Gad survived and wants to forget. Manfred, who did not survive, wants only to be remembered — to know that his life and his story counted for something.”
Manfred Lewin’s journal, incidentally, can be found online at www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/doyourememberwhen/
Heggie says the project “has deep resonance for me as a gay man, somebody who grew up in fear of being mocked, ridiculed and physically harmed because of my sexual orientation.” He hopes that the audience “will be entertained, moved, and that perhaps the piece will open a new dialogue.”
Baritone Morgan Smith will sing Manfred Lewin. Smith, a frequent MOR soloist, recently sang the title roles in Seattle Opera’s Don Giovanni and MOR’s Brundibár. Smith visited San Francisco to work with the composer, and the role was written with him in mind.
Veteran opera baritone Julian Patrick will perform the non-singing role of Gad Beck. Patrick, a Seattle resident, is best known here for singing Alberich in Wagner’s Ring, and for leading roles in several recent musicals.
A quintet of piano, flute, clarinet, violin and cello will provide the accompaniment.
Also on the program is Simon Sargon’s moving and intense song cycle Shemà, set to poetry by the celebrated Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi. In four poems, Levi, then recently liberated, grappled with his Auschwitz experiences. A fifth poem adds the perspective of years. The title poem recasts the well-known Jewish prayer as an admonition to remember those who suffered in the camps.
Shemà will be sung by another MOR regular, soprano Maureen McKay. She recently sang major roles at New York City Opera and Wolf Trap, and in Brundibár.
Composer Osvaldo Golijov is of Eastern European ancestry, grew up in Argentina, and has lived in Israel and the United States. MOR will perform Golijov’s Lullaby and Doina, which depicts another forbidden love — between a gypsy and a Jew. It features a Yiddish lullaby, and a tune the composer says he “stole” from friends in a gypsy band.
Rounding out the concert is Erwin Schulhoff’s 1925 Duo for Violin and Cello, a virtuosic, effervescent piece with eclectic influences, including Eastern European folk music, dance music, and jazz. The Czech-Jewish Schulhoff, who died in a concentration camp, is always a favorite with MOR audiences.
Instrumental performers in “Forbidden!” include Craig Sheppard and Mina Miller, piano, Zart Dombourian-Eby, flute, Laura DeLuca, clarinet, Mikhail Shmidt, violin, Susan Gulkis Assadi, viola, Mara Finkelstein and Amos Yang, cello, and Jonathan Green, double bass.