Pacific Opera Victoria’s second leap into the world of film is very different from its psychedelic, special-effects-laden first, Elizabeth Raum’s The Garden of Alice. Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch, seen April 23 on a big screen at the Royal Theatre, is firmly based in the real world, as much as we might yearn for it to be fiction.
For a Look or a Touch tells the story of Manfred (baritone Andrew Love) and Gad (actor C. David Johnson) who were caught up in the Nazi’s persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. Gad survived and is now old; Manfred died, but his 19-year-old self returns one night to visit his former lover.
Librettist Gene Scheer based his text on the journal of Manfred Lewin––a gay Jew who perished at Auschwitz with his family––and on a documentary called Paragraph 175, which Heggie had found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The film includes testimony from five gay men in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who survived the camps. From these two sources, Scheer built a script that combines Manfred’s poetry with Heggie’s score in a way that is, by turns, light, even happy, intensely poetic, and terribly tragic.
Director Michael Shamata chose to shoot the one-hour opera on the same Royal Theatre stage where POV aired the film of it, with the six-member chamber ensemble, led by Timothy Vernon, occasionally visible to one side and the (superb) 12-member male chorus always somewhere in the frame, standing behind the two main characters. While some of the cuts from one spot or one face to another felt rough, the filming, by director of photography David Malysheff, mostly stayed simple and out of the way, letting the story and music speak for themselves.
Heggie’s score ranged from an up-tempo swing and a sexy tango (expertly choreographed by Jacques Lemay and danced by Vitor Freitas and Pedro Siqueira) for a scene set in a gay dance hall before the persecution began, to mournful even gentle art songs with just a hint of dissonance when Manfred tells Gad stories aboutthe brutality of the camps, such as when a good boy called Joe is pulled apart by guard dogs.
As a singer, Love is experienced in performing both grand opera and musical theatre and he “gets” the modern-yet-dated feel I think Heggie is going for here, and he sang the story of his own horrific, crucifixion-like death in Der Singende Wald (The Singing Forest) with a calmness and simplicity that sent chills down the spine and tears to the eyes. As an actor, Johnson is just as accomplished as Love and delivered his part of the story very well. But the reality is, in a battle between the spoken and the sung word, the sung will win every time––especially when the words being sung are as poetic and as brutal as those in this opera. Every time the action switched to Gad, with his everyday English and wearying guilt, the piece deflated, not completely, but enough to make one wish Heggie and Scheer had found a way to write it for two singers.
Despite that, however, the opera rings true in the heart and holds up in the memory, and I would love to see For a Look or a Touch again, but this time live. Film is much less forgiving than the stage, where a man who is clearly not 19 years old anymore, and another who is nowhere near as ancient as he is supposed to be, can get away with it anyway, and microphone wires, if used at all, remain unseen.
Other opera companies should be clamoring to add this to their seasons.
More on Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2022 season here.
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