An Artist’s Life, Set to Music at Penn

The brief life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon was so infused with music that, as composer Gary Fagin C’73 explains, “She actually writes into her paintings a text, that these paintings should be viewed accompanied to the tunes of x, y or z.”
    It makes sense, therefore, that a theatrical production about Salomon’s life and art be set to music. Fagin, as composer for Charlotte: Life? Or Theater?, premiering at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater through March 18, spent three years developing an original score which he feels reflects the artist’s story.
    The play’s title refers to a collection of hundreds of small watercolors which Salomon painted while living in exile in France during World War II and herself titled Life? or Theatre?: A Play with Music. Viewed together, they form an autobiographical survey of her life and include a cast of characters with fictitious names based on people she knew, from her grandmother to her stepmother’s voice coach. Though Salomon never achieved widespread fame, her work is becoming better known and is on a North American tour (now at the Jewish Museum in New York) after being exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
    “Her home was imbued with music during a period when music was quite extraordinary in Berlin, between the wars,” notes Fagin. Salomon’s stepmother, Paula Lindberg, was a famous songwriter and opera singer, who maintained a salon in her home for the great artists, poets and musicians of her time. “Many of her paintings relate to roles that her stepmother played in operas or other pieces of music that were important to her.”
    Fagin wrote a score which, he says, “reflects that period, but is not of that period,” and which incorporates “hints” of existing compositions which are particularly resonant of Salomon’s story: Bach’s “Bist du bei mir,” for example, “is all about being accompanied as you walk to your death, in a very peaceful frame of mind.” “Habanero,” from Carmen, refers to a bird singing in captivity.
    “And the aria from Gluck’s Orfeo is pivotal because of the role of Charlotte’s Svengali-like lover [Alfred Wolfsohn, renamed “Amadeus Daberlohn” in her paintings], who was her stepmother’s voice coach. In [World War I]he was buried under the bodies of dead soldiers and heard their cries and emerged alive to speak of that experience.” The Orpheus legend also speaks to Charlotte’s battle with her family history of depression and suicide.
    “She was expected to do the same thing,” Fagin says, “but instead of doing that, she chose life” and to work through those problems with her art. “Of course the final tragedy is that after choosing life, she was caught up in the time when she lived and was deported back from Nice to her death in Auschwitz” at age 26, Fagin says. “But this is not a Holocaust story. [It is] a real uplifting message about the choice of an individual to basically work through her demons and create wonderful work in art.”
    Fagin began his studies in conducting and composition as an undergraduate at Penn and cites the influence on his work of teachers such as Dr. George Crumb, the Annenberg Professor emeritus of music; Dr. George Rochberg G’49, the Annenberg Professor emeritus of the humanities and music; and Dr. Richard Wernick, the Magnin Professor emeritus of music.
    Fagin has conducted, composed, orchestrated and arranged music for symphony orchestras across the country, ballet, Broadway, off-Broadway, public radio, regional and repertory theaters, and university orchestras. He is a conductor with the New Jersey Ballet and founder and director of the New York Conducting Studio. Fagin has taught at Yale, the Juilliard School, the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and New York University. On Broadway he conducted The Three Penny Opera with Sting; off-Broadway, he composed original music for Radio Rhapsody, a Paul Whiteman retrospective. He created arrangements of Garrison Keillor’s American Radio Company series on public radio for four seasons.
    Fagin and his collaborators hope to mount another production of Charlotte in London in the fall.

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