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The Schmooze

Holocaust Victim, Artist Charlotte Salomon’s Life Premieres as Opera

Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

(Reuters) — The Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon left behind a body of watercolors and text she called “Life? or Theater?” before she was killed at Auschwitz in 1943 at age 26, carrying her unborn child.

Salomon’s life, which has inspired films, plays and a musical, was turned into an opera that plumbed the depths of human emotion in its premiere on Monday at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

With music by French composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie, staging by Swiss director Luc Bondy and libretto by German-Jewish author Barbara Honigmann, who used 85 percent of Salomon’s own text, the work was the season’s most anticipated opera at the prestigious festival in the city of Mozart’s birth.

It did not disappoint.

Although a gang of uniformed Nazi toughs appeared at strategic moments as a reminder of the inevitable ending, the opera focused more on the difficult emotional and intellectual problems Salomon faced as a young woman.

She only belatedly learned that her mother had committed suicide by leaping from a third-floor window, and there was a family history of suicide that haunted her.

Her first lover, who treated her badly, was a vocal coach she and her stepmother shared as a partner. “You throw me crumbs … and I am your dog,” Salomon says of him.

Twice — at the beginning and at the end — she says she has nightmares in microcosm that, in the real world, are “played out in macrocosm.”

For the production on what Bondy called a CinemaScope-size 30-meter-wide stage at a riding school converted into a theater, the artist’s own works, many of them images of herself or people she knew, were projected onto the back wall.

The clever set featured at least a half dozen doors the singers and other cast members used to exit and enter.

At curtain, the cast of the two-hour-long production received a tremendous ovation.

Among those taking a bow were French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa as Charlotte Kann, the alter ego Salomon created for herself in her own “sing-speak” theater piece cum artwork.

She was matched, both in costume and stage personality, by German actress Johanna Wokalek, playing Salomon as a narrator who also sang so the two roles eventually almost merged into one.

Dalbavie, at a press conference on the day of the premiere, had expressed his concern about mixing narration with music and singing, saying: “For me, it doesn’t work.”

“So I really tried to make it happen so that we are not disturbed that when people sing and when they speak it’s like two different worlds,” he said. “I tried to find continuity.”

Another point of interest that arose because of the timing of the premiere was whether it had taken on added topicality because of the ongoing clashes between Israel and Hamas.

Bondy said one journalist had suggested that he had directed it because he is Jewish and then pressed him to respond to the assertion that “Gaza is destroyed.”

“So I said to her this is a production about a Jewish artist…the subject is the story of Charlotte Salomon,” Bondy said, adding that he had walked out on the interviewer.

As a composer, Dalbavie is known as an exponent of the so-called “spectral” school which focuses on timbre — or shape — of sound and how the human ear hears, often with melody getting short shrift. But this score had tunes galore, including a part of the famous “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Other musical excerpts were from Bach, Schubert lieder, Jewish folktunes, and a Nazi rally song. All were justified by the opera’s setting in high Jewish bourgeois society in Berlin in the late 1930s, where Salomon’s father was a surgeon and her stepmother an acclaimed singer.

Dalbavie said it had been “very important” for him to use these particular pieces, which he said helped link the opera to Charlotte Salomon’s musical world.

Honigmann said she has long been acquainted with Salomon’s work and felt the opera would widen the artist’s appeal.

“This is to help keep alive the memory of someone who died more than half a century ago, and to keep her work alive.”

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