October 17, 2018

Opera: Restoring Nazi-suppressed ‘Recovered Voices’

When James Conlon premiered the “Recovered Voices” program at Los Angeles Opera last year, the Los Angeles Times noted the “evangelical zeal” with which he conducted works that had been suppressed by the Nazis — Conlon’s musical mission since discovering the vast (and largely forgotten) repertoire in the 1990s. “We presented the work of seven composers to offer a glimpse of the immensity and the variety of the music — and we had a standing ovation even at intermission,” Conlon said between rehearsals for the next “Voices” concerts, which will be performed Feb. 17 through March 8.

“The response was astonishing when you consider that with the exception of several people, nobody in the audience had ever heard a single note of the program. It gave me such immense gratification to see the music had hit its mark.”

With almost $5 million raised by philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, and hopes to double that sum, Conlon will launch “Voices'” second season with its first fully staged production: a double bill of one-acts featuring “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf”) by Alexander Zemlinsky, who died in obscurity in New York after fleeing the Nazis; and “Der Zerbrochene Krug” (“The Broken Jug”) by Viktor Ullmann, who died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944.

James ConlonWhile some of the suppressed music has enjoyed limited revivals in Europe in recent years, the United States is behind the curve. “The Broken Jug” has never before been seen in this country, and “The Dwarf” has been staged only rarely. Ziering hopes to raise up to $400,000 more to produce a DVD of the production, which could be distributed to opera houses around the nation.

“This project is not designed to be tokenism, to be presented for a year or two,” Conlon said in his second-floor office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where posters and CDs representing the once-suppressed music are prominently displayed.

“The music is something I want to see become a permanent feature at every musical institution in America. And the first step is showing that it can be done in a major opera company, and that it can be done successfully.”

Conlon — who has conducted “The Dwarf” in France and Italy — selected this year’s program with an eye toward filling the house. “I thought ‘The Dwarf’ was the way to start, because I believe it is one of the great operas of the 20th century — that’s how strongly I feel,” he said. “It’s a tearjerker worthy of any Puccini opera, and I’ve never seen it fail with an audience. I’ve seen it move people to such a degree that they came back to see it three or four times.

The lushly romantic opera — based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Birthday of the Infanta” — tells of a captured dwarf who is given to a princess as a birthday present.

“With his poetic and humane soul, he naively believes himself as beautiful physically as his intentions,” Conlon wrote in the program notes. “He does not realize that those who see him are mocking him.”

After the infanta spurns him, he looks in a mirror for the first time, realizes he is physically hideous — and dies.

The opera was in part inspired by Zemlinsky’s conflicted feelings about his own short stature and unattractive appearance: When he completed the opera he was still suffering from the breakup of an affair with his former student, Alma Schindler, who had remarked upon his ugliness in her diaries and left him for another composer, Gustav Mahler. The seeds of what would become “The Dwarf” began in 1909, when Zemlinsky asked his colleague, Franz Schreker, to write him “a text on the tragedy of an ugly man.”

Conlon selected Ullman’s “The Broken Jug” for the double bill because the comic opera contrasts so well with “The Dwarf.” The brisk political satire centers upon a trial conducted by a judge who is himself the culprit. “The opera can be understood as a wry and witty commentary on the corruption of the Nazi regime,” Conlon said.

Ullman completed the work just before he was to be shipped off to Terezin: “It was the last piece he finished after he had received a reprieve of several months,” Conlon said. “He used that time to put the music he had in order, and to send it to different [addresses] for safekeeping. He even wrote a sort of last testament, telling people what to do with the music in such a way that it would not be lost.”

“The Broken Jug” was sent to Prague, where it remained, unplayed, for decades.

The 57-year-old Conlon — who grew up Catholic — has been a champion of such music since hearing a piece by Zemlinsky on the radio in Cologne in 1992. He began performing and recording music by persecuted composers, often earning laudatory reviews. But a few critics have questioned whether some of the music is deserving of a revival, or whether it is the tragic story of the Holocaust — rather than the work itself — that has riveted audiences.

Conlon bristles at the suggestion.

“I would never present a piece unless I was utterly convinced of its artistic merit,” he said. “I’m not in the business of memorialization, however noble that is. This is not about finding every scrap of paper that was written by a victim and performing it. It’s about the quality and the importance of these composers.”

We’ve written what we think is the history of 20th century music without knowing a whole body of work that was overlooked,” he continued. “I’m not saying that every piece is the equivalent of the ‘Mona Lisa.’ But I am saying that judgment has to be suspended until people really digest this music as a body of work, and not after a single listening of a single piece.”

Conlon hopes to present one such opera per season, with Walter Braunfels’ rarely performed “The Birds” (based on Aristophanes’ play), slated for April 2009, and Franz Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten” (“The Stigmatized”) planned for 2010.