The Quad Cities is among just a handful of cities nationwide to stage the 2018 opera “Two Remain (Out of Darkness).”

The area premiere of the Holocaust opera “Two Remain” will be on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre, Rock Island.

Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s moving two-act opera — to be performed at Augustana College Saturday, Oct. 22 — centers on Holocaust survivors visited by ghosts of their past. In Act I, Krystyna shares her gripping story of survival with a journalist, and is helped by the ghosts of Auschwitz who were inspired by her written lyrics.

Composer Jake Heggie has written the operas Dead Man WalkingMoby-Dick, Three DecembersIt’s a Wonderful LifeIf I Were You, Great Scott, and Two Remain. Photo Credit: © Ellen Appel

In Act II, Gad Beck is visited by his first true love, the poet Manfred Lewin, who perished in Auschwitz. As Manfred implores Gad to remember and celebrate their love, the painful truth of their stories and fates emerges. “Two Remain” — part of the QC-wide “Out of Darkness” series of events — is based in part on the true stories of two Holocaust survivors: the Polish dissident Krystyna Zywulska (1914-1993) and the gay German Jew, Gad Beck (1923-2012).

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra production (conducted by Ernesto Estigarribia and directed by Shelley Cooper) has a top-notch cast with several singers who have QC connections:

  • Sarah Shafer, Krystyna
  • Kelly Hill, Zosia
  • Nathaniel Sullivan, Manfred
  • Patrick McNally, Gad Beck
  • Claire Kuttler, Krysia
  • Lily Arbisser, Mariola
  • Stephanie Doche, Edka
  • Dancers from Augustana College

Arbisser, a Davenport native, posted recently on Facebook that “Two Remain” is “powerful, difficult; I think it was a good choice made by the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities along with the QCSO to include it in their Holocaust education programming, committed as these organizations are to inspiring tolerance and to fighting against antisemitism and bigotry.”

New York-based soprano Lily Arbisser is a Davenport native.

She’s happy that while opera will be performed only once live for the public, its important messages will be spread further by offering a live stream option.

“Of course, this also makes it possible for me to share this music with those of you who don’t live in the Quad Cities area (and the live stream link will be good until January 7th, 2023),” Arbisser said. “Judging from how beautifully committed everyone is, I think Oct. 22nd will be an important and impactful evening.”

“The singers are wonderful and so committed in their portrayals as we tell a very specific and personal survivor’s story, and in so doing seek to honor the broader memory of Holocaust victims, survivors and their families/descendants,” Kuttler posted on Facebook.

While rehearsals only began on Oct. 16, performers got the score a long time ago and Cooper is working with three of the stars from the QCSO world premiere of “Karkinos” (by Augustana’s Jacob Bancks) this past February in Moline — Shafer, Hill and Sullivan.

Rehearsing for “Two Remain” (Out of Darkness” at Brunner Theatre in Rock Island.

“It is a crazy amount of work in a short amount of time,” Cooper said recently of “Two Remain.”

“Those singers are phenomenal – they know their music; they know their stuff; they know their characters,” the director said. “They’re also such gracious people. I wouldn’t have been able to do the work I was able to do – that’s a big part of it, to direct something this quickly, we all need to come into it super prepared, and everyone is.”

The busy cast has performed all over the world. “This is a first-class production on all levels,” Cooper said. “On top of this being a first-class production, the subject matter – Jake Heggie has written a masterpiece, and the libretto is stunning.”

The six QCSO instrumentalists are on stage for the performance.

Two true stories

“Two Remain” (which premiered in Atlanta in 2018 and was done earlier this year in Chicago) is special for focusing on these individual, real-life true stories.

Director Shelley Cooper teaches at Augustana in Rock Island.

“What I love about this is how it has a lot to do with grief, and how grief is non-linear and comes in so many different waves,” Cooper said. “You see that within both Krystyna in the first act and Gad Beck in the second act, and how it haunts them.

“They both have haunting tales to tell, in very different ways,” she said. “These are not the stories you typically hear about the Holocaust.”

