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A Matter Of Death And Death: The Washington National Opera Chooses Sophie

A review of Sophie’s Choice

Libretto by composer Nicholas Maw

Sung in English and German with English subtitles

September 21-October 9, 2006

(See website for future performances)

Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center

2600 Virginia Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.




Although Sophie Zawistowska asserts that nothing would have been different, had she chosen her six-year-old daughter, Eva, to live and her 10-year-old son, Jan, to die instead, she could not have known with any degree of certainty that circumstances would not have proven radically different. Had she chosen differently, Jan, and not Eva, would have cried out to his mother as the Nazi soldiers led him to be killed. He would have been the one who died knowing that his mother did not love him best. Perhaps Eva would have fared better in Auschwitz. Perhaps she would have found some miraculous way to escape. Oftentimes, the tortures people endure in their minds, when hindsight kicks in and one indulges oneself with what-if questions, are the most unfathomable terrors.


In one sense, Sophie is right when she says her choice ultimately was irrelevant: Jan never had a chance, even though he was “chosen”. The diabolical German doctor – who gave Sophie the choice when she entered Auschwitz, as to which of her children she would take with her and which one would be killed – must have known that he was forcing a mother to choose which child would die immediately, and which one would last another few days or months, before s/he was killed. That was the intention of his evil act. He forced Sophie to make a choice that she would have to grapple with painfully and guiltily for her entire life, even though the choice did not matter. Or, more technically, she would never have any way of knowing if it mattered.


Sophie chooses Jan immediately – after the doctor tells her that indecision or refusal to answer will cost her both children – but she would never know Jan’s fate. In Auschwitz, Sophie compromises upon her morality and sense of decency to curry favor with a Nazi official whom she begs to protect her son. The official promises but, of course, never fulfills his promise. Which is worse, wonders a devastated Sophie, in the recent production of “Sophie’s Choice” at the Washington National Opera – knowing that one has lost a child or wondering what happened to the child who may be alive or dead? The wondering becomes the torture.


William Styron wrote the novel Sophie’s Choice in 1979, and the narrative was adapted to the screen in Alan Pakula’s 1982 film by the same name. An opera was inevitable. British composer Nicholas Maw wrote the opera in 2002 for the Royal Opera House (London). The enterprise of attending to such a difficult theme within operatic form caught the attention of the British critics, many of whom panned the performance – some pettily, as merely objecting to the opera’s extended length (it is nearly three-and-a-half hours in its truncated, Washington version, which nixed scenes like the train to Auschwitz).


But the opera carries a certain irony in Washington, D.C. The narrator, Stingo, is a southern writer, whom Maw casts twice in the opera -sometimes as an older man (Dale Duesing) reflecting back on the story and other times, as a young man (Gordon Gietz) within the action. The two Stingos join together for a duet in the last minutes of the performance (one of the better singing ventures in the opera which is surprisingly more dialogue oriented than singing), symbolically indicating that Stingo has come of age and finally unraveled the intricacies of the stories of his two boarding home neighbors: Nathan and Sophie.


Nathan and Sophie are an unlikely couple -Nathan is literally a jealous, abusive wreck, while Sophie is far more calm and controlled – and they seem to have about nothing in common except their desire (or even obsession) to live deceitful lies, which they are increasingly unable to hide from Stingo. Nathan, a racist who is also anti-South, makes fun of Stingo’s southern accent and manners.


Indeed, a large theme of the opera is language, as Stingo, Nathan, and Sophie join together to make fun of Sophie’s ill grasp of the English language (she is a Polish, non-Jewish refugee), and the multitude of superfluous English words that convey the same idea. In its London run, the southern accents might have been convincing. But in Washington, where easily half of the opera audience members came from Virginia (where Stingo grew up), a Virginian accent posing as prototypical southern drawl is comical.


But comedy is otherwise hard to come by in the opera. To Maw, the opera’s tragic themes are still relevant today, as they deal with “events that are not exactly contemporary, but still have an enormous effect on our lives. In a sense, they are contemporary – the tragedies we see in the Middle East, the subject of the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps and so forth The characters encompass a universal tragedy in a way that we can all relate to and that we immediately understand. We don’t necessarily have sympathy with all of them but we understand them.”


The set design (Robert Schweer) is minimalist in concept, which includes a yellow rectangular platform in the center of the stage (which somehow evokes Edward Hopper) that functions as the boarding house where Nathan, Sophie, and Stingo live. The characters hang a banner on the wall and remove it to show the passage of time, indicating flashbacks. The boarding house is effectively two doors in the wall (the tiles are stamped with the Statue of Liberty to suggest New York City), and scene changes simply involve adding or subtracting chairs, until the last scene, in which the wall is split into four pieces (like a jigsaw puzzle).


Surrounding the “house area,” the edges of the stage show photographs (thousands, perhaps) hanging about like vines. During the performance, I interpreted those images as Holocaust victims silently looking down upon the action. At other times, the images – wonderfully lit by Jeff Bruckerhoff – looked like snowflakes or glistening stars. But the images were, in fact, photographs of employees at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where the performance initially ran.


One of the most innovative parts of the opera is the use of space. The central space – the boarding house – becomes the locus of action in real time, while characters who venture off the platform into the shadowy photograph-pasted sections of the stage are often remembering past events or delving into their unconscious.


Memory, of course, is impossible, as the narrator (Stingo) concludes. “I once hoped to understand Auschwitz through Sophie and all her contradictions. I know now, I never will.” But the narrator offers one more meditation, which I have seen attributed to everyone from Elie Wiesel to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Immanuel Jakobovits to Sonia Weitz to Eliezer Berkovits: “Where was man?”


Even if Styron’s powerful image of Sophie’s choice can never even approximate the horrors of the Holocaust, and even if Maw’s opera cannot approach the magnitude of Styron’s metaphor, the image of Sophie exposed in a cold white light, holding her two children, as she is instructed to choose one or the other, is so terrible and so wonderfully operatic, that it is hard to imagine many audience members who were not moved. And that, after all, is one of the greatest effects art can have.


Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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