In the 1920's and into the early 1930's, there was a thriving gay culture in Europe, especially in Berlin. But, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, that all changed.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus explores the music of the period, and a tale of two lovers sent to concentration camps – and their different fates - in a program called “Falling In Love Again.”
"In the United States, we think about the struggle for gay rights beginning with Stonewall in the 1960's," says Rick Fisher, executive director of Heartland Men’s Chorus. "But the fact of the matter is the struggle for acceptance of gays and civil rights for gays began in Germany in the late 1800's. And that's what led to the culture of acceptance and vibrancy in the Weimar period, but then it was totally crushed by the Nazi regime."
Joe Nadeau, artistic director of the chorus, says the two acts of the "Falling In Love Again" program are very different in tone.
"The first act is looking at the fun, kind of bawdy, wild Berlin in the Weimar period, about 1919 to 1933," says Nadeau. "We're going to be in a gay jazz club in Berlin, where everything is kind of raucous, gender-bending. We have some great songs, including “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” which was popular at the time, and of course, "Falling in Love Again," which is kind of the feature of the first half and the name of the whole concert."
"The second half (of the program) is a direct contrast to that," says Nadeau. "That is where the Nazi takeover in 1933 happened, and Hitler's rise to power. And how it squelched all the voices of the gay community in Berlin at the time."
Past meets present
"For a Look or a Touch," with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer, tells the story of Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin, two teenagers in Berlin, lovers separated when Lewin and his family were arrested by the Nazis. The Heartland Men's Chorus program also features choreography by William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet.
As Joe Nadeau describes, "Gad, played by Kip Niven, (is) a person in the present moment. He's reading a journal, and he remembers his lover from when he was a teenager. His lover's name is Manfred, and Manfred appears as a ghost. And Manfred is being played by Morgan Smith. His character sings everything. So where Gad speaks everything, Manfred sings everything."
"I knew of this work, but I didn't really know it until I started working on it," says stage director Brian Clay Luedloff, Artistic Director for Opera Fort Collins. "It's fantastic music. He (Jake Heggie)'s such a remarkable composer for the theatre. He just innately understands dramatic action and brings it out through the music."
Haunting memories in a "memory play"
Baritone Morgan Smith, who originated the role of Manfred Lewin in the 2007 production, and premiered the new version with a chorus in Seattle in 2011, say, "It really is an opera now."
"This is a memory play. And these are memories that I believe Gad has been haunted by for 60 years," says actor Kip Niven, who plays the role of Gad Beck. "For me, as an actor, it's wonderful. It's rich text, full of memory, but also very active in the present, because it's very much part of his life still 60 years later."
"It's a piece of fiction that's based very strongly in fact. And beautifully so," adds Niven. "I think people will find it a tremendously moving experience."
"Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, in writing this piece, have not only dealt with important subject matter, but approached it in a way that is really universally accessible," says Smith. "And I think really has the power to change minds. Not only moving its audience and illuminating the importance of the subject matter, but really changing minds."
"The overarching message that is left with the audience is that love between all people should be encouraged in whatever form it takes," adds Smith.
Heartland Men's Chorus presents "Falling in Love Again," March 23 - 24, 2013, at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Mo. The program includes Jake Heggie's 'For a Look or a Touch,' with actor Kip Niven and baritone Morgan Smith, and choreography by the Kansas City Ballet's William Whitener.
The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.