Operas that outlived the Nazis to play in Walnut Creek

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Interned in 1943 at Theresienstadt, the so-called “show camp” outside Prague, composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien took aim at the Nazis by creating a satirical opera. The SS stopped rehearsals, and the composer and librettist were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they both died without ever seeing their work performed.

Krystyna Zywulska, born Sonia Landau and passing as non-Jewish, was also sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau — as a Polish political prisoner. While there, she crafted lyrics of survival and resistance, setting them to popular tunes and passing them on by word of mouth. Escaping a death march at the end of the war, in 1946 she wrote her memoir, “I Escaped Auschwitz.” Many of her camp songs and lyrics also survived, some of them written down by other prisoners, and some 20 years after the war, Zywulska reclaimed her Jewish identity. She died in 1993.

Composer Jake Heggie and Marie Plette rehearse “Another Sunrise.” photo/courtesy festival opera

For this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Festival Opera will honor these artists, presenting two chamber operas April 26 and 28 at Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek. “Each is an act of defiance,” said Sara Nealy, Festival Opera executive director.

“The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Abdicates,” written by Ullmann and Kien at Theresienstadt (also known as Terezin), survived the war, thanks to the camp librarian, who protected it from the Nazis. It had its West Coast premiere at San Francisco Spring Opera Theater in 1977.

“Another Sunrise,” by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer — the duo behind the 2010 opera “Moby-Dick” — tells the story of Krystyna Zywulska in a one-woman, half-hour opera that will be presented for the second time ever. It premiered in Seattle in 2012, commissioned by Music of Remembrance, which presents concerts marking Holocaust Remembrance Day and Kristallnacht.

“These works outlived the Nazis, these works outlived the oppressors,” said Nealy. “That’s a source of pride and a way that the arts can transcend physical reality, and when nothing else remains, at least we have these works as a testament to the spirit of the people.”

Festival Opera, based in Walnut Creek, is committed to bringing affordable, professional opera productions to East Bay communities and to nurturing young artists. New York stage director Beth Greenberg directs both productions, which will be sung in English. Matilda Hofman will conduct the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, a 13-piece chamber orchestra.

Ullmann, who composed “The Emperor of Atlantis,” had been a prominent composer in Europe before he was sent to Theresienstadt. At the camp, he organized concerts, played the piano and continued to compose choral as well as instrumental works.

Kien, the librettist, was an artist as well as a poet and playwright. His sketches, drawn on stolen paper, depicted the dire living conditions at Theresienstadt, giving the lie to Nazi propaganda that the camp was a model Jewish village. In fact, it was not just a transit camp from which most of the inmates were dispatched to Auschwitz; it was also a death camp where thousands died of illness and malnutrition or were killed outright.

The poignancy of the prisoners’ own lives in wartime permeates the opera, with haunting melodies and a final confrontation between the deluded Emperor and Death itself, called “our honored guest.” In a heart-rending aria, the Emperor laments: “If only my work had succeeded.” This final song, interspersed with strains from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” offers the message: “You shall never take the name of death in vain,” perhaps testimony to the artists’ belief in the Nazis’ ultimate failure.

“Another Sunrise” offers a different window into the Holocaust, not through satire but through the eyes of a woman who survived but saw thousands marched to their deaths. Zywulska walked boldly out of the Warsaw ghetto and joined the resistance fighters, forging documents and aiding Jews in hiding.

At Auschwitz, after a year of hard labor, the “camp poet” was given one of the more sought-after tasks in the Effektenkammer (storage facilities): cataloguing the confiscated possessions of condemned Jews. However, she could still hear their screams, see the smoke and smell the stench from the crematoria.

In a Seattle taping, Heggie called “Another Sunrise” a “lyrical, dramatic, theatrical exploration of what it is to be a survivor and what it is to attempt to describe through words experiences that can barely be imagined.”

Like many war survivors, he said “Krystyna survived not through grand acts of heroism, but through near maddening acts of survival. We do whatever it takes to live another day — to see another sunrise.”

“The Emperor of Atlantis” and “Another Sunrise” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 26, and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. April 28 at Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, 55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek. $35. or (800) 838-3006

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].