4 Stars out of 4

The 1920’s brought a creative ferment to Europe, especially in the realm of opera.  Opera was a kind of popular entertainment in Germany, Austria, and central Europe.  After the devastation of WWI, a new generation of composers, some of them prodigies, began producing new works which became sensations. Tragically, because many of these composers were Jewish, the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism quickly destroyed this flowering of genius by exiling or murdering these talented composers. Chicago’s Folks Operetta company has set about to create a series based on the lost and forgotten works and composers.  Forbidden Opera: the Lost Music of the Second World War is their latest installment. Performed for only two shows last weekend at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, it is a moving and revelatory evening of music.  It is part concert recital, part history lesson, part multimedia memoriam for a lost time and squandered possibilities.

The evening begins with the tall and dramatic baritone William Roberts singing from Die Tote Stadt, a forgotten opera by Oscar winning film score wonder and one time child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He escaped his native Germany with his life and little else; a patron saved some of his music by mailing it to him hidden in the leaves of music by Beethoven and other “Aryan” composers. He rebuilt a life in the US scoring movies.

As the show continues, supertitle writer and researcher , the tenor Gerald Frantzen, narrates this tribute and, with soprano Allison Kelly, sings a duet from an opera about a duck penned by Edinburgh Festival founder Hans Gál, who survived by fleeing to Scotland. Frantzen has written succinct supertitles accompanied by visual works such as paintings from Eastern European painters which relate to the lyrics and adds  a rich layer of contemplation to the concert. For example, Franz Schreker’s impressionistic duet from Der Ferne Klang features paintings by Chagall.

There are a number of arias by Czech composers including Viktor Ullman, Gideon Klein.  Because of the speed at which the Nazis overtook the Czech cities, very few intellectuals survived.  Composers had their music, stashed in attics and suitcases, barely survive even as the composers went to Auschwitz to meet their fate.

Soprano Jenny Schuler closes the evening with a final aria by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for a satisfying circular structure.  Also from Die Tote Stadt, it was haunting and served to underscore the loss of human culture and beauty in a world destroyed by fascism and racism. In the simple auditorium at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, as the last notes fade, we are left with a sense of delicate and universal loveliness, with grief over the senseless loss of fragile lives, and with a hope that these works can live again.

It is thedream of the curators Frantzen, and Hersh Glagov (who played viola for a string trio by Gideon Klein) that this show will help artists and producing organizations to seek out and rediscover these composers, and think to include their work in modern repertory.  Folks Operetta is currently fundraising to revive Korngold’s final opera Die Kathrin in fall of 2020.

Props to the Agnieszka Likos on violin, Patrycka Likos on cello and Anatoliy Torchinskiy on piano who accompanied the singers, providing a delicious pedestal of tunefulness on which these works could shine. 

Forbidden Opera: Reclaiming the Lost Music of the Second World War played October 19 and 21 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie Illinois.  For more information go to https://folksoperetta.org/