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Music and memory: New Holocaust opera arrives in Australia

In exposing an often-overlooked slice of Holocaust history, Two Remain asks audiences to reflect on how memory affects our existence.
Ruby Kraner-Tucci
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Two hands reaching for each other against a backdrop of barbed wire

Illustration: TJI

Published: 11 July 2024

Last updated: 11 July 2024

An opera about the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust is making its Australian debut at the end of this month.

The ground-breaking production, Two Remain, focuses on the lesser-told experience of World War II – the discrimination and targeting of gay men and political dissidents by Nazi soldiers.

Created by Jake Heggie, a critically-acclaimed American composer behind nine operas including Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life, Two Remain was initially produced for non-profit Music of Remembrance, before premiering with Atlanta Opera and touring across the United States.

Speaking to The Jewish Independent from America, director Cynthia Skelley-Wohlschlager says she is excited for international audiences to experience Two Remain and its message of hope, memory and connection – particularly during such a turbulent time for the Jewish diaspora.

“The whole opera shows this evidence of how memory affects existence. Once someone is gone, they live on in the memories of those who they shared moments with,” she said.

“It is through our memories that we heal, and we face parts of ourselves that allow us to grow and give back to the world in new ways.”

Two Remain tells two separate narratives, both of based on the true stories of Holocaust survivors. Material was sourced from documents and journals in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, autobiographies, interviews, and the documentary Paragraph 175.

The first act introduces audiences to Krystyna Żywulska (1914-1993), a Polish dissident who was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau after escaping the Warsaw Ghetto. An avid writer, Żywulska secretly composed lyrics to inspire fellow prisoners.

In the second act, audiences are transported to Berlin to meet Gad Beck (1923-2012), a gay Jewish man who faced persecution for both his religion and sexuality. Beck's first love, poet Manfred Lewin, was 19-years-old when he and his entire family were murdered in Auschwitz.

Holocaust survivors Krystyna Żywulska, a Polish dissident, and Gad Beck, a gay Jewish man (Image: supplied).
Holocaust survivors Krystyna Żywulska, a Polish dissident, and Gad Beck, a gay Jewish man (Image: supplied).

Both characters are visited by ghosts of their former lives, while fighting against remembering the pain of their past, says Skelley-Wohlschlager. It’s an experience she resonates with – her husband’s family survived camps during the Holocaust.

“These characters are being persecuted for multiple identities. It’s all to do with not wanting to remember but needing to in order to find some kind of catharsis within oneself.”

New to opera? Skelley-Wohlschlager has good news: Two Remain offers a crossover of styles, with jazz, cabaret and swing music featuring heavily. She also says the lyrics are written using a musical theatre convention, where the emphasis is on the words guiding the action forward, and less so on instrumental breaks.

“From my perspective, it just hits the heart in a different way,” said Skelley-Wohlschlager, who has over two decades of experience working in opera, both as a director and performer.

“All types of art that express things that need to be said are moving. But for me, the music in this opera has a life of its own and speaks to those things that words can't always say.”

For the Australian premiere of Two Remain in Melbourne, Skelley-Wohlschlager will travel down under to direct the cast, which is half Australian and half American, and work alongside the crew to “cultivate the visual representation of the story”. The orchestra of six instrumentalists is made up of Australian musicians.

Two Remain promises to be a moving and thought-provoking experience, offering audiences a unique perspective on one of history's darkest periods through the lens of music and storytelling,” Skelley-Wohlschlager concluded.

“We just cannot forget these stories. They're so human, and they're so harrowing. It would be a mistake to let that pain die without remembrance, because it's only bound to be repeated over and over again.

“We must learn from listening to the stories of those who have been persecuted for their identity.”

Two Remain is presented by Nightingale Performing Arts Australia in collaboration with Nightingale Opera USA. It is playing from Thursday 25 to Sunday 28 July 2024 at Fortyfive Downstairs in Melbourne. Purchase tickets and find out more information online.

About the author

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Ruby Kraner-Tucci is a journalist and assistant editor of TJI. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Time Out, Law Society Journal and Dumbo Feather Magazine. She previously reported on the charity sector as a journalist for Pro Bono News and undertook internships at The Australian Jewish News and Broadsheet Media.


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The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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