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Before It All Goes Dark composer Jake Heggie and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny at rehearsal

Composer Jake Heggie (right) conceived the music for the new opera Before It All Goes Dark after hearing about a Chicago-area veteran’s search for his family’s Nazi-looted art. In the opera, the role of the veteran is sung by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (left).

Photo by Tonya McKinny

From Chicago headlines, an eminent composer births a new opera about Nazi-looted art

“Before It All Goes Dark” sets to music a true story from the Chicago suburbs. It will open in Seattle this weekend before making its Chicago premiere May 24 and 25.

Rare is the opera that tells a Chicagoan’s story. And while Before It All Goes Dark, a new work by the in-demand composer Jake Heggie, unfolds mostly in Prague, the protagonist is a middle-aged Vietnam veteran named “Mac” from Lyons, Ill.

Before It All Goes Dark, which opens in Seattle this weekend before traveling to San Francisco and then Chicago on May 24 and 25, follows a man traveling to reclaim artworks looted by the Nazis from a distant ancestor, reclaiming his own Jewish heritage in the process. How Mac — who is based on Gerald McDonald, a real local veteran who passed away in 2005 — wound up a character in the opera starts with the reporting of Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, who in 2001 and 2002 was working on constructing the family tree of Emil Freund, a Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust.

Freund’s art collection was looted by the Nazis, and the pieces sat in storage in Czech museums. His closest heir was unknown. Reich worked from the survivors listed in obituaries to construct a family tree for Freund, leading him to ring Mac’s doorbell in the suburbs.

Nazi-looted art

Priceless artworks taken by the Nazis during World War II have, in recent years, prompted reclamation efforts all over the world. The 16th-century Italian painting Madonna with Child, attributed to Alessandro Turchi, was discovered in Japan and returned to Poland in 2023

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

“ ‘I’m Howard Reich from the Tribune,’ “ he reports saying, “ ‘and if you are who I think you are, you’re heir to this priceless art collection in Prague,’ which sounds like such a lie, you know?”

Reich still feels stunned that his reporting could yield an opera, one that will be presented here by Chicago Opera Theater, in collaboration with the Seattle-based organization Music of Remembrance.

“I’m grateful that a story that I had practically forgotten about now will never be forgotten because it will live on in music,” says Reich, who lives in the northern suburbs.

He recalls what happened after his introduction on the porch in Lyons.

“I come into the house, and [McDonald] disappears into another room and comes back with this little tin box. He’s got birth certificates, marriage certificates for half the people on the family tree, so I knew he was the right guy,” Reich says.

Reich traveled with Mac to the Czech Republic in Summer 2002, despite Mac’s precarious health, and also despite knowing he would not be allowed to return home with the art. The Czech government had declared the trove of artworks to be national treasures, forbidden to leave the country. A two-part series on the journey appeared in the Tribune in October of that year.

Egon Schiele artworks at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Before It All Goes Dark centers on Holocaust-seized art, a theme that has impacted collectors and museums around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago. One artist whose work has been at the center of litigation and investigations worldwide is Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele. Here some works of Schiele’s sit on display at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office on Sept. 20, 2023.

Bobby Caina Calvan/AP

Fast-forward to December 2021. Reich is having dinner with Jake Heggie, the most-performed living composer of opera. (His Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, and Two Remain have all been performed by Chicago companies over the past five or so years.) Heggie says he has a commission from Music of Remembrance for a new opera but no source material to work with.

Unsurprisingly for a recently retired career journalist, Reich had a story for him. Reich says he spent 15 or 20 minutes, uninterrupted, unspooling Mac’s tale — which he hadn’t thought about for years.

“By the end of this unexpected aria of mine,” Reich says, “he says, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’’

“It felt theatrical and operatic,” says Heggie, who is based in San Francisco. “And I could feel music. That’s one of the things that I have to have before I’m going to devote years of my life to a story — I have to feel the music. And that shiver, if that’s not there right away, it’s not the right thing for me. That shiver and that sense of music has happened to me with every big project I’ve taken on.”

Before It All Goes Dark rehearsals

Heggie (left) at rehearsal with ‘Before It All Goes Dark’ mezzo Megan Marino (center) and bass-baritone Ryan McKinney.

Photo by Tonya McKinny

Heggie and his frequent collaborator, the librettist Gene Scheer, set to work adapting Mac’s true story to the demands of the heightened-drama art form of opera. Many of Heggie’s previous works, including Dead Man Walking, the song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire and the Margaret Atwood collaboration Songs for Murdered Sisters have been born from real-life material. But Heggie says once he has settled on the source material, he works from a libretto so as to serve the artistic vision and not a sense of fidelity to true-life messiness.

“I don’t go backwards,” he says. “I only go forwards when I’m working on a project. It’s like when I was writing Dead Man Walking, people were asking me, ‘Would you like to go to Angola penitentiary and see the death chamber?’ And I was like, ‘No. I will not be able to write a note if that happens.’ ”

Reich declares himself impressed with Scheer’s ability to capture Mac in the libretto, including through direct quotes from the Tribune stories. Not only have they adapted the story and remained true to its spirit, but in large part true to the letter as well.

“They’ve accentuated the drama without diluting the truth,” Reich says.

There are moments when the opera diverges from Reich’s reporting. In the opera, Mac does not learn that he cannot take the art home until he sees it in Prague. Instead of the disappointment unfolding as it did in real life, with layers of bureaucracy and complicated causation, it arrives in an onstage instant.

“For us in the audience, it crystallizes the drama — bam! — you feel it,” Reich says. “You feel it as part of it, as it’s happening in real time.”

Another big difference between the true story and its operatic adaptation is there is no Howard Reich character. In real life, Reich accompanied Mac on his travels, but incorporating the journalist risked diluting the focus on Mac. So Scheer and Heggie found a subtle way to honor Reich in the opera. They gave the Prague museum curator, Misha, an aria called “Prisoner of Her Past.” The aria tells the story of Reich’s own mother, a Holocaust survivor, who is the subject of a book and a Kartemquin Films documentary.

What feels already like a Dickensian level of coincidence bringing this story to the stage — Reich the child of Holocaust survivors and a professional music critic with a classical-music performance degree, Heggie looking for a story that Reich happened to have in his back pocket — had one more in store in the timing of its premiere.

Looted art battles have dotted the headlines recently, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York surrendering dozens of works to former homes and the Art Institute of Chicago resisting the seizure of a watercolor by Egon Schiele. (The Art Institute contends its watercolor was lawfully purchased from a family member after World War II.)

And tensions surrounding the war in the Middle East have led to flare-ups of anti-Jewish sentiment, such that the “Never forget” Holocaust-remembrance message has renewed resonance. Mac, both the character and the real person, came in the end to embrace the Jewishness his family had long kept buried. What his ancestors had wanted forgotten, Mac — and the world of opera — now embraces.

If you go: Chicago Opera Theater presents Before It All Goes Dark at the Studebaker Theater on May 25 at 7:30 p.m. and May 26 at 3 p.m. Tickets from $45.

Graham Meyer is a Chicago-based arts journalist.

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