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Interview with writer Nava Semel and composer Ella Milch-Sheriff

Sunday, 8 June 2008 , ora 15.52
A unique work was presented in Sibiu (on Friday, the 6th of June 2009) and Bucharest (on Sunday, the 8th of June 2009): the only opera dealing with the subject of the Holocaust, composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff. The opera is based on Nava Semel's book And the Rat Laughed. I talked to the composer and to the author of the novel to find out what the "laughter" of a rat is and how a book is turned into a lyrical creation. What else I found out, you will discover by reading the following.

Nava Semel, why choose this title: And the Rat Laughed? What is its meaning?

This is the central motif of the book: the rat, which is considered the most demonic creature as it lives underground, and which in the Nazi system referred to the Jewish population. However, in the novel everything is reversed: the rat symbolizes hope because, if in real life it is incapable of laughing, it can do it in this world where everything is backwards and in this way the miracle happens: the little girl, the main character, survives and finds hope in her own world, a dark apparently hopeless place. The one thing that helped her preserve her sanity was the miracle: and this was in fact the laughter of the rat, the only being that was there with her, underground.

This is a very unusual book, both from the point of view of the subject and also from the perspective of the location or in the context of today's literature. What is the proportion between fiction and reality in your novel, Ms. Nava Semel?

The entire novel is fiction, but I have read many accounts made by children who stayed hidden or were hidden during the Holocaust. What determined me to write this book was the fact that all these children were extremely quiet, they never spoke about their memories; in that respect, through my novel I wanted to give voice to those silent frozen accounts. It is true that it is an unconventional work, as the style that I used incorporates five literary genres. But it can be read in a very simplistic manner: the plot can be understood as an Olympic race but with memories being what these people are carrying - starting with the grandmother telling her story to the granddaughter who had to do a paper for school; then the granddaughter in her turn, tells the teacher and her classmates what she was told; then all of them build a web page where they post poems, so that the grandmother's memories spread all over the world and become a myth.

Eventually, in the year 2099 an anthropologist from that future discovers a myth that bears the title The Girl and the Rat; she is the one who says 'the story is true, it seems made up but there is some truth in it'. Wanting to know more about this story, the anthropologist goes back in time and finds the journal of the Roman-Catholic priest who saved the little girl and who, back in 1943, already knew that people would choose to forget the Holocaust and not to remember it. But trying to make sure that nobody will forget the Holocaust and its atrocity, the priest writes this journal.

On the stage, all the temporal levels are represented through a technique which resembles a blooming flower or the onion layers: every thin layer hides something else underneath, it brings out something new all the time. It's true that it is a somewhat unusual structure for a book. Ella Milch-Sheriff, the composer, came up with the idea of uniting the temporal levels: everything happens at the same time, the opera starts with the future, but once the anthropologist discovers the myth of the girl and the rat, she pushes aside, peels off let's say, the first layer of time and reaches the moment when the grandmother tells the whole story to the granddaughter. In this way another level of time and of the story is reached, going deeper and deeper into the past. And there it is: the present, the past and the future are on the stage at the same time, not consecutively but simultaneously.

How did you receive Ella Milch-Sheriff's idea to compose an opera based on your book?

At first I was somewhat shocked because I did not believe that this book could be turned into an opera. I think you should talk to Ella about that, I'm sure she will give you a better answer.

I will do that - but tell us then, why did you think that your novel could not be turned into a lyrical work?

First of all, because in the book I had already offered five methods of preserving memory. The whole novel deals not only with the subject of the Holocaust but also with the way we remember it. And then, if we remember it, how can we express ourselves, how can we talk about these memories? That is, we have this issue of the memory that is transferred, it changes, but it is still there somewhere, it is preserved - but how? This is the main idea of the book. I was very happy when Ella came up with the idea of an opera: as I was saying I could only offer five methods of keeping the memory alive -literary methods; but she was able to bring forth a sixth possibility of making us remember - music. In a way, I would say that the opera is an extension of the book.

Thank you, Nava Semel! I will now talk to the composer Ella Milch-Sheriff...

Ella Milch-Sheriff, my first question would have been: 'How is a book turned into an opera?' But after discussing with Nava Semel I have given up on this idea. She said that you have done something very special: you have created a new kind of memory. Can music be a preserver of memory for the future?

I believe music contains everything, it is a language of emotions, it can pass the feeling on to others in a very direct way, something that words cannot always do. A word has different meanings depending on the person: one and the same word may mean something to you and something completely different to me, it can have a positive meaning and I can perceive it as negative. Music is truly a special language and my musical style is derived from these very emotions. For me, the combination between word and music is the most powerful of all. I would say that Nava Semel's novel is very special and my work is a completely different entity. It carries the same message but in the same time, a completely different one, because music 'interprets' the word in a totally different manner. Therefore, yes, I would say that music is a preserver of memory; it is, as Nava Semel put it, a different method of remembering. I think that in fact it strengthens this human faculty.

What musical language have you used in writing the opera And the Rat Laughed? Is it a contemporary one? Have you intentionally searched for sound effects that would intensify the subject of the book?

My musical language is a tonal, harmonic one, very easy to listen to even by the inexperienced. Of course, every character in the novel is represented by a musical theme; because of the words, of the message or of the personalities they can sometimes be dissonant. For example, the Catholic priest that saves the little girl is at first accompanied by religious music; then, as he sings, Jewish sounds are added to that music which was purely Christian, European. There is also a choir made up of 16 girls who sing the emotions, the feelings and the thoughts of the main character; they surround the protagonist, the little girl all the time. The little girl herself is always present on the stage. The girls surrounding her express her thoughts and their words are actually the poems that Nava wrote in the novel.

They are the most shivery poems you could imagine containing the most terrible words, especially if you think that they were made up by such a little girl - she thinks such things about life and death. I have deliberately chosen to use the most beautiful, melodic and harmonious music for this part of the opera to create this huge contrast between words and music. I believe this makes the message of the book that much more powerful.

Ella Milch-Sheriff, one last question. Maybe this is the question I should have started with even before mentioning the idea of 'how is a book turned into an opera'. But since out discussion took a different path, it could be that much more interesting. Therefore: what made you want to compose an opera based on Nava Semel's novel And the Rat Laughed?

I do not know if Nava mentioned this but we both belong to the second generation of Holocaust survivors. My parents moved from Poland to Israel in 1948; my father's first wife and their three year old child were killed in Poland. My mother was much younger at the time but she too suffered a lot. Nava's parents were in fact originally from Romania; her mother was taken to Auschwitz while her father survived here, in Romania. I would say then that both Nava and I naturally made this decision, this choice, to confront this subject, each of us in her own way.

However, there is a huge difference between these two ways of dealing with the problem; before even starting to write the opera And the Rat Laughed based on Nava's book, I read my father's journal which he had written while hiding after his family had been killed. I also wrote an opera based on this journal, two years before reading Nava Semel's novel. That was the first time I came face to face with my parents' destiny because I had always wanted to get away from it, to get out of it and not have to confront it. But Nava's novel overwhelmed me - also because her writing is very melodious in a way that words cannot describe. When I started to read her book, actually her books - because we have been working together for a long time now - I thought: there is music in these words! I would like to write an opera! Everything came very naturally, like an impulse. As soon as I read And the Rat Laughed I knew right away that I wanted to compose an opera based on this book - and that is exactly what I did.
Maria Monica Bojin
Translated by Dorina Burcea
MA Student, MTTLC, Bucharest University