Influenced by Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, composer Thomas Morse set out to honor the story of Schindler’s Jews and the man who rescued them during the Holocaust by writing an opera. Along the way, he altered the opera’s path, instead focusing on a lesser known player, and a unique perspective in the story—Oskar’s wife, Emilie. Morse and I had a chance to speak via Skype recently, just after the premiere of Frau Schindler in Germany.
Morse explained that the road to creating Frau Schindler began after seeing Spielberg’s film. His first instinct was to do an opera version. But soon, he realized that it was “terrible idea. We don’t need an opera version of that film. And it wouldn’t translate. But in the course of pursuing that idea, I did run across the story of Oskar Schindler’s wife, Emilie, and that struck me very deeply as a wonderful story, an important story, but also one that blended itself perfectly to opera.”
It was an opportunity to explore a different aspect of the story. Morse noted, “Steven Spielberg did such an amazing job of portraying the horror of that time that it simply wasn’t necessary to try to do that again, and it wouldn’t work anyway.”
Unlike the urgency of cinematic storytelling, opera can hone in on the emotional beats. It’s a “medium “where you can slow down a little bit, and really examine the psychology of the times, how people during that time thought. How they turned things around in their minds to kind of rationalize and look the other way and sort of go with the flow, what was happening around them.”
Morse explained that “the opera is not about fascism; it’s not about war. It’s not about the Nazis or anything like that. It’s about Emilie Schindler.” This is the story of a “perfectly normal person, perfectly ordinary person, who got caught in this increasingly escalating horror around her.” The opera explores how Emilie reacts to this world, “make a decision to not go with the flow and do something about it,” he added.
Fascism doesn’t usually happen suddenly, it happens behind the scenes, creeping slowly into a society’s fabric. Ordinary people buy into it bit by bit. I always think of the frog analogy. Frogs are cooked while still alive, but a frog would resist being thrown in a pot of boiling water. So you cook a frog by putting it in the comfort of cool water, gradually heating it until it can’t tell the difference—voila, frog legs.
I mentioned this to Morse, wondering if he thought the 1930s German mindset and the society in which Emilie found herself had resonance to the world we’re beginning to find ourselves today—Europe, especially, and even, sadly, here in the United States. How does a society—an advanced society, at that—become slowly seduced into fascism? Emilie’s story provides insight into that psychology—a step by step rationalization—normalization—of inhuman behavior.
Morse said, “I don’t want to diminish the severity of what was happening in Germany in the early ‘30s because already in the early ‘30s they were locking people up and it was a much, much more serious situation than we have right now, 70 years later. So, the short answer is, I never imagined [the opera] would be topical, rather than [simply a] historical drama, and an interesting narrative, and a reminder of what could happen.”
Morse was struck by Emilie’s story. “We didn’t know about how she had helped Oskar save their workers. It is a wonderful historic drama about a strong women, and there were so many universal themes. Their love story, her unrequited love, and all of those themes were so universal.” Then, six months before the premiere, “all of this stuff start happening that was so, well, what’s the word? Spine-tingly reminiscent of the conditions of Germany in the early 30s.”
Creating Frau Schindler took years of research. Morse researched his subject “for a number of years to try and find the essential truth of the story. It took quite a while to realize the way to do was to tell the Schindler story we all know but tell it from Emilie Schindler’s eyes. With her filter. And again, I should always say, Steven Spielberg’s film will always be the most important telling of the story. It’s an unqualified masterpiece. It’s authoritative. But through our opera we provide a different perspective on the story—through Emilie’s eyes. It shows us, perhaps, a slightly more paradoxical version of Oskar than what we know already.”
Eventually Morse met librettist Ken Cazan, with whom he collaborated on the project. (Cazan also directs the opera.) “We began working on it together quite a bit because the amount of work I already done. And I was able to offer quite a bit of input and back and forth. He was able to bring a voice to Emilie that [expressed] the love story. The love story between Emilie and Oskar is really quite lovely. And once the libretto was in pretty good shape I began to score the music and it actually flowed pretty easily from that point on.”
With a true story, so sweeping and tragic, and one that explores events so well known, I wondered how Morse approached framing so enormous a story through the medium of opera. “I really loved the way you framed the question because that is exactly it. It’s such an enormous topic and such an important story,” he said. “I feel just enormous personal responsibility. It takes both person and an artist to do it justice.” In fact, he was “almost afraid to touch” the subject. “It carries with it such a legacy, and this loyalty can suggest that if one could take this on, it really has to be earned.” It weighed very heavily in creating the opera, but he was guided by “telling story of Emilie Schindler, and to not try to create a history lesson or send a message to the world or anything like that. My job was simply tell the story of Emilie Schindler and to serve that story at all times.”
Drawing on the Romantics, rather than on more contemporary classical tradition, Morse “wanted to write a very accessible and direct, honest score that served the story with absolutely no distractions. But would give the story a very rich emotional depth.”
Of course the composer Richard Wagner’s music was omnipresent in Hitler’s world, and Morse draws on the Wagner controversy “in a very ironic way. It would be a big spoiler to reveal how I did it but there’s a very ironic scene [in which] the music of Wagner will supposedly play on a record play but it’s actually played by the orchestra. And that’s all I’ll give away from that one. But as far as the score, the totality of it, I think it’s my own personal, I would call it, neo-romantic minimalism. If that makes any sense. But there’s minimalistic influences but there are very distinct themes that develop in a romantic sense.”
Morse was drawn to composition at an early age. Involved in music “as a kid playing in the school band and really liking it for no particular reason but just being drawn to it. I took piano lessons like a lot of people do, but very early on it wasn’t interesting to me to learn Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin etudes And I just got kind of bored with it. It was much more interesting to me to try to write my own music.” His fate was sealed when he composed a “piece for my high school orchestra. I think from that point on I was just hooked. It’s just a feeling that you get when you create something and you hear it realized. So I think every artist experiences the same thing when they are given the space to do it. Whether it’s sculptor, painter, composer or actor. There’s just something enormously gratifying about creating something and sharing it with other people.”
Morse was influenced by a “very distinct American school of neo-romanticism,” a modern classical movement, influenced by the rich emotional landscapes of the Romantics of the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Noting that his mentor and teacher had studied with iconic American composer Aaron Copeland and neo-romantic composer Henry Hanson, Morse explained that “it’s characterized by a dedication to the discipline of the craft and understanding how to write, correct a lot of lung certainty type instrument. In other words, one doesn’t write for the viola the same way that one writes for the bassoon. Although they are capable of playing the same notes … You’ve probably heard of the term idiomatic writing.”
It takes years of study and “really understanding what each instrument in the orchestra does. What it’s capable of, and what it sounds like in each of its ranges and having a deeper understanding of that. And then really learning the crafts of understanding the counter point, theory, all the basics.” Large-scale works come after the building of a good foundation. Morse noted, “It’s sort of like a teacher forcing an artist to paint with water colors before moving up to oils or something along those lines. But really learning the ropes before attempting the hard stuff. So, it’s distinctly American neo-romantic school. I think that still resides deeply inside.”
Morse’s music—both his opera, and his other works are deeply influenced by the resonant tonal music of the Romantics, but contemporary classical and postmodern music often pushes at both technological and musical boundaries. Morse noted that “if technology can be used in the arts as a tool rather than a crutch, it’s a great thing. I think we went through our … obviously we went through an entire generation of experimenting. Wondering what music can be, what the boundaries are and I feel like that period is on the downward slope and we’re kind of returning to more traditional techniques. Or maybe as a whole we don’t feel the need to try to push the boundaries because they’ve all been pushed. I think this is a good thing because we’re returning to a period of more sincere mode of expression rather than kind of deliberate intellectualization of the art. And this goes across the board. As a writer, you need to know and it happened everywhere. I think we’re becoming honest again. So, I like this personally.”
He added that, “I understand that many contemporary composers are still hoping to emotionally connect with ordinary people through deliberately highly atonal music. And my hat is off to them, as I know they are sincere and many are extremely gifted. However, my view is that this connection is rarely going to happen; and the futility of the exercise has almost reached a point of absurdity. Don’t get me wrong, there are of course many gorgeous atonal compositions. But this lack of a general connection is true for the same reason we cannot build smaller computer keyboards. It’s not an intellectual limit, it is a biological limit.”
Frau Schindler is the story of a woman’s survival and heroism in the heart of one of the darkest periods in human history—a unique perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust. Right now, the opera is playing exclusively in Europe (it just premiered in Munich at the Gärtner Platz Theater) at this time, plans are in the works to bring it to the U.S., in addition, the producers have recorded the performances and in the process of creating a commercial recording.