The operatic repertoire spans centuries, and many contemporary composers, like American Jake Heggie, strive to continue the tradition by adapting stories that are pertinent to contemporary audiences

Heggie, is “arguably the world’s most popular 21st-century opera and art song composer” according to The Wall Street Journal and he was tasked in 2007 with creating an opera to honor the LGBTIQA+ victims of the Holocaust. Just like that, For a Look or a Touch was born.  Brisbane-based Voxalis Opera is proud to present the Australian premiere of this work on June 29 at the The Old Museum in Brisbane alongside works by Gershwin, Weill, and more. 

Heggie and Gene Scheer’s collaboration draws inspiration from the emotional documentary Paragraph 175 and the poignant diary of Manfred Lewin, a 19-year-old Jewish gay man who perished in Auschwitz in 1942. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Berlin during World War II, the opera explores the forbidden love between an elderly Holocaust survivor and his lost lover, shedding light on a lesser-known part in this dark chapter of history. The story begins with Gad Beck, an elderly Holocaust survivor, who is visited by the ghost of his long-lost lover, Manfred Lewin. This one-night transforms into an evening of reflection, dance, joy, and predominantly a recollection of their love, suffering, and pain. 

Musically, Heggie integrates singing and spoken text to craft a seamless dialogue between the two characters. The opera skillfully blends operatic traditions, jazz, and Heggie’s unique sound world, creating an accessible work for all audiences. Aidan Hodder, baritone and co-director of this forthcoming performance, remarks that For a Look or a Touch is such a departure from ‘normal’ opera”. 

“With the vast sound and staging typical of late Classical and Romantic operas, achieving the level of unapologetic intimacy that is the essence of Heggie’s writing becomes nearly impossible,” Hodder says. “The musical vocabulary is immediately accessible and utterly unique. I can’t think of another opera quite like it.” 

Why, then, is this part of the Holocaust so widely unknown? Although Berlin was one of the most liberal cities in Europe, as depicted in musicals like Cabaret, the Nazis systematically attacked the gay community. Shockingly, even after the war, the Allies did not decriminalize homosexuality, and many countries refused to recognize gay men as victims of the concentration camps.

Some continued to serve their prison sentences, others went into hiding or fled Europe, and most kept silent. Their circumstances differed, especially if you were Jewish, or if you had financial resources. However, those who were forced to wear the pink triangle, the symbol representing homosexuals in World War II, were amongst the most abused and humiliated prisoners, as well as subjects for medical experimentation. Heggie expressed profound sadness over the silence he encountered when seeking inspirational resources for this opera due to these historical injustices. 

This performance promises to deliver a story with profound emotional depth, skillfully unveiling moments of joy and harrowing horrors in the characters’ memories. As Voxalis Opera’s artistic director and performer, I am honoured to present this story alongside tenor and actor Bernard Wheaton, pianist Mark Connors, and emerging baritone & co-director, Aidan Hodder. 

Camilo Lopez is co-founder and Artistic Director of Voxalis Opera

For a Look or a Touch, 7.30pm, June 29, The Old Museum, 480 Gregory Terrace, Bowen Hills. Tickets $39 – $60

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