Spirits – An Opera in Three Acts
Spirits is the story of four close friends and their relationships in the years leading up to and during war. There is Thomas, a priest; his friend Anna, who is an artist; Robert, a doctor; and his wife Maria. Through the individual choices and decisions these four friends make or don’t make, they find their friendships changing in unexpected ways. By the end of the opera, their relationships have evolved into nothing less than a confrontation between good and evil.
In Act 1 we meet Robert, who is studying to be a doctor. A man of vast intelligence and charisma, he seems destined for a life of greatness. His studies lead him to specialize in research, as a way to serve humanity and to gain personal power and prestige. Robert’s wife Maria, who longs for love and happiness, is devoted to her husband and dreams of a beautiful future together.
Anna and Thomas, though close friends, offer a study in contrasts. Anna, the artist, is a free spirit who lives her life as fully as possible, with both passion and wonder. Thomas, the priest, is a caring and moral man but lacks confidence in his own strength and resolve. Anna constantly tries to bolster his confidence, but Thomas seems unable to escape his confusion and self-doubt. For Anna, the world is full of bright and vivid colors; for Thomas, the world is only gray.
In Act 2, as their country mobilizes for war, the struggles and conflicts of the four friends begin to emerge, with Robert and Anna finding themselves on opposite sides of the ethical and political spectrum. We witness Robert’s striving for power and status, which parallels his country’s rapid mobilization for war.
Anna follows a very different path. She realizes that living a life of passion is not enough, and she becomes increasingly concerned about what she considers to be the moral sickness of her country. We witness her changing from a free spirit into a political radical.
Thomas and Maria don’t experience the same kinds of upheaval in their lives, but both are concerned about events in their country and the world. In the final scene of Act 2, Thomas sees spirits. He doesn’t understand their meaning but realizes that they are a portent of things to come.
Act 3, several years later, finds Robert working in a hospital with a new mentor. We soon realize that this section of the hospital is devoted to the killing of mentally ill patients and political dissidents so that their bodies can be used for experimentation. As Robert and his mentor converse, a patient enters the room. Robert’s assured manner calms the patient enough so that he is able to administer a fatal shot.
As the first patient is carried away, a second patient enters. Robert is shocked and horrified to see his old friend Anna, now sick and emaciated. Robert’s mentor asks if Robert knows the woman. After a long silence Robert finally says no, but he is so shaken that he cannot administer the fatal shot; his mentor must do it for him. The scene ends with Anna’s body being carried from the room.
In the next scene, several hours later, a drunken Robert confesses to Maria what he has done. After a long and heated argument Maria goes into the next room. We hear a pistol shot, followed by the sound of her body falling.
The final scene finds Robert coming to Thomas to confess his sins. But even though Robert seeks help he cannot bring himself to confess his guilt, since to do so would be to confirm his own death, spiritually and perhaps even physically. Maria, like Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust, has died in order to save her soul, while Robert has lost his soul in order to stay alive. The scene ends with Thomas singing the same lines from Faust that begin the opera:
“And I am seized by long forgotten yearnings
For the solemn, silent world of spirits.”
My coming to this opera and its subject has been a long and slow journey. My first experience of anything having to do with the Holocaust was William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice. I continued to read on the subject, and the book that had the most lasting impact was Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, the story of Franz Stangle, Kommandant of Treblinka. This fascinating and disturbing work tells the story of an essentially normal person who ended up doing great evil, owing to wrong choices made either from a lack moral strength or a search for power. The more I read about the Holocaust, the more I realized that things are never as black and white as they seem.
Most Holocaust art and literature has dealt with the victims—sometimes tragic, sometimes heroic, quite often both. What interested me was the perpetrators. Who were these people? How could they do such unspeakable things? How did the decisions that were made along the way contribute to their moral decline?
A powerful book that deals with such questions is Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. Lifton, a psychologist, has coined the term “doubling” to explain how Nazi doctors were able to perform their heinous acts. The process of doubling, somewhat similar to schizophrenia, allows a person essentially to separate into two distinct personalities, one normal and the other capable of monstrous things. (There are also many examples of benign doubling, which all of us do to a certain degree.)
Several years ago I read that a UCLA professor, in discussing Kosovo, stated that morally we could relax about the “small stuff,” but when it came to the “big stuff” we should be as solid and strong as possible. One of the main themes of this opera is just the opposite: We make moral decisions every day, and we must be diligent about even the smallest of those choices. If we aren’t, even bigger compromises await us in the future.