An Introduction to The Holocaust Opera
By, Vince A. Liaguno
Music and horror have always shared a symbiotic relationship. Think of a scary movie and, inevitably, some ominous snippet of soundtrack accompanies the memory. Try and imagine Halloween and not hear the synthesized notes of John Carpenter’s score, or The Exorcist without Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Or the menacing chords of composer John Williams’ two-note title theme to Jaws or the screeching violins of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score that ushered in Janet Leigh’s showery demise. Music is an essential element to the horror experience, helping to create mood, enhance atmosphere, and foreshadow the imminent terror lurking around every dark corner. It’s as fundamental a sound to horror as the scream itself.
But while we’re intimately familiar with music as an accoutrement to horror, what about music as the source of horror itself – the composition of harmony and melody as a catalyst for terror?
In the novella you’re about to delve into, Mark Edward Hall tunes his instrument – in this case a blood-tipped pen – and launches into a haunting melody of words to give voice to one of the greatest real-life horrors in history: The Holocaust.
Sixty years after the SD-Einsatzgruppen – the mobile killing units known as death squads – went on their first routine mass killing mission in Lithuania during the summer of 1941, we struggle to assign depth and dimension to the horrors of the Holocaust. In The Holocaust Opera and its juxtaposition between the beauty of the story’s titular musical composition and the abject ugliness of the colossal failure of humanity that resulted in the extermination of six million people at the hands of a madman and his followers, Hall uses the defined parameters of music composition to frame his story and bring shape to the horror.
All so that we may see.
Like the best genre fiction, The Holocaust Opera illuminates that which hides in the darkness – the darkness of history, the darkness of human betrayal, the darkness of our own reluctance to face what is, for many, unbearable. It’s not pleasant to see what the darkness hides, not pleasant to loosen a few of those tightly-woven knots that keep our comfort level safely moored. But Hall isn’t really bothered by our level of discomfort – in fact, he flips the reader a solemn middle finger with The Holocaust Opera. Good storytelling isn’t about maintaining arbitrary comfort levels, but rather flying in the face of them. Good fiction – good genre fiction, in particular – peels back the painful scabs of healing wounds and forces us to face the raw tissue underneath.
Last November, in anticipation of writing this introductory note you now read, I traveled to Washington D.C. to tour the National Holocaust Museum. Call it my wanting to put a face to a name or whatever motive you’d like to assign to such an action, but, fact is I did it. And the experience was horrible.
Just as it should have been.
As I cast my eyes upon image upon image of unimaginable human suffering, there cataloged and organized by chronological atrocity, I experienced myriad emotions and sensations, from outrage and disgust to sadness and shame at being part of a race of beings whose cruelty and depravity know no limits, whose capacity for evil seems boundless. But the strongest emotion I felt was fear – overpowering, blood-curdling fear. Fear of the knowledge that the atrocities of the Holocaust occurred during civilized times, nary sixty years ago. An event that took place while my own father was a young boy of twelve sneaking into movie matinees and discovering his pre-adolescent love of the New York Yankees and a pretty little songbird named Connie Francis.
For me, that was the real horror of what I saw in the museum that day; that something so fundamentally evil could happen right under the noses of industrialized nations, many of which stood idly by while men were separated from their wives, children taken, crying, from their parents. Human apathy emerged for me as the greatest horror of the Holocaust.
“That’s the trouble with this world,” Jeremiah Gideon – Hall’s madman-or-maestro composer of the fictional music piece at the center of The Holocaust Opera – observes. “People try too hard to forget. They believe that forgetting is healing. It’s a mistake, I tell you. We must always remember. Remembering is healing. If we forget, then we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”
And indeed we have. One only needs to look at the more recent ethnic cleansings in regions like Bosnia and Darfur to realize that the possibility for mass apathetic denial is less a fear and more a sad, quiet reality. With society’s emphasis on blocking out anything unpleasant from our peripheries, there is an entire school of thought out there that finds teaching about the Holocaust in schools too morbid, while others outright deny the extinction of millions of Jews – a mindset that ‘s inexplicable and culturally irresponsible when one considers the physical and photographic evidence, the eyewitness accounts. It’s that same aversion to the unthinkable that’s kept us more focused on “reality” TV and reduced images of mass graves in Bosnia and reports of gang rapes in Darfur to background noise in our collective consciousness.
Perhaps it’s in his recognition of the enduring tragedy of public indifference that served as Hall’s catalyst for The Holocaust Opera – a story in which a young singer named Roxanne Templeton is drawn to a piece of music whose chords and melodies are so unfathomably strong that she cannot ignore, cannot relegate the disturbing images it conjures to the back of her mind. Through the work of fiction you’re about to read, Hall imagines a world in which evil cannot be ignored and human suffering cannot be snubbed by changing a channel. He forces his characters to confront the atrocities of human cruelty through eyelids being held open with invisible toothpicks – in this case, a haunting musical opus. Even when his characters want to shutter away the horror, they can’t. This seems to be his message for humankind: You can’t blink away the horror.
Despite its dominant horror elements, at the heart of The Holocaust Opera is a message of hope. After all, as Hall’s protagonist philosophizes, “the human spirit is not capable of existence without hope.” So, even while we’re bearing historical witness to the continued blind eye of the collective, there is always hope – ever-present and sustainable even in the worst of circumstances as demonstrated by the survivors of genocide and other unspeakable human atrocities.
So permit Hall permission to prop your eyelids open with the invisible toothpicks of this haunting little tale. Let the rhythm of his prose pulse beneath your skin; allow the melody of his narrative to carry you along that great continuum between horror and hope. For it’s in living through the horror and reaching for the hope that we uncover the truth of the human spirit in all its ugliness and beauty.
Vince A. Liaguno
Long Island, New York
January 12, 2011