She has never heard stories told like this, and has gained a new perspective on the Holocaust because of “Two Remain.”

There also aren’t a lot of dramatic stories shared about gay people during the Holocaust, so the opera is important simply for that, Cooper said.

Nathaniel Sullivan, left, and Patrick McNally rehearse for “Two Remain.”

“Seeing this couple – and what I love about the second act, you see their joy,” she said. “Within that, it’s almost more tragic this way. You see there once was this beautiful, joyful relationship and how it all came down.”

It’s one of her favorite moments in the opera, and showing that “actually makes the story more tragic. That moment is really brilliant,” Cooper said. “It’s not a story that gets told.”

The opera explores many stages of grief, as characters go on a rollercoaster of emotions, she said.

“Be the light”

The message of the show is “Be the light in the darkness.” When Cooper researched the Holocaust, she found that principle.

“Even though the stories are so gut-wrenching, that was one thing that was very clear,” she said. “It encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to. But also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness, to be the light before, during, and after the genocide.”

Kelly Hill, left, Stephanie Doche and Claire Kuttler rehearse the new opera.

“That is something we’re trying to bring very clear to the forefront,” Cooper said.

The light, even in darkness, can really stand out, but it needs to be nurtured, she said.

“There are candles you’ll see on stage, which represent these little flickers of light, and so those become pretty symbolic throughout the show,” Cooper said, noting the set is very bare bones (black with modular furniture).

Right now, we’re in a time when some people are denying the Holocaust even existed.

“I can’t even fathom how someone could come to that conclusion,” Cooper said. “It’s insulting. Or you have people saying that showing your vaccine card is the same as Jewish people having to show the star of David. It’s just the epitome of narcissism and entitlement.

“So I think it’s important that we have to remember this, because this can never happen again,” she said. “I think this needs to be talked about and talked about at length, because we sweep some stuff under the rug, and it resurfaces.”

At Augustana, this is an opportunity for students to see the opera, and they’re having local high school students see it Friday morning, followed by a Q & A with the cast and director.

“That is really important they see something like this,” Cooper said. “Increasing levels of denial, division and misinformation in today’s world mean we must remain vigilant against hatred and identity-based hostility. Rapid technological developments, a turbulent political climate, and world events beyond our control can leave us feeling helpless and insignificant.

“There is a disturbing amount of Identity-based prejudice and hostility today,” she added.

Singing social issues

Estigarribia (the QCSO associate conductor, music director of QC Symphony Youth Ensembles and Augie’s director of orchestras) saw a production of Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking” while he was in grad school at the University of Minnesota.

“I was just captivated by the music, the style and the concept and ‘Dead Man Walking’ is deep and it has a big social aspect to it,” he said recently. “I always had an interest in operas, especially contemporary operas, that are in tune to social issues of today, more so than concerts.”

Ernesto Estigarribia is conducting the opera.

“Two Remain” is very relevant today “because it touches on prejudice, touches on hatred, it touches on cruelty, it touches the persecution of minorities,” Estigarribia said. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

“We have to learn from history and not just the brave and heroic chapters of history, but also the atrocious moments of humankind and this is certainly a low point, if it’s not the lowest point of humanity,” he said. “Unless we continue learning, we continue exploring and understanding the Holocaust, things like it will repeat itself.” 

The Holocaust opera (also one of very few on the harrowing, huge topic) is important for reflecting not only persecution and murder of Jews, but also dissidents and gays.

“In a subtle way, the opera addresses the denial of the Holocaust, which happens to be a very timely topic today,” Estigarribia said. “There’s a small sector of the population who believes that this is all invented, that this never happened. That is very dangerous and towards the end of the opera, one of the characters says, ‘It really happened, we were there’.”

There are contemporary operas that tackle social issues of today, like LGBTQ, transgender and indigenous peoples, Estigarribia said.

Lily Arbisser, right, and Claire Kuttler rehearse for “Two Remain.”

