An opera in two acts about love, oppression and survival in the wake of the Holocaust will have its Atlanta premiere in April.
This is not the first time Heggie and Scheer have conceived a piece based on Holocaust themes. Three one-act operas of theirs covered similar territory and created the foundation for “Out of Darkness,” in which the two main characters are haunted by ghosts.
The first act centers on Krystyna Zywulska, a Polish Holocaust survivor who, during her confinement in a concentration camp, wrote songs and poetry and proved adept at disguise, talents that eventually saved her life. She wrote the memoir “I Survived Auschwitz,” as well as “Empty Water,” an autobiographical novel.
Played by soprano Maria Kanyova, Zywulska is confronted by questions from a journalist that force her to relive her tortured days of imprisonment, when her main job was to catalog the belongings of condemned Jews on their way to the gas chamber. She escaped the same fate herself by concealing her Jewish identity before her arrest as a dissident on behalf of the resistance.
Act 2 is the story of Gad Beck, a lonely, elderly man trying to get over the love of his life, the poet Manfred Lewin (baritone Ben Edquist), who perished under the Nazis.
“Two people who did not survive the Holocaust come to these two people who did, and in my case it was my lover when I was a boy,” said actor Tom Key, who plays Beck. “Now I’ve grown old, and when he appears, he’s still 19 and beautiful, wanting me to remember, after I’ve done everything I can to forget.”
Key said that having survived the Holocaust, his character had to find a way to live with shame and sorrow and with only his dead lover’s poetry journal for comfort. “What is so surprisingly hopeful about this is that Manfred is asking Gad to remember for his, Gad’s, own healing and transformation. At first Gad is responding ‘No, go away’ because he’s ashamed of how old he is and falling apart, and then it’s very moving. He does remember the passion. He opens his heart to it, (saying), ‘Dance with me again.’”
He added, “I can understand what it means to open your heart again once it’s been broken, to dare to hope again even when your greatest hope was bashed. That’s what’s going to make it so valuable and moving for the audience.”
Atlanta Opera General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun said that dealing with the emotional intensity of the piece has been challenging and rewarding. “You see how powerful it is, how poignant. An evening of that is going to be a lot to absorb. After rehearsing those songs for a few weeks, I have already heard from singers and production staff about how much they’re connecting to it.”
In its review of “Out of Darkness,” the Bay Area Reporter wrote, “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.”
What: “Out of Darkness: Two Remain”
Where: Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St., downtown
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, April 5 to 8 and 12 to 15
Tickets: $50; www.atlantaopera.org/performance/darkness-two-remain