"All this material haunted me for years," said poet Anna Rabinowitz, about finding a shoe box in her father's closet containing a small packet of photos and letters written in Polish and Yiddish. She was speaking at a panel discussion following the preview of a multimedia theater piece that brings those fragments to life. American Opera Projects presents its world premiere of "Darkling" tonight at the East 13th Street Theatre. "I wanted to find a way to retrieve these people, bring them back to life for a moment," she said about the people in the photos and referred to in letters. But Ms. Rabinowitz still knew few details about her parents' extended family members, nearly all of whom perished in the Holocaust.
Ms. Rabinowitz didn't recognize most of the faces peering out at her in the photos. She had only heard a few anecdotes from her immigrant parents, as the subject of the Holocaust was painful for them to discuss. "I felt I had never understood what it must have been like for my parents to have left home and never to have seen their family and friends again," she said.
Vacancy, displacement, and separation are major themes of Ms. Rabinowitz's poem, which has been set to music by Stefan Weisman in "Darkling." A scrim encloses the 13th Street theater space on four sides, separating the audience from the play. At one point, the performers pull down long window shades that partially close off the audience's view.
After hearing poet Joseph Brodsky discuss Thomas Hardy's 1900 poem "The Darkling Thrush," Ms. Rabinowitz said she was struck by its "millennial mourning" and "by the note of hope in the thrush's song." She used Hardy's poem as an acrostic, so that each letter of his 32-line poem becomes the initial letter of a line of her poem, which looks back on the 20th century. She said acrostics can help people discover new meanings and, as she said the ancients believed, they can bring one closer to the divine.
Ms. Rabinowitz's show ends with Hardy's poem set to music by composer Lee Hoiby, who has written music for texts by writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Julia Child. Mr. Weisman uses a musical equivalent of the acrostic: He told the Knickerbocker how he split Mr. Hoiby's composition into measures and wove some of the same harmony into the successive parts of Ms. Rabinowitz's poem, which forms the basis for the theater piece.
Above and behind the main stage area, a conductor leads a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). In one particularly haunting part, Ms. Rabinowitz has transformed the upbeat Passover song "Dayenu" ("Enough") into a dark refrain of Nazi atrocity.
Mr. Weisman said he composed the music so that parts of the "Dayenu" melody "hover" over those very sections of the theater piece, such as, "if they had hammered nails to our gums / and not cut off our hands."
Director Michael Comlish has created a show that foregrounds the emotional response to destruction and devastation. The production combines audiotaped voices with live singing from an intergenerational cast. American as well as Eastern European accents are heard, and a barrage of images and sounds illustrating film and radio technology crackle onstage, jarring and unsettling the listener. Mass communication exists alongside trans-Atlantic lack of communication between lovers and family members: "Every day he waits for a letter. Every day she fails to write" and "They wrote letters begging to be read, and got no reply."
Mr. Comlish has directed the play with formalism of Bertolt Brecht or Vsevolod Meyerhold. The actors step into their shoes at the opening of the play, and their shoes are left alone in pairs at the close of the show. While viewers might think of victims' shoes on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this production lets the viewer draw his or her own image of absence and extermination.
In the panel discussion, Ms. Rabinowitz said a theme of the show is the uncertainty that accompanies life: "Everything is always shifting." At one point, the actor playing Mayor Fiorello La Guardia unnerves the audience by suddenly shifting into speaking German. Ms. Rabinowitz's poem opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job that relates uncertainty:
For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing,
Because our days upon earth are a shadow ...
Hardy's poem concludes with the line "And I was unaware." These words are displayed onstage as the first lines of an acrostic and hold a double meaning. They relate the author's unawareness of the lives of her relatives who perished, and the victims who them selves were caught unaware of the extent of danger of remaining in Europe. As Ms. Rabinowitz's poem says, "After all / no one knew / no one believed / it could be like that."