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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:06 AM

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‘Universal resonance’ of Holocaust stories inspires composer Jake Heggie

Opera composer Jake Heggie (“The End of the Affair,” “Moby-Dick”) is now a regular collaborator with Seattle’s Music of Remembrance. MOR presents Heggie’s “Farewell, Auschwitz” and three other works on May 14, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

Music of Remembrance

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $36 (206-215-4747 or www.musicofremembrance.org).

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Jake Heggie, composer of such internationally renowned operas as “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick,” could surely work with almost any music ensemble in the world he desires.

So it speaks volumes that, this spring, he’s collaborating with Seattle’s Music of Remembrance (MOR) for the third time in seven years.

The mission of MOR, now in its 15th season, is to preserve the memory of musicians and composers who died and suffered in the Holocaust through performances of their work, educational programs, musical recordings and commissions of new works.

All three of Heggie’s MOR pieces are being performed in May and June — a clear indication that something more is going on here than a take-the-commission-and-run scenario.

That “something” is MOR’s artistic director Mina Miller.

“I find her an incredibly inspiring person to work with,” Heggie said in a recent phone interview. “She has such vision. She wants pieces about things that matter deeply and have universal resonance.”

Miller and Heggie first met in 2006 when she was searching for a composer to write about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. She was directed to Heggie by her contacts at Seattle Opera, which had recently produced his opera, “The End of the Affair.” He immediately agreed to take on the project.

The result, “For a Look or a Touch” (for piano quintet, baritone and actor), premiered 2007. It was restaged in expanded form by the Seattle Men’s Chorus in 2011. On Tuesday, a song-cycle version for baritone and chamber ensemble (no actor) will have its debut.

“Farewell, Auschwitz,” a brand new piece for three singers and chamber ensemble, is also on the program, along with works by Kurt Weill (a piano-violin suite of tunes from “The Three Penny Opera”) and László Weiner.

“Farewell, Auschwitz,” to be sung by baritone Morgan Smith, soprano Caitlin Lynch and mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, is based on lyrics written at Auschwitz-Birkenau by political prisoner Krystyna Zywulska. If that name is familiar, it may be because Zywulska was the subject of Heggie’s one-act opera, “Another Sunrise,” commissioned and premiered by MOR last year.

It was Miller who suggested that Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer follow “Another Sunrise” with musical settings of song lyrics Zywulska wrote for a fellow prisoner at the camp. The words were originally set to classical, folk and pop tunes of the day, but the specifics on which songs she used have been lost.

“I just wrote music that emulates the music of that time,” Heggie explains, adding that the lyrics address “elements of camp life ... what people are yearning for or what they’re missing.” (“Another Sunrise” itself will be reprised in a free show at the downtown Seattle Art Museum at 2 p.m., June 15, paired with Erwin Schulhoff’s duo for violin and cello.)

One unusual thing about MOR, Heggie notes, is how Miller makes sure that every program is recorded, creating an enduring record of each piece. “For a Look or a Touch,” in its first version, was released on the Naxos label in 2008. The new song-cycle version will be packaged with “Another Sunrise” and “Farewell, Auschwitz” for release next year.

What draws Heggie so powerfully to the art of song?

It all started when he saw “The Sound of Music” at age 6 or 7.

“Julie Andrews was the first goddess I ever saw,” he cheerfully confesses. “It didn’t seem weird that she was singing. It gave me insight into the character. It told the story,” he recalls, “And really swept you up. So I think I was hooked on the voice and storytelling from that moment.”

As for the work he’s doing now, it reinforces his belief that the human voice is “the most magical instrument there is. It’s like the ultimate wind instrument. ... The person is the instrument — that’s extraordinary! So to have great singers and write for them and have them perform this material with such love and heart ... to me that is the ultimate experience.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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