'We all have a connection to the Holocaust' - Before It All Goes Dark opera preview

Hattie Butterworth
Monday, May 20, 2024

A story of Nazi looted art paves the way for a new opera by Jake Heggie for Music Of Remembrance about discovering Jewish identity and the power of journalism

'In my senior year I realised that being locked up in a practice room, practicing piano repertoire for 8 hours a day was not my idea of something to do. So I thought, you know what? I should write about music.’

Howard Reich had two passions co-existing in his early life - spending years at college trying to reconcile whether to hone the craft of piano performance or pursue art journalism. It’s a dichotomy that I understand well.

Reich has become known for his investigations within the realms of cultural journalism - something, he tells me, happened by accident after an initial discovery that jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton had been robbed by his publisher and the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers). Reich worked at the Chicago Tribune newspaper from 1978 - 2021 until the pandemic gave him the space to step back and focus on a different kind of writing, recently publishing a book of conversations between him and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Journalist Howard Reich | Photo: Pam Becker

He greets me on Zoom from his home - something vaguely reminiscent of Arthur Abbot’s office in The Holiday. Reich is still in disbelief that his work on an investigation over 20 years ago is just days away from an operatic world premiere by renowned composer Jake Heggie. It must be strange to be the one on the other side of the tape recorder: the one being interviewed rather than interviewing after a whole lifetime of holding space for others journalistically.

‘I was having dinner with Jake Heggie one night in Chicago in December of 2021, and he asked me what I was working on,’ Reich begins to explain how his investigation became an opera. ‘I asked Jake what he was working on and he said he has got this commission from Music of Remembrance (which commissions works on the Holocaust and other social-justice issues). I said to him, there have been Holocaust operas, but I don't know of any opera dealing with looted art. That's when I remembered the Gerald MacDonald story of 20 years ago and I started telling Jake about it.’

Back in 2001 Reich had led an investigation for the Tribune. He was working on a story about musical instruments that were looted during World War Two during the Holocaust which were never returned to their rightful owners or to their heirs. When researching the instruments, it came to his attention that the Jewish Museum in Prague had recently proven that 30 paintings in the National Gallery there had been owned by Emil Freund, a prominent Czech Jew murdered during the Holocaust. This lead Reich to use his investigation skills to begin looking for Freund’s heir. Because Freund had two sisters, it was suggested that those siblings might have lived in Chicago - which has a large Czech population.

'I have no image in my mind of my mother sleeping in a bed. I can only see her on the living room floor'

‘It lead me to this man, Gerald McDonald, who everyone calls “Mac”. I didn't have his phone number because the internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today. So I found voting records and an address. I knocked on his door but this heavy metal music is blasting on the inside. I'm standing there waiting for 20 minutes for this heavy metal music to finally stop.’

Once the door was opened Reich’s story truly began. Met with a man who had been the victim of the Vietnam war, mental illness and trauma, it was clear that the investigation would go beyond returning the art to its heir.

‘I believe it was life-changing for him and for me. He had heard talk about this Holocaust looted art that belonged somewhere in the family. But whenever he asked his relatives about this they said “forget about it”. When he asked if he was Jewish they said “no, we're not”. His parents denied it and his grandparents denied it.’

It’s clear that this story is so much more than art - about uncovering an identity that has been denied you. This sentiment is so central to Heggie’s writing and involvement with Music Of Remembrance. ‘With any work I write, I hope the audience will feel as affected, touched and changed by the story as I have been,' Heggie told me. 'In this one, I hope they will realise that we all have a connection to the Holocaust - that those events are still rippling and vibrating through our world and we must be on alert - paying attention.’

Composer Jake Heggie | Photo: James Niebuhr

Holding space for people is something journalists do daily, but the emotional side of this isn’t often documented. For Reich, it uncovered a link to his own past that he couldn’t overlook and something that sustained his thinking and work for many years following.

The child of two Holocaust survivors, Reich had grown up in a home with an unspoken veil of trauma. ‘I have no image in my mind of my mother sleeping in a bed. I can only see her on the living room floor of our house, sitting on the floor at dark, looking out the window between the window shade and the sill, kind of keeping a vigil. Our house shook with these traumas, but I didn't understand that.’

‘My mother never told me what happened to her. And so having had this experience with Gerald McDonald, the next year I went to Europe and found out what my mother's story was. And that became a big story in the Tribune and became a book and a film. So it changed both our lives.’

Heggie’s own dedicated work writing music around traumatic and complex stories had me wondering about the emotional affect on him as a composer. ‘Opera demands emotion big enough to fill the opera house - that's a baseline requirement. If it doesn't have the kind of powerful emotional resonance that fills me with a shiver of music, possibility and fire - then it's not for me. It's where I live when composing music!’

Heggie is best known for his opera Dead Man Walking, a new production of which opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season last September. Based on a story about the death penalty, Heggie cites writing this first opera in 2000 as the start of advocating for stories through opera.

'Those events are still rippling and vibrating through our world and we must be on alert - paying attention'

‘I believe deeply in Music Of Remembrance's founding mission to give voice to those lost to the Holocaust,’ he went on to explain. ‘Ever since my collaboration with Terrence McNally on Dead Man Walking, I have sought out stories that have a social justice perspective.’

And to the power of journalism. An entity that has brought justice to so many in recent years - what does Reich think of a journalist’s importance? ‘I think journalists are witnesses. It's often said journalism is a first draft of history. What I've learned in these investigations is that you can be a witness to something that happened 60 years ago because the documents are still there.

‘Emil Freund lost his art and his life. Mac is also a victim of war and he died just three years after the investigation, at age 55 in 2005. But he discovered something about himself. He discovered his identity and his Jewish heritage, so a piece of the puzzle was completed.

‘I think a form of justice is happening here,' Reich states. 'The art wasn't returned, but something maybe even more meaningful was. What would Mac think about this opera - this Vietnam veteran who listens to all this deafening heavy metal music all the time? I think he would love it, because when I came into his life, he welcomed me in. He embraces his Jewish heritage and he says “I'm a Jew now”.’

Before It All Goes Dark by Jake Heggie is on tour, May 22 in San Francisco; and May 25-26 in Chicago; for details and tickets visit musicofremembrance.org

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