Earlier this month, tenor Mark DuBois played the comic part of Alfredo in Die Fledermaus at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. The reviews raved about his hilarious performance, praising him
for stealing the show with his musicality and wit. It was in sharp contrast to the role he played in March in Eastern Europe when he sang the Voice of God in the Oratorio Terezin.
Terezin was built as a military fortress by the Austrian monarch, Joseph II.
In WWI, it became a military prison. During the Second World War, it was used as a holding camp for Jews and others on their way to Auschwitz. It is a place whose history of that time is one of horror, pain and death. Some 15,000
children lived there for weeks or months over the time of the war, of which only 100 survived.
While they lived there, they drew pictures and wrote poetry. It is their poetry, combined with scripture from the Old Testament, which comprises the libretto for the Oratorio.
The composer, Ruth Fazal, was born in the U.K. She studied music, playing the piano and violin, in London and Paris. Once she came to Canada, she played with every major orchestra in Toronto and is now concert master for the string orchestra.
Sinfonia Mississaugua, as well as the Elora Festival Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.
In 1999, Ruth was given a copy of a book about the poetry and art of the children in Terezin and thus began her four year journey of writing the Oratorio. With it she says, it is not her intention to just show the suffering of the children, but to
also make a composition "which would portray God's heart in the midst of human suffering, a composition which could bring hope into the dark places of human suffering."
The premier performances of this piece took place in Toronto last November, with Welsh tenor Huw Priday. When, at the last moment before the whole project was to go to Europe for performances in Bratislava, Vienna, Brno and Prague. Ruth's tenor fell ill,
she called Mark DuBois in a panic. She and Mark had known each other for some years, as they had been involved in concerts together.
She called him on a Thursday; explained the dilemma and asked him if he could sing the work in Europe, with a departure date of the coming Saturday - two days later! He told her he would have to see the score. She was on her way to the airport to fly to Europe.
They met at a coffee shop on the way there. He looked over the score and learned a single fact: it was very difficult, very different. So he said he would do it.
In order to travel in and out of the Czech Republic, he needed a visa. No problem - send your passport to their embassy in Ottawa and 12 months later you get a visa. Mark had, basically, 24 hours.
Sure enough, within 20 minutes, the couple were handed their passports, complete with beautifully produced re-entry visas. Arrangements were made for Maria to travel within a couple of days, and Mark flew out on Saturday - except that his plane left hours late, making him miss his onward flight to Bratislava.
All this meant that he missed the first rehearsal and was left with only two rehearsals - Monday and Tuesday - before the first performance on Wednesday, March 10.
Mark told me about the strangeness of his experience with this work. "Normally, I would take months with a piece like this to make it my own. Then I could calculate how I was going to do it. But I had three days to learn it. Each performance, I thought I would do this and that. It never worked out as I thought.
I had to just give it to God. I would say to Him, just use me and I will do my best. For the first time in my career of 30 years, I literally had to give it to Him. He empowered and challenged me. It was a profound experience."
Mark has sung in Europe many times throughout his career, in Milan, Vienna, London and Paris. Still it was truly a thrill for him to perform in the greatest concert halls in the world this year. The Oratorio was staged at the great Concert Hall in Vienna and its nearest rival the Smetana Concert Hall in Prague. The sheer
beauty of these places delighted the DuBois couple.
Said Mark, "Just standing on their stages made me want to sing."
Along with Mark as the Voice of God, were soprano Teresa Gomez as the Voice of Suffering, baritone Nathaniel Watson as the Prophet, the Slovak Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Bratislava Boys; Choir and the New Streams Children's Choir. This last is a choir from Toronto of 53 children ages 9 to 17 which was created for the Oratorio.
Accompanying the singers was the Symphonic Orchestra of Slovak Radio.
Between the subject matter of the suffering children at Terezin and the power of the music, the Oratorio is deeply moving. Mark told me that even the performers were weeping by the end of the first performance.
Maria too, could not contain her tears when she first heard it. Her comment was, "It represented to me the strong human spirit of children." Mark and Maria have two children, Elisabeth, age 7, and Christopher, who is 2 years old.
The reception of the performances was overwhelming. Audiences rose to their feet immediately the singing of each show was finished. They thundered their approbation with one curtain call after another, lasting 15 minutes.
Even in Vienna, where world class singers perform every evening, the audience applauded its appreciation of this performance in six curtain calls.
In Brno, the Oratorio was sung in the Cathedral. This in itself was exciting, but when the Jewish horn, the Shofar, was sounded for the first time in a Christian church, it was a new high for everyone.
There is more to this project than representing the horrors of the Holocaust. This is the effort of groups of Jews and Christians coming together to combine their strengths and their message: the presence of God in the heart of human suffering.
Just outside of the village of Terezin as it stands today, is the cemetery. There are erected a large Star of David and a Cross to demonstrate the ties between Jews and Christians. This is a theme with many groups who support and assist in the production
of concerts, which promote the connection. Mark and Maria were to visit the camp at Terezin after the last performance in Prague. It is still intact, with the ovens, the dissecting tables, the tiny rooms into which so many were forced to live in unimaginable misery. The photographs and details there were kept of the "final solution
of the Jewish issue" burn a hole into the memories of all visitors.
Yet, misery and death are still inflicted on the young and weak of this world. No matter how guilty we feel about the torture of not only the Jews, but the man others who suffered and died, we still do nothing or not enough to stem the wholesale slaughter of other human beings today.
The Oratorio Terezin is a tremendous work. Mark DuBois is clearly very happy and honoured to have performed it. Whether he will go on with it if it is produced in other cities overseas remains to be seen.
However, let the call to caring not stop here. The story of Terezin is one of a seemingly endless litany of human cruelty. It is the duty of all of us to demand a stop to it, to never forget that it has happened and continues to happen. Whoever God is to each of us, surely this is His way of telling us again how we are failing our own.