Heggie’s brief “Before It All Goes Dark” makes a moving impact in Chicago premiere

Mon May 27, 2024 at 10:57 am

By Katherine Buzard

Ryan McKinny and Megan Marino in Jake Heggie’s Before It All Goes Dark, presented by Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Ben Van Houten

Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s latest collaboration made its way to Chicago’s Studebaker Theater this weekend to close out the opera’s three-city premiere tour. Commissioned by Music of Remembrance and presented in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater, Before It All Goes Dark tells the real-life story of Chicagoan Gerald “Mac” McDonald, a troubled Vietnam War vet who, thanks to the investigative journalism of Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune, discovers he is the sole living descendent and heir of Emil Freund. 

Freund was a prominent Jewish businessman from Prague who was killed in the Holocaust in 1942. He left behind a substantial art collection that was looted by the Nazis and then languished in a warehouse in Prague for 60 years. Unfortunately, as soon as Reich broke the story in December 2001, the Czech government declared Freund’s art collection a national treasure, preventing it from ever leaving the country. For Mac, who was living on disability, suffering from PTSD, and awaiting a liver transplant, this news was a devastating blow. 

Before It All Goes Dark marks Heggie’s third opera for Music of Remembrance, an organization dedicated to commissioning, performing, and recording new works that tell the stories of those persecuted during the Holocaust. Commission in hand but no idea for a plot, Heggie was fortunate enough to attend a dinner party with Reich, who told him about Mac’s story.

Librettist Gene Scheer turns Reich’s stories into a poetic journey of self-discovery for Mac that demonstrates the transformative power of art. In Scheer’s retelling, we first see Mac at his apartment in Lyons, Illinois, packing for his trip to Prague to see his great-great uncle’s art collection. In Prague, he is confronted by not only his past and his family’s secrets but also Czech bureaucracy. He returns to the US, not with his inheritance, but with a connection to his newly discovered Jewish heritage and a growing appreciation for art.

A one-act chamber opera, Before It All Goes Dark may be small in scale, but it packed an emotional punch in a taut 45 minutes in Sunday’s matinee. Scored for just two singers and seven instrumentalists (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano), Heggie makes economical use of the limited forces. 

Just off his star turn as Joseph De Rocher in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the Metropolitan Opera this season, Ryan McKinny lent his powerful bass-baritone to the similarly troubled role of Mac. While his robust voice was impactful in the emotionally explosive scenes, he lost some vocal clarity and consistency when singing in more vulnerable moments.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino did triple duty as Sally (Mac’s neighbor), Misha (a curator at the Jewish Museum in Prague), and the specter of Emil Freund. Her ability to change quickly (both in costume and character) was impressive. Known for favoring the mezzo-soprano voice, Heggie once again has written an appealing mezzo part that displayed Marino’s solid yet malleable voice to the best effect.

The score was trademark Heggie in its contemporary yet approachable style, inflected with elements of the blues and rock ’n roll. The seven instrumentalists, drawn from the ranks of the Seattle Symphony, were exceptionally tight under the direction of conductor Joseph Mechavich. The Overture featured rhythmically driven music as Emil quickly packs a suitcase as he’s forced to leave his home. (“What’s the last thing you reach for before it all goes dark?” Mac later ponders.) This music cleverly turns into the heavy metal Mac blasts at home to calm himself. The agitated opening theme recurs during moments of peak emotional intensity, such as when Misha describes the harrowing train journey to the concentration camps Emil would have faced.

A standout musical and dramatic moment came when Mac is shown Emil’s art collection in the basement of the museum. Looking at the artwork Emil lovingly and carefully selected, Mac wonders what it must be like to be chosen and loved—something missing from his childhood. The projections on the back wall by media designer Peter Crompton came to life as animated images of Emil’s paintings and light swirled around the auditorium like an immersive art installation. 

The short opera was preceded by a conversation between Mina Miller of Music of Remembrance and journalist Reich, who described the real-life story behind the opera. (Although the program booklet listed Heggie and Scheer as part of the conversation, they were not present.) This short talk was followed by an imagined salon concert in Emil’s Prague apartment, featuring music by composers who would soon perish in the Holocaust. 

During the concert, Marino graced the stage as Emil, interacting with the instrumentalists as they played selections of chamber music by David Beigelman, Robert Dauber, and Erwin Schulhoff. This device was an ingenious way to frame the production and get the listener into Emil’s sound world. It also allowed the audience to appreciate each individual player within the Music of Remembrance Ensemble. Especially moving was Dauber’s Serenata for Violin and Piano, played with great conviction by violinist Mikhail Shmidt and pianist Jessica Choe.

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