"Do You Remember" is a phrase Berlin teenager Manfred Lewin used in the title of a journal he wrote as a gift for his lover, Gad Beck, before Lewin and his family were arrested by the Nazis. Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have borrowed the phrase as a recurring motif in For a Look or a Touch, their new mini-opera telling the pair's tragic story. The piece, which premiered May 7, was commissioned by Music of Remembrance.
Lewin and his family died in Auschwitz while Beck survived, living in Berlin to this day. Much of Scheer's text is taken from Lewin's poetry and from interviews with Beck and other Holocaust survivors in the documentary film Paragraph 175. Until their stories were unearthed, gays had been denied even the comfort of open grieving.
In Look, cast as a staged song-cycle, Lewin's ghost (Morgan Smith), forever 19, visits the elderly Beck (Julian Patrick), asking him to revisit memories he's kept buried. Lewin's songs are interspersed with Beck's spoken narration; the men poignantly join voices for only a few bars at the very end, humming together as they embrace.
Heggie launches his score with a dreamy, slightly lurid interlacing of instrumental lines, wavering between major and minor, and the opening song climaxes in a gorgeous, Glassian upward rush, the voice sailing overhead. This sequence contains Look's most memorable music, and Heggie is wise to reprise it near the end. Next, a hot-cha swing number, complete with smoky, wailing clarinet (Laura DeLuca), reminds us of the decadent, between-the-wars Berlin nightlife, when same-sex love, and lust, achieved an openness it wouldn't enjoy again for a half-century. Oddly, though, this evocation of a time and place that was flamboyantly out—a destroyed paradise for Lewin and Beck as for thousands of others—hides behind ungendered pronouns. It seems like a failure of nerve, considering that in later songs Scheer pulls no punches describing the horrors of the camps (though Heggie's opulent music sugarcoats them a bit).
Admirably, this project avoided any distasteful hint of me-too-ism. It seemed inevitable that at some point Music of Remembrance, after several seasons of bearing eloquent witness to the ruin wrought by the Nazis' ethnic prejudices, would address the sexual ones as well, but nothing about Look suggests it was motivated by the desire to grab for gay people our fair share of Holocaust pity. What gives the work its moral strength is that it's the story of two particular characters taken from life. Look doesn't invite you to identify with Lewin and Beck—which means, thank God, the piece is not about us, the sensitive oppressed boys in the audience, see how noble we are? Look does not encourage self-pity or allow the listener the cheap thrill of risk-free vicarious suffering.
Heggie's choice of instruments—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—ensures the work's widespread performability; these five instruments are also the most common chamber-music grouping of the last 50 years. The piece was built to travel. The first priority for subsequent stagings, I hope, will be to organize one in Berlin while Look's hero is still with us.