In 2017, BuzzFeed shared a viral video about Eva Mozes Kor, who was a survivor of medical experiments performed on twins at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Eva, who passed away in July 2019 at age 85, dedicated her life to educating the public about the Holocaust and founded CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) in Indiana.
Austin-based composer Thomas B. Yee received that video from a friend one day. He made Holocaust Remembrance art during his undergraduate and master’s degree studies and his friend thought Eva’s story might be another he’d want to explore. His friend was right.
“As soon as I started to dive into and watch the video, I knew that this was a story that I wanted to bring out through music in some way,” Yee said. “Eva’s story is so powerful.”
He then started working to write music based on Eva’s story of survival and forgiveness. He teamed up with New Jersey-based librettist Aiden K. Feltkamp, whose poetic writing and interest in creating theatrical works that shine a light on historical topics was a natural fit. And Yee enlisted Density512, an Austin-based ensemble that’s dedicated to presenting experimental new works. Yee and Feltkamp spent time interviewing Eva, pouring through archival materials and eventually creating a new opera, “Eva and the Angel of Death: A Holocaust Remembrance Story.”
A short chamber opera, “Eva and the Angel of Death” will have its world premiere after two years of pandemic-related delays on April 23 and 24 at the Austin Central Library. The free performances coincide with the end of Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day and are intended to be a meditation on liberation — past, present and future.
After the pandemic cancelled the opera’s premiere, Density512 produced a documentary video about the creative process and artistic intentions of the opera. It will screen prior to the live performances.
The opera centers Eva’s life: “This story is about [Eva] and her journey to find healing,” said Jacob Schnitzer, the Executive Director and Co-Artistic Director of Density512, showing how her individual story relates to broader topics.
Yee and Feltkamp maintained an ongoing relationship with Eva, her family and CANDLES. In January 2019, they met and interviewed Eva, gaining a sense of what Yee called her “commanding presence” and “fiery demeanor,” which helped them understand how to tell her story in a way that showed who she was. CANDLES and Eva’s family, particularly her son Dr. Alex Kor, have remained close to the production, providing archival materials and confirming details of Eva’s life.
One of the greatest challenges of writing the music for the opera was figuring out how to use music to illuminate internal struggles. Opera usually highlights external drama, but much of the tension in “Eva and the Angel of Death” happens inside the mind.
There’s a scene in which Eva experiences a flashback to her past at Auschwitz. Here, Yee’s music shifts back-and-forth from the action onstage to Eva’s private thoughts. Another scene shows Mengele’s internal struggle using recorded Nazi speeches and electronics and then hops to a different instrumentation to signal Eva’s sister. In these moments, Yee uses motifs to call back to each character, showing their relationships to each other and their thoughts through music.
Early in the creation of the opera, Yee connected with mezzo-soprano Page Stephens to play the role of Eva. When Stephens first got involved with the project, she explored Eva’s life, hoping to come to a deep understanding of who Eva was.
As Stephens worked to bring Eva’s life to the stage, she spent time learning how to tell Eva’s story and how to separate it from her own life. That was a challenge: It’s impossible for Stephens to have a full understanding of what Eva experienced at Auschwitz. But she could try. Stephens often imagines her own sister when thinking of the horrors Eva experienced, finding her own healing in Eva’s choices.
“I’m just really grateful to get to know about Eva,” said Stephens. “(Her story) taught me how I really want to live.”
Director Heather Barfield, who joined the “Eva and the Angel of Death” team in January, wanted to create a production that sees this historical topic as representational. With a background in experimental theater, she was keen to find unconventional ways of staging stories to bring their hidden meanings to life. With “Eva and the Angel of Death,” she wanted to create a sensorial experience that draws on history to help us grapple with the past and the present.
“There’s a sense of presence as witnesses to what’s happening [onstage],” Barfield said. “That begs the question: who is accountable for the crimes of the past? And who is accountable for the manner that we seek justice, reconciliation and healing from those horrors of the past?”
There’s a continued timeliness of Eva’s story. Yee describes her story as like a chameleon: “it always finds a way,” he said. Over the past two years, cast members have seen Eva’s story relate to social issues ranging from police brutality in the United States to the war in Ukraine. Through Eva, they want to give audiences space to reflect on her story and how it symbolically relates to our modern world.
After its initial run in Austin this April, the team hopes to see the opera live on, as both a recording and a tour that reaches other cities in the United States. They want to continue to show how Eva’s story lives on.
Said Yee: “When we confront her story, there’s something to it that resonates with the core of our being.”
“Eva and the Angel of Death” will be presented April 23 and 24 at the Austin Central Library. Performances are free but reservations are needed. See density512.org/tickets/eva