Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s deeply moving operas about the Holocaust, For a Look or a Touch (2007) and Another Sunrise (2012), will soon appear together for the first time. Presented as a double bill by their irreplaceable commissioner, the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance (MOR), on tour in San Francisco next week, the operas will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Mina Miller’s unique organization, whose goal is “to remember the Holocaust and honor its lessons with concert performances, recordings, and educational programs.”
Miller’s initial desire was to commission a song cycle that would address the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. Once she and Heggie were introduced by Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera, she knew whom to work with.
As Heggie began to explore the subject matter, he realized that he needed to create a theater piece, For a Look or a Touch. The opera is based on the true “wild and wonderful romance” of Holocaust survivor Gad Beck and his 19-year-old lover, Manfred Lewin, in Berlin before Lewin and his entire family were murdered at Auschwitz. Five years later came Another Sunrise, in which Krystyna Żywulska, who survived Auschwitz and wrote songs and poetry in the camp, struggles to tell her story.
“Initially I was supposed to write a world-premiere opera for this season called Before It All Goes Dark,” Heggie explained on a Zoom call. “But I recently went through a very difficult situation — my mother got very ill and died in March — and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to write the new opera in time. So, this pairing is the alternative. Because these stories are very human and very specific, they are also universal and timeless. If we don’t revisit these memories, these journeys, and these stories, they will repeat over and over again. So, it feels very fortunate and timely that these pieces are being done again now.”
Miller’s experience with the operas mirrors Heggie’s. “When I first played the piano for For a Look or a Touch, I was grieving over the recent loss of my mother. The whole point of the opera, which we recorded on Naxos, is to get to a place where the protagonist, Gad Beck, is finally willing to remember his past in a positive way. The opera helped me grieve a mother whom, through most of my life, I wanted to forget. So, this opera’s story is universal.”
Heggie nodded in agreement. “So many people tell me that by the time they’re halfway through the opera, they think of it as a love story and forget that it’s two men. This is so huge. They realize that the opera is about a timeless love that was pushed away and now can have redemptive healing power.”
Heggie wrote Another Sunrise for soprano Caitlin Lynch, who reprises the role of Krystyna. She’ll also join Jamie Barton, J’Nai Bridges, and Janai Brugger for the world premiere of Heggie’s 10th opera, Intelligence, which opens the Houston Grand Opera season in October.
Ryan McKinny (Manfred in For a Look or a Touch) sang the lead in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2019 and reprises the role at the Metropolitan Opera next season. In addition, Heggie’s next opera for MOR is being written for him.
The speaking part of Gad goes to Heggie’s husband, Curt Branom, who spent a quarter century playing King Louis XIV in San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon. Branom originally played the role opposite Jarrett Ott in MOR’s recent video of the opera.
Toward the end of our discussion, I asked Heggie about his earlier statement about remembering the past. I also asked him and Miller what they think about human nature at this point in history.
“I think we are constantly on a quest for identity and a sense of our place in things,” Heggie replied. “That confusion can lead us to make very bad choices, or it can lead us to make very good choices.
“We don’t know what we are capable of until the doorway opens. Is it dangerous, or is it promising, and how will we respond? That, to me, speaks to the root of human nature. What choice will you make, what tools were you given, and how will you respond? Will you empathize, or are you incapable of empathy? That’s why we have to tell stories. We have to tell the truth, and we constantly have to battle … because otherwise we lose empathy and we lose the skills that we need as human beings to make good choices.
“To me, music and all of the things that I’m lucky enough to get to do in life are entirely for the good. They are about finding an authentic human experience — a true voice and an open-hearted human experience with all its flaws — and watching people make choices based on the information they have.”
Miller stuck to the importance of storytelling. “Everyone who has survived the Holocaust has stories,” she said. “They always want to share them with me and have their story told. Each survivor has a name. They all had dreams, all had unanswered questions that need to be asked. By commissioning works, I can raise these questions and answer them in ways that resonate. We speak to the act of remembering.”
Music of Remembrance presents Another Sunrise and For a Look or a Touch at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco on May 24 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit the Presidio Theatre’s website.