Jake Heggie’s new opera, based on the writings of an Auschwitz survivor, forced the San Francisco composer to deal with the definition of survival and the tremendous pressure on those who survive when others don’t.
“Out of Darkness” is based on the writings and memories of two Holocaust survivors. The first act, “Krystyna,” is the story of Krystyna Zywulska, a Polish dissident who wrote poems of defiance and set them to popular tunes so concentration camp guards would not recognize their cryptic messages. The second act, “Gad,” examines forbidden love between two men in dark times.
The work, subtitled “An Opera of Survival,” has its Bay Area debut May 25 and 26 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music after making its world premiere a few days earlier in Seattle. It examines what it takes to survive under unbearable circumstances, and how music and poetry can transmit the unspeakable across generational barriers.
“Memory is a very tricky thing,” Heggie said in an interview. “Trying to define dramatic, emotional moments in our life with words is very difficult, which is why songs and opera are the best way to explore, because they give it emotional context.”
Keeping such messages alive is why Mina Miller, the daughter of Holocaust refugees who lost all their family members, in 1998 founded the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance, which commissioned the opera.
That’s also why the Consulate General of Germany in San Francisco hosted a May 2 preview of songs from the opera attended by some 45 guests, including Jewish community leaders. “Keeping the memory of the Shoah alive is one of the main tasks of German policy,” said Johannes Bloos, the German deputy consul general.
In the consulate’s music room, against a backdrop of the bay and Alcatraz Island, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook performed “In the Cards,” a song from the opera’s first act about passing time playing solitaire in Auschwitz, as Heggie accompanied on piano.
Israeli Consul General Andy David and Sarah Persitz, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, co-hosted the event. “The way Music of Remembrance touches the memory of the Holocaust is not through bitterness or vengeance, but by conveying positive experiences,” David said.
Working on the opera with librettist Gene Scheer, the 55-year-old Heggie said he had to grapple with a basic question: What is survival?
“Survival is neither heroic nor bad. It is survival, period,” Heggie said. “People do what they need to do in order to survive. Sometimes that means doing heroic things. Sometimes it means doing not heroic things. Nobody knows what we’ll do.”
Zywulska’s decision to live propels the drama of the first act. Born Sonia Landau, she walked out of the Warsaw Ghetto with her mother in broad daylight, changed her name and joined the resistance, keeping her Jewish identity secret until 20 years after the war.
She was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner, not as a Jew.
“She didn’t write lyrics to save her life, but they did just that,” Miller said, explaining Zywulska landed a task at the prison cataloguing Jewish belongings in the inventory room, where she nonetheless heard the screams and smelled the stench.
While the first act focuses on Zywulska’s concentration camp experience, chronicled in her poetry and in her memoir, “I Survived Auschwitz,” the second act looks at defiance and survivor’s guilt through the love story of two men in Berlin.
The half-Jewish Gad Beck, released from prison after the Rosenstrasse demonstrations by non-Jewish spouses and mothers, dons a Hitler Youth uniform in a bold attempt to rescue his lover, Manfred Lewin, from prison. But Lewin, who might have been saved, “turned around and walked back into the fire,” Heggie said, refusing to abandon his family. They were all sent to Auschwitz and executed.
“That’s something Gad had to live with his whole life,” said Heggie, who found Gad’s story of resistance in the documentary “Paragraph 175,” about the lives of gay men and women persecuted by the Nazis.
“Out of Darkness” includes elements from three previous works by Heggie and Scheer: The first act incorporates strands from “Another Sunrise” and “Farewell, Auschwitz,” while the second act extends the story of “For a Look or a Touch.”
“Another Sunrise” is a monodrama, related by a single actor, while “For a Look or a Touch” and “Farewell, Auschwitz” originally were song cycles.
“We found a way to combine them” into a single work, Heggie said. The opera incorporates elements of spoken text and introduces a new character, Krysia, the younger Krystyna.
What will strike operagoers is the range of music, from the dark, percussive “Farewell, Auschwitz,” punctuated by such words as “Take off your striped clothes, kick off your clogs,” to the baritone love ballad “A Hundred Thousand Stars,” in which the stars symbolize many extinguished lights.
The melodic song left many preview goers in tears, including Miller herself. “As you’ve just noticed, Jake’s music speaks to your heart,” she said.
What’s next on the horizon for Heggie? He’s working on an opera based on the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which also has a positive message about the worth of every human soul.
“Opera,” he said, “is essentially about connections. It’s about community. You can’t have an opera unless you have several singers and instrumentalists to tell a story and an audience to tell a story to … bringing people together whether they have similar belief systems or not. It unifies us in a remarkable way.”
“Out of Darkness,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 25 and 26, Caroline Hume Concert Hall, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St. $60-$100 (includes May 26 cast party). www.musicofremembrance.org`