When Alan Held was shown the score for “The Path to Heaven,” his vocation met his avocation.
“The Holocaust has been something I’ve researched and read about and studied about, and here came this opera across my desk about the Holocaust,” Held, chair of the opera program at Wichita State, said. “I thought, ‘It has to be done, we have to do this.’
“The faculty thought I was nuts,” he added with a laugh.
The two performances of “The Path to Heaven” next weekend will be the second time the piece has been performed. The first was in June 2018 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this, and to do the North American premiere is really an honor for us at Wichita State,” said Held, who continues to receive worldwide acclaim as a bass-baritone.
The piece’s composer, Adam Gorb, is head of the school of composition at the college where the piece debuted and will be in Wichita from Tuesday through the performance, working with the singers and lecturing other music classes at WSU.
In notes from the opera’s debut, Gorb said the piece came after extensive reading and research about the Holocaust.
“I am increasingly convinced that the Holocaust was a failure,” he wrote. “Witness the extraordinary stories of bravery documented by survivors, many who went on to have happy and fulfilling lives, some of whom I have had the good fortune to talk to during my research.”
In “Heaven,” a group of young friends in Berlin find their lives changed when they come under the attention of Nazi authorities. One woman, returning home from her 18th birthday party, finds her aunt and uncle have been arrested and abducted. She, her family and her lover are rounded up and packed into cattle trucks, heading East for slaughter.
Seven singers, double-cast for the two performances, play the characters. The 20-piece wind ensemble accompanying them in the semi-staged concert is directed by Timothy Shade, director of bands at WSU.
Shade said “The Path to Heaven” was one of several videos of operas brought to his attention as a member of a college music faculty association.
“I had no idea what the piece was about when I first saw it,” Shade said. “I watched the film for the first time, and it was striking. It took me a second to realize what the subject matter was. It’s incredibly powerful.”
Shade passed it along to Held.
“He loved it just as much as I did,” Shade said. “It’s sort of an odd orchestration for wind, and he bought into it.”
Shade said the music had “super contemporary harmonic language” and was a challenge, its subject matter notwithstanding.
Held agreed that the music was difficult.
“It’s a challenge, but it is so powerful. Some of the music is absolutely haunting. It’s gorgeous at times,” he said. “It’s a tough call for college students. There were times in the rehearsal process where I’ve thought, ‘What have we done?’”
The rehearsal process, which began a week and a half after the fall semester began, has been challenging for the singers, Held said.
“The students have all grown incredibly as musicians doing this,” he said. “They have to be more diligent about pitches, more diligent about rhythms, different kinds of ways to act.”
“The Path to Heaven,” Held said, has helped all of the students improve their craft.
“It’s making the students become better singers and better musicians. It’s challenging the wind ensemble,” he said. “You have to do challenging pieces that make you grow, and not just get you into the same old routine all the time.”
‘THE PATH TO HEAVEN’ BY WICHITA STATE OPERA
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17
Where: Miller Concert Hall at Wichita State University, 1845 Fairmount St.
Tickets: $20, with various discounts at the college of fine arts box office, by phone at 316- 978-3233 or Wichita.edu/fineartsboxoffice