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For a Look or a Touch: A Young Gay Couple’s Plight in WWII Berlin
Review by
Elena Goukassian
Posted March 20, 2008

  Composer Jake Heggie

           Berlin in the late 1930s. The streets are filled with young people. They laugh, they drink, they shout, they dance, they stay out until dawn. Among them, Manfred and Gad, teenage boys, who, in the midst of all of this liveliness, fall in love. Then the war breaks out. One day, Gad goes to Manfred’s house, but he is gone, his family arrested and taken away like so many other Jewish families.

            Based on the true story of Manfred Lewin and Gad Beck, For a Look or a Touch was written by composer Jake Heggie just last year for Seattle’s own Music of Remembrance, an organization dedicated to remembering the Holocaust through the art of music. The song cycle premiered last March at Benaroya Hall, and it turned out to be a great success. This past Saturday, it was the Seattle Asian Art Museum that hosted the performance.

            For a Look or a Touch is primarily a musical work, but it also involves some acting. It is almost like a short play, in which young Manfred, who had died in a concentration camp, comes back as a ghost to remind a foreboding Gad, now an old man, of their past together. Manfred does all the singing, while Gad merely narrates his thoughts. At the same time, a quintet plays in the background. This combination of one actor and one singer plays out very well and creates a strange yet complementary atmosphere on stage.

            The music itself is great. Every piece fits perfectly with the event and emotion at hand. A Gershwin-like tune (with a jazzy clarinet solo played enthusiastically by Laura DeLuca) portrays the carefree prewar years. The horrors of the concentration camp are exemplified through each of five instruments simultaneously playing a tragic and almost dissonant melody of its own. The composition is very well-thought-out and the whole song cycle sung wonderfully by baritone Morgan Smith, for whom the piece was originally written.

            All in all, this was an excellent and very moving performance, ending with Gad and Manfred dancing together one more time after so many years. I heard the woman in front of me start to sob. Another audience member, Florence Rose, said that this is the second time she has seen the song cycle, and she is still moved to tears. As everyone was heading toward the exit, I asked Clifford Burkey, a friend of the cellist, what he thought of For a Look or a Touch. “What a great creative experience for everyone on stage,” he remarked with a sad smile.


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