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The Promised Land

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
11/21/1998 -  
Constance Hauman: Exiles in Paradise
Constance Hauman (soprano)
William Vendice (piano)

A unique type of song recital was presented at the 92nd Street Y last night with a performance of Constance Hauman's combination of film, lecture, slides and songs depicting the music of the composers who fled from Nazism to establish a new artistic life in America. The overall conception of this evening of performance art is Ms. Hauman's alone and she is deeply involved in all phases of the finished product. Not only did she sing all of the varied songs, but she also wrote the lecture material, presented it to us and commissioned the visual material that competed for our attention in this mixed media universe. Ms. Hauman, the Lulu on the recent Chandos release, is a dedicated artist who is obviously performing a labor of love by resurrecting this repertoire which ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.

She began the evening with a very personal rendition of Friedrich Hollaender's Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss (known to movie goers as Falling in Love Again) and dared to sing the song while a still of the great Dietrich loomed above and behind her. Notable from the start were Ms. Hauman's artistic courage and independent performance style. This was not some pale imitation of a legend but rather a thoughtful re-examination of a popular classic. Then she began the interwoven lecture which lucidly related the journeys of many refugee composers and their struggles in both old land and new. The evening concentrated on light music and was very successful in creating a wistful atmosphere for a bygone era.

When Arnold Schoenberg came to Berlin, it was not to accept a position at the Conservatory, but rather to become the music director of the Ueberbrettl cabaret and Ms. Hauman's songs reflected this fin-de-siecle phase in the Austrian composer's development. These Brettl-Lieder were accompanied by rare home movies of Schoenberg and slides of his paintings. The night was filled with images, from footage of Mann and Einstein to newsreels of the Nazi ascendancy. As she ventured further into the program, Ms. Hauman revealed her potential as a rising star, for she possesses a superb instrument which she shapes very well into a vehicle for dramatic impact and wide ranging characterizations. She would be a fine interpreter of Pierrot Lunaire as she has a quicksilver ability to change vocal personality in a brief moment.

The remainder of the first half of the program was a "goodbye to all that" musical (and visual) montage of old Vienna, including a virtuoso performance of Kalman's My Dream and a very moving rendition of Scheherazade's Lied from Ernst Toch's Die letzte Maerchen. Again the lecture material was informative and it was particularly impressive how this gifted performer could move from the emotional center of a song to the lectern without missing a beat. This transition was accomplished again and again, stepping in and out of character, and elevated the evening to the realm of good theater. The last number before intermission was the most substantive, Marietta's Lied from Korngold's opera Die tote Stadt, sung brilliantly as the vocal showstopper that has made it justly famous as the on screen images grew more intense. We were left to ponder the death of an era during our absence from this synaesthetic world.

The second half began promisingly with light music for the movies by Walter Jurman and Bronislaw Kaper and some rare songs in French by Kurt Weill. Particularly in Je ne t'aime pas Ms. Hauman exposed her raw power as an actress, for although the style was Edith Piaf, the on the edge performance was worthy of Callas at her most daring, Ms. Hauman even exposing herself to the difficult stratosphere of spoken (and eventually screamed) word and pulled off this characterization flawlessly. This was the most impressive moment in an evening filled with jewels. I marveled at how she could so seamlessly step from this centered performance to the role of our guide at the podium.

The sparkle left the champagne throughout most of the second half as the situation worsened in Europe. It was disconcerting to watch the images of the impending genocide and listen to the lighter music of Oscar Straus and others. I'm sure that this was designed to be uncomfortable, but there were problems theatrically which ultimately made the second half of the program far inferior to the first. Ms. Hauman continued to sing well and so the crowd wished to applaud her, however the songs were always followed with visuals that described Nazi atrocities and one felt awkward and disinclined to applaud these images. Also, the bill of fare after the Weill was inconsequential and the program did not build to a satisfying emotional conclusion. As the evening ended we were not treated to a significant climax of musical power but rather a pale series of eminently forgettable bon-bons. The end of this unique program would have been a natural for that quintessential refugee take on America, Weill's remarkable song I'm a Stranger Here Myself or, for a more boffo ending, how about September Song which would have provided just the right poignancy. Instead we heard Jurmann's Thank you America as the finale (I honestly expected another number and was caught off guard that the evening was over). Possibly Ms. Hauman had run out of gas, but a judicious reshuffling of the material at hand would have still created a better farewell impression. The program may have been acceptable academically (it seems that we have to judge this complex event on several different levels) but theatrically it ending with a whimper.

Mr. Vendice was excellent throughout and the multi-media images were interesting, although often distracting (I preferred to watch this fine singer at work). One inexcusable omission was the lack of a printed translation of the multilingual texts. With views of the prejudice against the Gypsies (often ignored) and scenes of the Gerald L.K. Smith American Nazi rallies the images were powerful in and of themselves and perhaps one needs to experience this exceptional evening more than once to fully absorb the message. It would certainly be worth the effort.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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