“These pieces like ‘Two Remain’ and ‘As One,’ they are all baby operas,” he said. “This is a toddler opera and I hope it gets performed many more times because it’s so beautifully done. It’s tastefully done.”

Given its topic, it would have been “so easy to go on cruelty or so easy to go on violence, it’s so easy to just like have a history lecture, but this does none of that,” the conductor said of “Two Remain.” “It’s very well done.”

“We have a history of celebrating orchestral tradition, but we’re also always seeking what’s new, what’s cutting-edge and I’m happy to be part of it,” Estigarribia said.

Audiences do not have to be Jewish or gay to identify with its protagonists, but the opera simply reflects the strength of any minority or underrepresented group.

“This is the principal reason why I chose it, to present it because anybody could empathize from any angle,” he said.

The opera was commissioned by Music of Remembrance (Mina Miller, founder and artistic director) through a generous award by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Music of Remembrance Commissioning Circle.

The opera had its professional premiere in Atlanta in April 2018.

The two one-acts were first done in 2016 at Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Wash., and the professional opera company world premiere was by Atlanta Opera, April 5, 2018, directed by Tomer Zvulun and conducted by Joseph Mechavich.

Connected to ‘Cabaret’

Cooper (assistant professor of musical theater at Augustana) is also directing another Nazi-tinged show, the classic musical “Cabaret” — which premiered in 1966 with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. The story takes place in 1929-1930 Berlin, as Nazis are ascending to power in Germany.

She started “Cabaret” rehearsals in late September, and it will be performed at the college’s Brunner Theatre from Nov. 17 to 20, 2022. Patrick McNally, who plays Gad Beck in “Two Remain,” is music director for “Cabaret,” and is a new visiting opera professor.

This week, the “Cabaret” stage manager, assistant director and dramaturg are leading rehearsals.

“That’s a wonderful moment for them; they get to be on their own. They got to plan out rehearsals,” Cooper said.

“Cabaret” is not technically part of the “Out of Darkness” series, but it is definitely related, she noted.

Cooper’s concept for “Two Remain” is for people to be the light in the darkness.

“They’re so connected. I realized I will be in the Holocaust from September to the end of November,” Cooper said. “If you look at my directing concept for ‘Cabaret’ and for this, they’re almost identical.”

“Cabaret” represents the prequel to the rise of the Third Reich.

“We see this coming and we try as we can do stop it, but we don’t,” she said. “With ‘Cabaret,’ you see how did we get to this place and how did we get here so quickly? It happened so quickly in ‘Cabaret’ and it sneaks up on you.”

The “Out of Darkness” is in the trenches of the Holocaust, Cooper said.

“I wish shows like ‘Two Remain’ and ‘Cabaret’ were museum pieces, like these were things that happened in our past, and they’re not – neither of them are museum pieces,” she said. “The biggest thing for me about the MAGA stuff is, the Holocaust deniers are saying, it wasn’t that bad. Are you kidding me?

A scene from the 2018 production of “Cabaret” at St. Ambrose University, Davenport.

“It’s one of the biggest smacks in the face,” Cooper said.

In the opera, there’s no chorus, but it features three student dancers.

“In the first act, they are more guards at the concentration camp,” she said. “In the second act, you see them in the Berlin jazz nightclub, and that is very choreographed.” That has strong echoes of “Cabaret,” much of which takes place in the Berlin Kit Kat Klub.

How to get tickets

The “Two Remain” digital concert will be a live stream on Oct. 22, 2022, at 7:30 p.m., and will be available for viewing following the live stream through Jan. 7, 2023. Please allow until noon on the following day for video processing of the live-streamed event before attempting to access the recording.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, join host Kai Swanson, conductor Ernesto Estigarribia, and director Shelley Cooper in the hall one hour prior to the performance for an informational pre-concert conversation about the work.

The Brunner Theatre Center is at 3750 7th Ave., Rock Island. Tickets are $35 each for adults; $10 for students, and $35 per household for Live Stream + Digital Access, available HERE.