The Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti didn’t think of himself as a Jew. He’d changed his family name from Glatter and even converted to Catholicism. But all the same, on the night of May 19, 1944, he knew that he was going to be taken away from his Budapest apartment to a forced labor camp.
That last night with his wife, and the poetry that emerged from it, are the subject of a new chamber opera, “The Parting,” coming to the Bay Area for one night only. Presented by Music of Remembrance, the May 23 concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music also includes three chamber pieces by Hungarian composers who perished in the Holocaust.
“This is what MOR is about, how artists can create in the most adverse conditions,” said Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of the Seattle-based organization, which seeks to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and other persecutions through music. For the past several years, the group has performed in San Francisco every spring around Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah.
“The Parting” has a libretto written by David Mason and a score by Tom Cipullo. It’s Cipullo’s second commission for Music of Remembrance, following 2015’s “After Life.” It will have its world premiere in Seattle on May 19.
“It’s just a fascinating story, about Radnóti,” Cipullo said. “And I didn’t know anything about him.”
The opera features baritone Michael Mayes as Radnóti, soprano Laura Strickling as his wife, Fanni, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as a spirit on the border between life and death that converses with the poet.
“She is the one that kind of confronts the poet about what his life was in this world, and what he’s leaving behind,” Miller explained.
The libretto mixes the reconstructed conversation with some of Radnóti’s original, sometimes beautiful but often brutal verses. Cipullo said the libretto was an interesting challenge, one he met by infusing the conversation with music that is simple but corrupted.
“I wanted to convey that the evil is right next door,” he said.
Music of Remembrance was founded 20 years ago to commemorate the Holocaust through new commissioned works, as well as through the performance of obscure artists from that time. In San Francisco, rounding out the program, along with the one-hour chamber opera, will be three pieces by László Weiner, Sándor Vándor and Sándor Kuti.
“They all were sent to forced labor camps and murdered, and all very young,” Miller said.
Radnóti, who had published nine books of verse and a memoir in his short lifetime, was sent to several different labor camps and then murdered in November 1944. It seemed like his words had been silenced, but when his body was found in a mass grave in 1946, with it was a notebook of poems. While in the camps he had continued to write, documenting in verse the tragedy that took place around him. He is seen as an important poetic witness to the Holocaust, and his work continues to be translated widely.
And that, said Miller, is something that must not be forgotten.
“What about art that outlasts us?” she said. “Because the miracle in this is that poetry outlasts humanity.”