Fort Worth — It is hard to imagine that there was much cheer at Auschwitz, but we got a glimpse of what scant supply existed last night in Texas Christian University’s PepsiCo Recital Hall. As part of the School of Music’s fifth annual Festival of American Song, with composer Jake Heggie in residence, they presented his opera/song cycle Farewell, Auschwitz.
This modest bit of sunlight came to the horrific prison camp by way of the poetry and song lyrics written by Krystyna Żywulska, a Polish Jew, while she was in the concentration camp. Librettist Gene Scheer organized some of her surviving lighter and inspirational lyrics to popular songs of the era to create the piece. She chose well known songs of the era so that the prisoners could sing her words and have a moment of relief from their grim reality.
Farewell, Auschwitz is a series of seven narrative and reflective songs that starts with a vocal imitation of a jazz trio and eventually leads to a final affirmative anthem of hope. It is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, and a chamber ensemble made up of violin, cello, double bass, clarinet, and piano. The effective but minimal stage direction was by David Gately, director of TCU’s opera studio, and the entire festival is under the direction of TCU’s Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Voice, Angela Turner Wilson.
The three singers were TCU Artist Diploma postgraduate students who are also members of the Fort Worth Opera Young Artists program: soprano Anne Wright, mezzo-soprano Heather Weirich, and baritone Sam Parkinson.
The instrumentalists were clarinetist Jainer Hoyos Bermudez, who is a TCU Masters degree student, as is violinist Santiago Ariza Rodriguez. Cellist Debbie Brooks is on the faculty of UNT, double bassist Kirby Nunez is a member of The Dallas Opera orchestra and TCU faculty member Tyson Deaton, who did a superb job as both conductor and pianist.
The singers did an admirable job, especially considering the vast array of musical styles that Heggie used to set the poetry. However, they all over-sang for the venue, a regrettable practice these days of even the top-level professional musicians. The final anthem reached super-loud way too early for Heggie’s music to have its intended impact. To be fair, they are still in the preparation phase for a career in opera; all three singers showed significant promise, both vocally and dramatically.
The instrumentalists, a combination of imported professionals and advanced TCU students, delivered a surprisingly orchestral sound with tight ensemble and excellent intonation.
It was a revealing experience to attend the workshop/rehearsal/run-through with Heggie and Gately in the afternoon. Heggie said little about the music itself but offered highly intuitive remarks about the meaning of the words and his thoughts when setting them. Of course, it would have been impossible to have much impact on an already prepared performance just hours before the show. However, it was quite amazing to see the impact of Heggie’s comments once the opera opened. It was transformed from “some songs” into a riveting dramatic stage work.
More needs to be said about Tyson Deaton, an exceptionally versatile and accomplished musician. He may have been almost off stage, at the piano and void of sightlines towards the performers, but he was responsible for delivering the exceptional balance, tempi, dynamics and ensemble of the production. He first impressed as the conductor of the regional premiere of Tom Cipullo’s chamber opera, Glory Denied, in the Fort Worth Opera Festival’s 2013 season. It was a slightly similar situation in that he lacked the usual contact that a conductor requires, as he did here. This is what I said about that performance and my positive impression was bolstered by this performance.
“Cipullo’s score is complex in the extreme. The vocal writing is angular and he changes time signature and pace nearly every measure. Rhythmic patterns are irregular, but notated, making conductor Tyson Deaton’s job positively Herculean. Even worse, he is in the back of the stage, the singers are unable to see him except in tiny monitors up in the corners, and his small chamber orchestra is extruded across the back, just two abreast. Calm, cool and confident, keeping his constantly changing but precise beat pattern within a reserved two-foot frame, the unflappable Deaton delivers a passionate and virtuoso performance by force of will.”
The full review is here.
The other public performance is 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1 in PepsiCo Recital Hall. This will be a recital of songs selected from Heggie’s vast, Schubertian catalog of over 300 songs and will be performed by TCU students and faculty. Tickets are required for this concert.
You can catch Heggie raw at a question and answer session moderated by TCU alum and Fort Worth Symphony pianist, Shields-Collins Bray, on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 11 a.m., also in PepsiCo Recital Hall. If you can’t attend, it will also be livestreamed on TCU’s School of Music Website.