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Love recovered in Heggie's For a Look or a Touch

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Photo courtesy of Music of Remembrance
Photo courtesy of Music of Remembrance


Imagine living in a time when being Gay meant social ostracism, violent ridicule, humiliation, punishment, and possible death. You may think I'm describing the present, but I'm not. As bad as the present may be, living in Germany during the run-up to WWII was worse. Gay men who were caught having relations with or even expressing innocent affection for a person of the same sex could be arrested. If you were Jewish on top of being a "deviant," you were in double trouble.

According to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, an estimated fifty thousand German men were convicted of deviance and sentenced to hard labor in police prisons during the war. Between ten and fifteen thousand Gay men died in concentration camps. Though Lesbians weren't included in Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which criminalized homosexuality, they too were ostracized, abused, and barred from public life.

For a Look or a Touch is the true story of two German men caught in the Nazi web of WWII: Manfred Lewin, who was murdered in Auschwitz, and his lover Gad Beck, condemned to live into the 21st century with his grief. Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer have created a brilliant chamber opera based on Lewin's surviving poems. With minimal musical forces — one baritone and a quintet (violin, cello, flute. clarinet, and piano), along with a non-singing actor and a conductor — we see a tragedy of love lost reclaimed and recovered.

Gad (Curt Branom), the old survivor, is hunched on a sofa in pajamas and bathrobe when Manfred's handsome young ghost (Jarrett Ott) appears from the unseen world to help his beloved remember their love and to overcome the amnesia of survivor's guilt. He conquers Gad's depression with jazzy memories of their early days in Berlin, dancing and singing until Gad jumps up and joins in, laughing with joy. The old, white-haired man is suddenly young and sexy again.

This ebullient scene is followed by the hard reality of "One Hundred Thousand Stars" — a memorial to the lives cut down — and Manfred's account of the cruelties he and his fellow prisoners faced at Auschwitz. With simple, effective lighting, projections, and musical witnesses, both men recount their suffering, the memory of love buried deeply in their beings, and of lives lost and ruined.

Yet their willingness to hear each other's stories and to recount the horrors of Nazi cruelties opens the gates of silence and denial. Gad clutches Manfred's notebook of poems and mourns: "That sacred place where fears dissolve... the generous heart... your journal is so full of hope... and I feel hopeless."

But Manfred answers with a love song: "Do you remember when night was for more than sleep? Oh my love, my love, we stayed awake so often." As their memories become timeless, the two men dance together into the place where love never dies. We are left with a clear understanding that love conquers even the most vile crimes and heartbreaking memories.

Ott's ringing baritone was equally effective in moments of joy, terror, compassion, and tenderness. He was the perfect foil for Curt Branom's sad, reluctant, and ultimately trusting portrayal of Gad. What a brilliant stroke to have the actor from beyond singing and the actor mired in the distress of survival speaking. Nothing could have made the dramatic problem more clear.

The final moments, when Manfred and Gad dance together in an intimate embrace, as the stars come out and the lights go down, captures the complexities of hope and love facing down the worst the world has to offer.

Kudos all around for director Erich Parse, conductor Joseph Mechavich, and the quintet — with a special shout-out to clarinetist Laura DeLuca, whose jazzy, dancing solo conjured the happy tolerance of Berlin in the 1930s. Everything about this production is a perfect interpretation of Heggie and Sheer's very profound and important creation.

The greatest kudos, of course, go to the commissioning organization, Music of Remembrance, founded by Mina Miller to examine the Holocaust in terms of the lives and artistry that were lost to this almost unthinkable tragedy, and to use music and art to help the world remember both the worst and the best of human endeavor. MOR has commissioned over 30 works of music that tell these important, moving, and surprising stories.

It's not too late to see this wonderful production. For a Look or a Touch is streaming until July 26, 2021, at www.musicofremembrance.org.

Also, on August 1, 2021, at the same website, you can stream a new performance of Heggie and Sheer's Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, six songs for voice and violin using restored string instruments that belonged to Jews who played them before and during the Holocaust, featuring violinist Mikhail Shmidt and mezzo soprano Laura Krumm.