web analytics
September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

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.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “A Matter Of Death And Death: The Washington National Opera Chooses Sophie”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
A male figure sculpted on the sarcophagus cover, possibly the image of the deceased.
Unique 1,800-Year-Old Sarcophagus Found at Ashkelon Building Site
Latest Sections Stories

Though each member of Meira Academy’s 2015 graduating class was accepted to a university, all of the girls have chosen to spend a gap year in Israel to attend seminary before they head to college.

The two Torah giants spent hours discussing a variety of Torah topics, some of which went well beyond subjects normally dealt with in Lithuanian yeshivas.

Lunchbox Restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Bringing your own sandwich to a restaurant would appear as the height of chutzpah, but not any more—at least not at Lunchbox…

Last year, OneFamily published a cookbook in Hebrew featuring the bereaved mothers’ recipes.

How did an unresolved murder case turn into an accusation of ritual murder?

Excerpted from The Apple Cookbook (c) Olwen Woodier. Photography by (c) Leigh Beisch Photography with Food Stylist Robyn Valarik. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

The flag had been taken down in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting and was now back and flying.

A light breakfast of coffee and danishes will be available during the program.

A variety of glatt kosher food will be available for purchase at Kosher Korner (near Section 1).

Jewish Press South Florida Editor Shelley Benveniste will deliver a talk.

Corey Brier, corresponding secretary of the organization, introduced the rabbi.

The magnificent 400-seat sanctuary with beautiful stained glass windows, a stunning carved glass Aron Kodesh, a ballroom, social hall, and beis medrash will accommodate the growing synagogue.

Even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before.

I’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions regarding bullies, friendship and learning disabilities.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/a-matter-of-death-and-death-the-washington-national-opera-chooses-sophie/2006/10/25/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: