Oceans of ink have been spilt over trying to come to terms with World War II and, more specifically, the Holocaust. To close off its 2009-10 season, the Juventas New Music Ensemble on May 22 at the Cambridge YMCA presented a new opera about the Holocaust. I mean my phrasing: 3 x 3 = ? isn’t set during the time of the Holocaust, but is about it. A nameless woman (“Frau A”), researching the Holocaust, is captivated by a photo she finds of four siblings. Three of them were killed by Nazis, but the whereabouts of the fourth is unknown. She becomes so emotionally invested in her research that she begins to think that she is the fourth. She is pulled into scenes that take place during the war as she struggles with how to face the future.
The opera is one of big ideas, and it has a great many of them. What responsibility do we, in the present, have for the actions of those who preceded us? A half dozen TVs stood on both sides of the stage and played iconic newsreel footage from the past 50 years. How has our attitude towards war and a manufactured “other” changed since and as a result of World War II? A cameraman followed actors onstage, sending the mediated image for us to follow on the TVs. How does television affect our ability to relate to events at the scale of war? Nazi soldiers, young and old, offered defenses for their actions. What is the moral weight of an individual?
These are all, indeed, heady questions, but the production brought them up more than it interrogated them. Any one of those topics would fill a fine dissertation. To throw them out, one after another, in the span of 90 minutes felt intellectually irresponsible. The opera’s conclusion, that suburban America of the 1950s served as an anaesthetic for said headiness, felt slapped-on and simplistic. That decade in America had its own share of conflicts and inequalities. But their origin was fundamentally American, which gave them a much different nature than the European origins of World War II. Are we to believe, to play on the mathematics of the title of this opera, that all inequalities are equal?
Such thinking draws attention away from the individual and individual situations, focusing instead on the faceless masses lumbering through history. This was in fact where 3 x 3 = ? pointed the proverbial camera. No character was named. The lines between their very identities were blurred. Yet, the questions that Frau A struggled with were of an individual nature: how do you deal with history? How can you act ethically in modern society? One of the soldiers defended his actions by saying that if he didn’t shoot prisoners, someone else would have. The individual is readily replaceable, therefore worthless. If that’s the argument, why invest individual energies in writing and producing an opera? Would we have done just as well if everyone involved stayed home and watched Leave It To Beaver reruns?
The opera’s reality is one where looming, unknowable forces bat us about like puppets. As a philosophical stance, it has a long line of defendants. But this is art, not security camera footage. The reality of an opera is that it is a work, one written and produced by people. When the soldier said his hand was forced in shooting prisoners, those words were given to him by the librettist (Tina Hartmann). When those words were sung, the composers (Peter Gilbert and Karola Obermüller) provided the pitches. These people were the forces that guided the opera and those that dwelled within it. What granted them leave from the existential issues they outlined in order to take on this role? I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but the aesthetics of the work didn’t exactly mesh with the message.
The instrumentation used was spare, but provided a rich sound. Three musicians (Jay Hutchinson, clarinet; Rachel Arnold, cello; and Kana Zink, accordion) were hidden in the balcony. Live electronics from Gregory Cornelius balanced out the ensemble. Sounds were angular and icy, drifting with sudden collisions. Michael Sakir was a stolid conductor, guiding each element into place. The singers were integrated into this texture. Amanda Robie, playing Frau A, was nearly a constant presence. She brought a melodramatic touch to her character. The siblings (Tyler Wayne Smith, Chelsea Beatty, Andrew Wannigman) constituted a chorus of sorts, piercing and gray. The Nazi soldiers (Sean Malkus, Nathan Troup) were a cut out of older World War II movies. Copeland Woodruff’s stage direction had an even string of strong stage pictures: the old Nazi emerging from the audience, the cameraman snaking around the stage, the dead-eyed family staring at the TV. Its writers should be proud to have such devoted supporters.