Krystyna Zywulska was a Polish resistance fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz. She took to writing lyrics and setting them to an eclectic mix of tunes as a way of coping with the horror of the camp. Somehow this was pleasing to the powers that be and she found herself with a relatively soft job processing the possessions of arriving prisoners. She survived to write a number of memoirs about her experience. The story is oddly similar to that of Zofia Posmysz, who inspired Weinberg’s The Passenger. This time the opera is Another Sunrise; a collaboration of Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie commissioned by Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2012. There’s a companion piece by the same team; Farewell Auschwitz, which sets some of the Zywulska texts, in translation and reworking by Scheer, to a wide range of the kinds of music that Zywulska used. Last night both pieces got their Canadian premiers in a production by Electric Bond Ensemble at Beth Tzedec directed by Aaron Willis.
The first piece consists of Zywulska trying to record her memories of the camp on a tape recorder and musing on the impossibility of describing the experience in words. It’s a monologue of some length sung here by Sara Schabas with admirable clarity and stamina. At roughly the midpoint a new transport of prisoners arrive (played here by supers). They come and go quickly reminding us of the transience of existence for most new arrivals.
Heggie’s music, scored for piano, clarinet, violin, cello and bass, is mainly in his bordering-on-minimalist mode that may be familiar from works such as Moby Dick. It’s colourful and accessible without slipping into banality. The vocal writing is not showy but it does make the text easy to comprehend. There was some fine playing from the ensemble with Michael Shannon directing from the piano.
This production morphs into Farewell Auschwitz. Schabas is joined by Georgia Burashko and Sean Watson dressed in prison stripes. They transform Schabas back into a prisoner and then launch into a high energy rendering of the Zywulska texts against a background of prisoners’ confiscated effects. There’s much toing and froing and miming of instrument playing. Heggie’s great skill at imitation and parody comes to the fore here as Weill-like tunes, folk song, waltzes and more accompany the words. It’s a bravura performance from all concerned; touching and funny at the same time and, ultimately, life affirming.
This is a most worthwhile and successful project from this new company for which they deserve much praise. Beth Tzedec are also to be congratulated for helping mak it possible.
There’s one more performance at 2pm today.