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Plot of Operatic Proportions

June 7, 2012 By:
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Ellen Frankel

It's easy to see why Andrew Kurtz, the artistic director of Center City Opera Theater, was attracted to the source material for his company's latest offering, Slaying the Dragon, opening this week at the Prince Theater.

The story of Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser is the stuff of great tragedies. In 1991, Trapp, the diabetes- and hate-ravaged Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan of Nebraska, discovered that the Weissers had moved to his town of Lincoln so that Michael could become the cantor of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun there. Trapp immediately began the same type of racist, anti-Semitic intimidation he had been inflicting upon Nebraska minorities for years.

This time, though, Trapp got more than he bargained for. Instead of being cowed or driven out by his campaign, the Weissers opened their arms to Trapp. They showed him kindnesses, like asking if Trapp, who had both legs amputated due to diabetes, needed to be driven anywhere or needed any shopping done.

While their ability to turn the other cheek was remarkable, what happened next was even more stunning. Changed forever by the Weissers' outreach, Trapp renounced his previous life, giving up all of his hate-group affiliations. He ultimately converted to Judaism just three months before he died in September 1992 -- at the Weissers' home, where he was under their care.

Kurtz is not the only person who has felt compelled to retell the story. It has been the subject of countless sermons and magazine articles, as well as a puppet play, a song, a documentary and a book, Not By the Sword, written by Kathryn Watterson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The book forms the basis of Slaying the Dragon, according to Ellen Frankel, the former editor of the Jewish Publication Society who wrote the libretto for the opera, her first ever.

It was a task that took her nearly two years, although she is quick to say, "I think two years is on the short side for developing an opera." She cited two other Philadelphia composers -- Margaret Garwood and Janice Hamer -- whose operas have taken 12 to 15 years.

Frankel seems to be drawn to monsters, both real and imagined -- she also wrote the libretto for the oratorio, The Golem -- and their potential for redemption.

She took seriously the challenge of translating the transformative powers of the real-life story of the Weissers and Trapp into an opera that would reach beyond the stage. By the June 7 opening performance, she will have rewritten her libretto nine times.

"Most of that effort went toward deepening and complicating the characters," she recalls. "As the opera developed, they became more nuanced."

Jason Switzer, who plays the fictionalized character of Michael Weisser, finds those nuances essential in convincingly portraying his role. In fact, he still sounds awed by Weisser's actions.

To see that Weisser's reaction to having himself and his family threatened "was not a violent reaction, but to hold his hand out -- my natural reaction would have been to defend myself through whatever means necessary."

Switzer, a congregant at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, uses the stranger-than-fiction plot points to illustrate how working on the opera has changed his outlook.

Paraphrasing one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s messages, he says, "You should battle hate with love. If someone comes at you spewing hatred and violence, you can come back at them from the opposite direction and have a profound effect on your fellow human being."

Jody Kidwell, the mezzo-soprano and just-departed cantorial soloist at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, comes at the opera's central issues of redemption and forgiveness from a different place.

Kidwell's character, the entirely fictional Holocaust survivor Esther, is asked to forgive the former Klansman. "And of course she can't," says Kidwell. "Because, as any good Jew knows, you can't forgive someone for the things they've done to other people. Only those people can forgive."

Frankel hopes that these elemental contradictions and conflicts will draw the opera's audiences into not just the work itself, but the questions raised during the performance, questions that will take lengthy thought and conversation to begin answering them.

"Our goal in terms of the drama is to get the audience really thinking about how difficult it is to ask for forgiveness, how difficult it is to forgive and how evil is not easily recognizable," she says. "Every one of us is capable of doing the wrong thing -- and doing the right thing."

Performances are on June 7, 9, 14, 16 and 17. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 215.238.1555 or go to www.operatheater.org

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