It’s interesting that on consecutive days, the Canadian Opera Company gave their noon-hour concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre over to a performance resembling an act of remembrance.
Yesterday was Jeremy Dutcher’s concert, in which he seemed to address the unseen spirits around us. Today it was soprano Sara Schabas’s turn, in a vocal concert including Laura D’Angelo violin and Geoffrey Conquer piano.
Where Dutcher sang in a language that was mostly unknown to the listeners (and curiously apt in an opera house, when I remember that for much of my life I was watching and hearing operas in languages I did not understand, and without benefit of the surtitles we’ve been blessed with since the 1980s), Schabas sang mostly in English, or in German with the benefit of a translation in the program. I hope it’s not controversial to be comparing the two concerts. Where we’re accustomed to speaking of the Shoah, a Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews in the Second World War, the Indigenous experience in Canada was at the very least a cultural holocaust –as children were stripped of their heritage, force-fed Christianity and English, over-writing their language & religion—to say nothing of the actual deaths of so many that we cannot count their numbers.
It’s a sad day of commemoration in Israel, one that began at their sundown, which occurred almost exactly at the conclusion of the noon-hour concert. I can’t help but be impressed by the timing of today’s concert, that spoke directly to the audience assembled today. Where yesterday’s listeners seemed younger & hipper on the whole, whooping and cheering for Dutcher, today’s solemn group were there to remember and be reminded, a serious and painful path.
The main work on the program was from Jake Heggie’s opera Another Sunrise, with text by Gene Scheer, concerning Krystyna Zywulska, a survivor of Auschwitz, one of two operas given their Canadian premiere recently.
Schabas gives us a monodrama accompanied by Conquer at the piano. The title figures in the last moments of the work, as she tells us that she is alive to see another sunrise. The opera is like an act of remembrance, taking us to a very curious place, a conflicted and guilty perspective, considering that Zywulska was able to survive by getting a position at Auschwitz. Needless to say hers is a dark perspective of anguish and pain, but surprisingly celebratory and life-affirming all the same. I think for anyone of Jewish heritage it is not just a matter of empathy but of the necessary celebration and honouring of those who went to the camps. It’s a national ritual in Israel where there are still survivors, let alone their descendants.
Schabas eased us into the concert with lighter fare to begin. We started with songs from composers who lived awhile in the bogus camp of Theresienstadt, which was a kind of model camp set up for PR purposes misrepresenting for the outside world what was really happening. The two composers would be executed in Auschwitz.
First came Carlo Taube’s “Ein Jüdisches Kind”¸ a poignant little song with a violin line that was almost another character in the song, at times muttering something very similar to prayers. I couldn’t help but be moved. Then came a trio of Viktor Ullmann songs, displaying his wonderful approach to tonality, songs that were for the most part sad, overshadowed by the facts of the composer’s life. I was especially struck by his “Abendphantasie” (or “evening fantasy”), where we hear of his impossible dream of a peaceful and serene old age after youth has burnt itself out. I couldn’t help remembering the poignant treatment Derek Jarman gave ”depuis le jour” in Aria featuring Tilda Swinton. What could be more poignant than dreaming of a life-long romantic affair or even a long life, when one already has a death sentence in one’s youth? (Ullmann in the camps, Jarman with an AIDS diagnosis).
Conquer was quite magnificent in support. At times he’s barely there, like a soap bubble in his soft presence, but in the Heggie at times he enacted military precision, the relentless machinery of the trains and camps, seen grimly by Schabas as Zywulska, while the piano painted the picture. At other times, especially in the songs, we heard softer tonalities, sensuous playing to match the dreamworlds in these flights of fancy.