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Washington Post

August 27, 2003



TV Preview


‘Defiant Requiem,’ a Study in Courage and Hope


By Grace Jean

Special to The Washington Post


      Five years ago the dean of Catholic University’s School of Music, Murry Sidlin, was flipping through books at a yard sale in Oregon when he made a curious discovery: beginning in the fall of 1943, a young Czechoslovakian conductor named Raphael Schaechter led fellow Terezin concentration camp prisoners in 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. 

      Eager to learn why Jewish prisoners interned near Prague would perform a Roman Catholic Mass, Sidlin, then resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony, embarked on a quest, traveling to Israel and the Czech Republic for the answer.  He found it closer to home.  In Massachusetts, a Terezin camp survivor who sang under Schaechter’s direction gave Sidlin the simple explanation.

      “[Schaechter] told us many times that we can sing things to the Nazis that we can’t say,” said Edgar Krasa, who was Schaechter’s cellmate at Terezin. 

      Krasa’s statement is echoed numerous times in “Defiant Requiem,” Sidlin’s culminating multimedia production of Schaechter’s musical struggle and achievements in Terezin. 

      The production – a unique performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera Chorus – re-creates the experience of hearing the Requiem performed by Terezin prisoners through a carefully constructed mesh of dramatic onstage re-enactments, taped survivor interviews and archival footage.  The concert-docudrama, filmed April 2002, premieres at 8 tonight on PBS.

      Performing Verdi’s Requiem is a monstrous challenge for any singer in the best of conditions.  One can only imagine what strength and courage it took for the Terezin prisoners, faced with looming deportations to Auschwitz, to learn the 90-minute piece.  Because Schaechter smuggled in the sole score, the 150-member chorus had to commit Verdi’s music and its Latin to memory with the help of a legless piano.

     But the threat of gas chambers wasn’t the only challenge for Schaechter and his singers.  Initially, the camp’s Jewish council, charged with overseeing prisoners’ activities, opposed such a venture, drawing Schaechter into shouting matches with its members. Not only would performing Verdi’s Requiem appear as an apology for being Jewish, the council argued, but it could also anger the SS, causing them to stop all the prisoners’ free-time activities, or worse, encourage more deportations and killings.

     According to Terezin survivor accounts, Schaechter returned to the cellar where his chorus rehearsed and relayed what the council members had said.  If any singer was afraid or felt that presenting the Verdi was wrong, there was door and they were free to go.  No one budged. Elated, Schaechter continued on with rehearsals, waiting for the day the chorus would belt out “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) in front of the Nazis.  Armed with Verdi’s music, the Terezin choristers would fight, staring into their captors’ eyes defiantly as they sang.

      In Verdi’s day the Requiem became widely popular, though some of his colleagues called it an opera disguised in ecclesiastical robes.  Indeed, Verdi’s own faith was shaken at times, and throughout the work hints of this doubt are scattered in the music.  The Requiem was originally conceived by Verdi to honor Gioachino Rossini after his death in 1868, with several Italian composers each contributing a movement.  Though Verdi wrote the last section, “Libera me” (Deliver Me), and completed the score in 1869, he did not put it on the stage.  Upon the death of Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, Verdi revisited the Rossini tribute and incorporated his contributions into what is now known as his Requiem.

     Set on the vast but sparsely decorated stage of Portland’s Expo Center, Verdi’s Requiem, juxtaposed with Schaechter’s story, becomes a haunting and effective experience in Sidlin’s “Defiant Requiem.”  From the opening testimonials of the Terezin survivors to the fading music of “Libera me,” Sidlin has achieved a milestone among the canon of works depicting the music made during the Holocaust.