A powerful new opera following a family's struggle to survive the Holocaust, The Path to Heaven receives its world premiere in the Howard Assembly Room on Tuesday 19 June. We asked composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye to tell us about the work and its influences.
Could you tell us about the story of The Path to Heaven?
Ben: A group of friends and lovers in Berlin find their carefree lives suddenly turned into a waking nightmare when they come to the attention of the Nazi authorities. Returning home from her eighteenth birthday party, Sara finds the uncle and aunt who raised her arrested, her friends under suspicion and her entire family branded with the Jewish heritage of the parents that she never knew. Abandoned by her lover Dieter, within hours Sara, her sister Hanna, Hanna’s baby Inge and their cousin Magda are rounded up and packed into cattle trucks, heading east. On arrival at the camp they undergo the first of many selections. So begins “The Story of The Bread”...
You've woven real stories into the opera's narrative. How did you find these accounts?
Adam: I’ve read widely around the subject of the Holocaust, and the overriding theme of the miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming and catastrophic odds has made a particularly deep impression on me. I have found this in If This is a Man and The Truce by Primo Levi and Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon, and the books by the three Holocaust survivors I met: The Tin Ring by Zdenka Fantlova, Inherit the Truth by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and A Detail of History by Arek Hersh. We were honoured to have Arek come and watch the rehearsal and speak to the cast.
In all of these books (and many others) a sense of optimism and the will to live shines through, which for me suggests that the Holocaust was in the long run a failure. That’s the most important message I would want to get across.
Ben: I started to learn about the Holocaust when I was ten years old. I lived in the town of Bergen, minutes from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My father took my brother and me to the camp at the height of summer. Before the visit, we were told of the rumour that no birds sang there. I was skeptical but this proved to be true. Not a single bird sang during our visit. In the winter (when prisoners would have been clothed only in ‘pyjamas’), we visited again. It was bone-numbingly cold, there was snow on the ground and even wearing snow boots and a parka, within an hour I was too cold to continue. I tried to take some pictures but my camera wouldn’t work - the shutter had frozen solid.
My father also read to us the horrifying first-hand accounts of Belsen’s liberation. This early part of my life, combined with attending a talk three years later by the Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon, seared the Holocaust into my mind.
Ever since I have repeatedly revisited the subject in an attempt to understand how otherwise perfectly normal people can be manipulated into committing such terrible atrocities. When Adam approached me to write the libretto, I had already carried out a great deal of research and indeed had written various short works based on the subject. It felt apt to be a part of creating a musical response to such hatred.
Adam: Meeting with survivors, all of whom provided me with a fascinating insight of their day-to-day existence in those times, was vital to my research. I wanted to write The Path to Heaven as a tribute to all caught up in the Holocaust, those who perished and the survivors, while there are still some alive over seventy years later.
What are the touchstones or musical influences on the sound world of The Path to Heaven?
Adam: The opera and musical theatre composers whose primary focus is on narrative, drama, characterisation and atmosphere over more sophisticated and intellectual musical issues are important to me. Verdi, Wagner, Britten, Puccini, Berg, Sondheim and Bernstein spring to mind. The fifteen-piece ensemble consists of wind, brass and percussion, which I thought would complement the vernacular ‘cabaret’ feel of some of the writing around the story of young people in the 1940s.
In the transit camp Terezín there was an extraordinarily abundant outpouring of music and theatre created by the doomed inmates, the most famous of which is the children’s opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa, which is alluded to in the libretto. Whilst there is much that is dark, violent and satirical in the music of The Path to Heaven, I wanted there to be passages of joy and light at the opening and close of the work. Fifteen wind, brass and percussion instruments can make a fearsome noise, but I hope that people will hear passages of extreme poignancy and tenderness as well, which was an exhilarating challenge to try and meet with the resources available. I hope this will come across in the performance.
You’ve worked together a number of times before, on Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, Eternal Voices and Anya17. Have the two of you developed a collaborative method, and did your approach to The Path to Heaven differ at all from your previous collaborations?
Adam: Ben and I live at opposite ends of the country from each other, so all of our collaborations start with lengthy phone calls and emails about the nature of the subject matter and how we want to approach it. For Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, Ben adapted the libretto from words written by the journalist John McCarthy. In the three collaborations since then, after much consultation Ben will write the words first; I can’t really get going until I have the whole shape of the libretto in front of me. In that respect The Path to Heaven has worked in the same way for us as the other projects.
All of your previous collaborations dealt with weighty real life themes. How do you think music, and in particular opera, can help our understanding of contemporary issues?
Adam: I would probably never attempt to write a purely instrumental work that attempts to deal with political themes, as I go along with the Stravinsky maxim that ‘Music can only express itself’. However when one has words to deal with in a dramatic context it’s a different issue. Having said that, I think it is important not to get too restricted by the themes explored – I wouldn’t want to write ‘Agitprop’. I would like to think that Anya 17 can be appreciated as a story of brutally thwarted love, cruelty, loss and reconciliation as well as exploring the gruesome subject of trafficking. For me the musical/dramatic experience must come first.
As opposed to the new opera, Anya 17 was different for me in that I knew almost nothing about the subject matter when Ben suggested the idea. I was delighted when the work won an award at the House of Commons, but I’d much rather people come out having been moved by the experience they’ve had in the theatre. This may encourage them to explore the issues more. That’s all I think I can do. Both Anya 17 and The Path to Heaven end with a message of hope.
The final words of The Path To Heaven are ‘Let Them Play’; in other words, let us live in a world where peace prevails and people are allowed to interact fruitfully, which of course is as relevant now as it was at the end of the Second World War. I may not personally be able to directly do anything about the dreadful things we hear about happening in parts of the world, but (speaking for Ben as well) perhaps writing operatic works is our way of not staying silent.
Fiona Finsbury as Hanna and Caroline Taylor as Sara.
Director Stefan Janski, Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh and composer Adam Gorb.
Rehearsals for The Path to Heaven, the Howard Assembly Room, June 2018. Credit: Sarah Foubert.