L.A. Opera Celebrates Nazi-Repressed Composers



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The Los Angeles Opera is launching a multi-year project to perform the music of composers whose work was suppressed by the Nazis. The inaugural concerts this March include a fully staged performance of Alexander Zemlinksy's A Florentine Tragedy.

Visual art also suppressed in Nazi Germany will be projected on the stage during the concert. James Conlon, the music director of the Los Angeles Opera, has dedicated himself to reviving this work.

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Music that was suppressed by the Nazis is about to be performed in Los Angeles. Tonight and again on Saturday, opera fans will be introduced to works by Jewish or leftist composers. Their works have hardly been performed since before World War II. The concerts kick off a project called "Recovered Voices." The Los Angeles Opera will present these productions every season.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

(Soundbite of opera, "A Florentine Tragedy")

INA JAFFE: The L.A. Opera's music director, James Conlon, is leading the orchestra through its first rehearsal of Alexander Zemlinsky's "A Florentine Tragedy."

Mr. JAMES CONLON (Music Director, Los Angeles Opera): As this gets going, don't let the lyricism become sentimentality. It's not about sentimentalities. It's hot, erotic music. Okay. Let's try it again.

(Soundbite of opera, "A Florentine Tragedy")

JAFFE: Zemlinksy was a well-known composer, conductor and teacher in Vienna, Berlin and Prague. He escaped from the Nazis in 1938 and settled in New York, but stopped composing and died just a few years later. If "A Florentine Tragedy" were an opera by Puccini, Verdi or Wagner, Conlon probably wouldn't have to stop and fill the orchestra in on the plot.

Mr. CONLON: This is husband, his name is Simone, who is now - well, now that he's come home and he found the prince there with his wife, he's going to play an enormous game of chess instead of just chopping his head off immediately. And this is the very important point at the end, that the merchant puts the passion into his work everyday, and he hasn't been putting it into his wife. And you see that's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONLON: You got what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONLON: All right. So…

JAFFE: Watching the rehearsal in the nearly empty Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is the woman who made this project possible. Marilyn Ziering donated three and a quarter million dollars from her family's foundation and raised nearly a million more. She did it to honor her father, she said, who loved opera, and her late husband who was a concentration camp survivor, and, of course, the composers.

Ms. MARILYN ZIERING (Producer, "Recovered Voices"): The souls of the composers are in their music. And if we bring their music to life, these composers are not gone. Their spirit lives on and their soul lives on. And that's a victory for us over Nazism, I think. A small one, but a victory nevertheless.

JAFFE: Some of the composers who have fled the Nazis are well known - Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Korngold, who landed in Hollywood and wrote music for the movies. But the contributions of many more composers were virtually unknown until relatively recently, even to James Conlon. He heard one of these compositions for the first time on the car radio while driving home one night after a concert in Cologne, Germany.

Mr. CONLON: I thought it was exquisitely beautiful. I had to know what it was, so I sat out there for more than 20 minutes and listened to the end.

(Soundbite of composition, "Die Seejungfrau")

Mr. CONLON: It turned out to be Alexander Zemlinsky, "Die Seejungfrau" - "The Mermaid" - and I fell in love.

JAFFE: What followed were years of discovery and dedication for Conlon. He's now conducted and recorded the works of Zemlinsky and other suppressed composers in Cologne, Paris, Chicago, New York and around the world. But he cautions that the commitment to stage these works at the L.A. Opera year after year is not simply an act of remembrance.

Mr. CONLON: There are millions of victims of those war years, and I would not and do not perform anything which I do not think is important artistically.

(Soundbite of music, "The Kaiser From Atlantis")

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

JAFFE: One work Conlon's performed a good deal is "The Kaiser From Atlantis" by Victor Ullmann. The opera was written while Ullmann incarcerated at Terezin, the so-called model concentration camp the Nazis used to deceive the Red Cross by - among other things - presenting music, including operas like "The Kaiser".

Mr. CONLON: By the way, it was fully rehearsed and then cancelled because the authorities saw it - part of the story is a political satire of Hitler, and so it was, obviously, forbidden.

JAFFE: It was one of 23 pieces that Ullmann wrote during his two years in Terezin. But before he was sent to Auschwitz and the gas chamber, he managed to pass the manuscripts to the Terezin librarian, asking him to mail them to a certain address if he survived.

Mr. CONLON: That music had sat in London in somebody's house until the 1970s. And the story goes that the person was - decided to clean up the house, and, fortunately, sought advice before they threw it all out and it was discovered the value of what was found there.

JAFFE: "Recovered Voices" should help ensure that the discovery and appreciation of music by Ullmann, Zemlinsky and others will never again be left to chance.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.