|About this Recording
8.669044 - CIPULLO, T.: Parting (The) [Opera] (Strickling, C. Cook, Mayes, Music of Remembrance, Willis)
Tom Cipullo (b. 1956) and David Mason (b. 1954)
The Parting (2019)
World premiere: 19 May, 2019, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. The Parting was commissioned by Music of Remembrance (MOR) and made possible through the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Music of Remembrance’s Commissioning Circle. The opera is dedicated to Mina Miller, MOR’s founder and artistic director.
Opera offers a uniquely compelling vehicle for reaching people’s hearts in a visceral way with stories that the world needs to hear. The Parting is Tom Cipullo and David Mason’s second opera commission from Music of Remembrance. Their 2015 After Life imagined a dramatic confrontation between the ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso over the role of art and artists in a troubled world. That work received the National Opera Association’s prestigious Dominick Argento Chamber Opera Award.
The Parting tells the story of the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, one of the most important poetic witnesses to the Holocaust. Radnóti was a distinctive figure in Budapest’s literary and intellectual circles between the World Wars. Conscripted for slave labor because of his Jewish heritage, Radnóti was murdered on a death march. When his body was exhumed from a mass grave after the war, his jacket pocket revealed a notebook with poems chronicling what he’d experienced. Those verses, ranging from tender poems to the wife he would never see again to gruesome depictions of the barbarity he had witnessed, stand among the most powerful and harrowing works of Holocaust literature.
The Parting takes us to the evening of May 19, 1944, exactly 75 years before the opera’s world premiere in Seattle. Having to report the following day for his third call for forced labor and almost certain death, Radnóti shares his final evening together with his wife Fanni and is forced to ponder why we are given life: “To learn what love is. To love. To make beautiful things. To die.” The work is a profound meditation on what it is about art that outlives us and that can enable one to create even in the face of unimaginable adversity.
“They say in the dream of life, the hopeful are always with us,” The Parting tells us. We cannot restore the lives that were destroyed in the Holocaust, nor can we fathom the unrealized creative potential of the composers and other artists among the uncountable people who perished. Sadly, our world today is threatened by many forms of inhumanity. We hope that this masterful work by Tom Cipullo and David Mason can remind us, in some small way, to guard against the rise of hatred, and to celebrate what makes us human.
“You have never to look far to see that for some evil is right next door.”
These lines, from the opening monologue of David Mason’s libretto, haunted me throughout the many months I spent composing The Parting. Perhaps it’s our nation’s current political and social climate, but in this disappointing time of xenophobia, increased racism, shocking anti-Semitism, divisiveness, and ever-growing tribalism, David’s words seemed more accurate than at any other point in my lifetime.
What does it look like, this evil next door? More importantly for a composer charged with creating a new opera, what does it sound like? Picture an apartment in Hungary in the second quarter of the 20th century. Music from next door comes through the window. Perhaps it’s a young girl singing a folk melody, or a husband and wife playing a four-hand work by Stephen Heller, Emánuel Moór, or any of the lesser-known Romantics. The music is tuneful, straightforward, even common. If there truly is, in the famous phrase of Hannah Arendt, a “banality of evil,” might this be the sound of it—this narrow melody followed by a simple sequence, floating on the air from our neighbor’s home?
It is this familiar but unplaceable music—a ghostly music from some other time and place—that is the foundation of the opera’s score. The theme that starts off the work first appears in its simplest statement, but soon becomes corrupted, presented with wayward pitches, rhythmic changes, odd voicings, and extremes of range and dynamics.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that both poetry and love have a way of outlasting evil. In one of the most moving moments in the libretto, Death teaches Radnóti why we live. “To learn what love is. To love. To make beautiful things. To die.” In the final ensemble, the original theme returns, but now transformed into something different. Is it hopeful? We have the poetry, after all. But this theme is also a warning, whispering, as in the words of Miklós Radnóti—“I lived on Earth in an era such as this …”
Asked to find a new subject for an opera, I immediately thought of the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, who was three times sent to forced labor camps during the war. In November 1944, exhausted and sick after a forced march from Serbia, Radnóti was among some 20 prisoners executed by Hungarian guards, their bodies dumped in a mass grave. On the one hand, this story seems unrelentingly dark. Yet there is a miracle contained within it. When his body was exhumed a year later, a bloodied notebook containing Radnóti’s last poems was found in his overcoat. Poetry had somehow survived annihilation. Songs came from a dead man’s coat.
What is it about art that outlives us? Why do we continue to create even in the face of conditions that cause others to despair and give in? These are the questions I have explored in several libretti for Music of Remembrance. Radnóti’s poems are sometimes delightful evocations of the condition of being alive, sometimes relentless scenes of human cruelty. The range of emotions he expressed, from love and enchantment to absolute loss, presents a fully human existence pushing back against the darkness.
After several attempts, I found a dramatic structure to express all this, making use of a few of Radnóti’s poems (in versions based on translations by John Ridland and Peter V. Czipott). I chose May 19, 1944, the final night Radnóti would ever spend with his beloved wife, Fanni (who actually died at 102 in 2014, leaving behind diaries I have read in part, with Peter Czipott’s help). Events of this night occur within two kinds of time—the literal time of biography and the clock-less time inhabited by both death and poetry. We find Mik (as he is nicknamed) and Fif (as he sometimes called Fanni), packing and preparing for his departure to the final camp. They are Jews who converted to Catholicism, and their marriage has survived his infidelity.
The drama is a dance with a character representing a sort of angel of death, in which ordinary human love takes on one kind of reality, while the life of poetry takes on another. When Radnóti asks “Why do I live?”, the angel answers: “To learn what love is. To love. / To make beautiful things. To die.” The opera ends with the three figures singing together one of Radnóti’s most famous, strangely life-affirming poems. But we know how he will end. We know what it means to create in this space suspended between life and death.
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