April 12, 2007
Stark locations make perfect sets for ‘Anne Frank’ opera production
Few subjects resonate like the story of Anne Frank and her diary. The tale is familiar to many, yet even those who know little about the young writer's life equate her name with courage in the face of grim reality. Beyond the much-translated diary, published in various incarnations (original, unexpurgated, revised critical), Anne's story lives on in Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's Tony Award-winning play, first mounted on Broadway in 1955 and then revived in 1997, as well as the Oscar-winning 1959 movie derived from it.|
Anne's diary also inspired an opera composed in 1969 by Grigori Frid (sometimes credited as Fried because of the vagaries of transliteration), that had its premiere in Moscow in 1972 and was later performed in the Netherlands. It was first seen in the United States in 1978, and it has continued to be mounted in this country, albeit rarely.
Now Long Beach Opera, a company known for its daring repertory and unconventional interpretations, is presenting the West Coast premiere of "The Diary of Anne Frank," with three performances, from April 17 to 21 at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and at Lincoln Park in Long Beach. (Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood will also present a semistaged performance on Yom HaShoah, April 15.)
Conducted and directed by Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera's artistic and administrative head, this production takes a daring new turn. He is staging the opera -- really an hourlong monodrama for soprano -- in parking structures at Sinai Temple and Lincoln Park.
Mitisek has also augmented Frid's work, both by interpolating some material by Anne not set by the composer and by adding readings by Laura Hillman, whose book, "I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree: A Memoir of a Schindler's List Survivor," struck a chord with him.
"The monodrama is 21 little scenes, snapshots of Anne Frank," the conductor said in an interview. "And within that, I have added scenes of Anne speaking sections from the diary. Then I have Laura read short excerpts from her book and also some of her poetry."
Mitisek, an Austrian who works throughout Europe and the United States, said he was inspired to make this addition, because Hillman survived the Holocaust, whereas Anne and most of her family did not.
"Laura is a living example of what happened," Mitisek said. "It makes it go beyond a regular performance. You're not faking things. Frid took Anne's words and set them to music. And I'm just supplementing that with information that makes it even stronger. I wanted to incorporate someone who lived through that."
Mitisek came across Hillman's book last year and to his surprise, learned that she lived near Long Beach.
"So I just contacted her," he said, "and I found she's a close friend of one of our board members."
For her part, Hillman, who at 83 has often spoken publicly of her experiences but never before performed, was struck by Mitisek's earnestness.
"I think it's a worthy project, definitely," she said. "There are so many people who are so vague about the Holocaust. They don't really know. But when they hear this libretto, it has to sink in. And when they hear my letters about my father being arrested and how he died, I think it will make a difference. It will educate the public."
Mitisek insisted that staging this work in parking structures is not a gimmick but rather a novel means of conveying an important message.
"It seemed too convenient to do it in a regular space where we're so cozy," he said. "I wanted an environment that gives you a different feeling. We wander through parking garages and never think about them. But back then, they stored people like cars in a garage. So it's a metaphor in the widest sense -- of alienation and of being uncomfortable."
Alan Muraoka, who first worked with Mitisek two years ago on Long Beach Opera's staged version of Schubert's despairing song cycle, "Winterreise," is the production's designer.
"What I'd like to provide is not so much a design as an environment," he said. "You won't expect scenery in the traditional sense. We're not looking at a reproduction of the attic per se."
Literalism would be out of place anyway, given that Anne shares the stage with Hillman in Mitisek's production. "It's set both in present time and back in time," Muraoka said. "They co-exist. A lot is kept loose."
As for any physical differences between the Los Angeles and Long Beach venues, Muraoka expects the staging to be similar, if not identical.
"We're trying to replicate," he said. "But the spaces are different, so the experience will be different."
Experience seems to be the operative word here, with Mitisek noting, "I'd like to make it more an experience than a performance, which sounds detached."
Casting Anne proved the conductor's biggest challenge. "You have to find someone who doesn't sound or look ridiculous playing a 13- to 15-year-old," he said. "It's like casting the lead in Strauss' 'Salome.'"
Ultimately, Mitisek chose Ani Maldjian, 24, who was in the young artists program at Seattle Opera when he was conducting Mozart's "Don Giovanni" there. She had previously done chorus work at Long Beach Opera.
"Andreas asked me to be wild and improvise some staging, so I showed him what I can do," the soprano recalled of a tryout that occurred last October. "A couple of weeks later, he called and offered me the role of Anne. I had no idea I was auditioning for anything specific."
Mitisek put the singer through her paces. "I like to give challenges," he said, "so I asked her to go beyond her limits."
Yet even under pressure, several attributes emerged in short order. "Ani is young, and looks it," Mitisek said. "Her voice has just the right maturity but still has the youthful quality to make it believable. And she's a great presence on stage. She's willing to go beyond, to do whatever it takes." Whatever it takes accurately characterizes the situation, according to Maldjian.
"It's some of the hardest singing I've ever done," she said. "The pitches are not the easiest thing to learn. It's not atonal, but it's not quite tonal, either. It's not something that you sit down and listen to a few times and get it in your ear. Learning it has been a slow process."
Frid's score isn't the only hurdle. "Anne is young and an adult in one brain," the soprano said. "That's the tricky part, finding both aspects of her -- naive and mature.
"She knows what her future holds, so that's hard," she continued. "I'm also trying to recall when I first liked a boy, when I wrote about my friends in my journal, what it's like to be mad at your parents. Yet it's freeing playing this part. When I'm rehearsing, I escape the responsibilities of being an adult. I can just be young again."
Though Maldjian cannot draw on familial connections to the Holocaust, she can relate to genocide in a personal way.
"I'm Armenian, and I have the same history as the Jewish people," she said. "I understand from the point of view of my ancestors. I know what they went though. Of course, we can't ever really understand. Yet I feel I know Anne Frank; that I understand the sadness and hope in her heart."
Feeling the immediacy of this subject is especially important to Mitisek, whose heritage automatically connects him to the Holocaust. Though he learned about the war from his grandmother, who lived through it, he said that his homeland's coming to terms with that history remains unfinished: "There's still a lot to do in Austria and Germany about the war.
Needing to go through it, talking, working through it."
Yet Mitisek's commitment to staging "Anne Frank" goes beyond personal feelings. He considers her story to have universal appeal.
"It's like why do 'Electra' again," he said, invoking both the ancient Greek play by Sophocles and the opera by Richard Strauss. "There are so many stories that are told numerous times. Anne Frank's story is one of encouragement."
Full opera performances will take place at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17 and Thursday, April 19 at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Another performance is scheduled for 4p.m. Saturday, April 21, in the garage at Lincoln Park, 101 Pacific Ave., downtown Long Beach. For tickets ($15-$70) and more information, call (562) 432-5934.
The semistaged opera at Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave, West Hollywood, will take place at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 15. $30 (members), $40 (nonmembers). For more information, call (323) 606-0996.
David Mermelstein writes about the arts for various print and online publications. :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Actor Richard Belzer carries a photo of Anne Frank in his wallet. Click the BIG ARROW to find out why. Video courtesy Jewish TV Network.