On a sunny afternoon in early spring, the cast of “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” begins a run-through in a rehearsal room at the Atlanta Opera’s headquarters. Brandon Nguyen impersonates a Nazi guard inspecting a line of prisoners. Just as he finishes, Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun raises his hand to stop the music. More menace, less rhythm and grace, he instructs Ngyuen.
“Don’t walk like a dancer,” he says.
It’s an interesting direction for any number of reasons, but primarily because Nguyen is a dancer.
“Out of Darkness: Two Remain” is a contemporary chamber work by composer Jake Heggie, and more than any other work the company has taken on, it integrates contributions from singers, actors, dancers and musicians to create what Heggie calls, not opera, not musical theater, but music theater.
“It’s truly going towards a new form,” says Atlanta actor and Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key, who performs the role of Gad Beck in the upcoming production. Key has no formal training in opera, but he performed the speaking role of the Pasha in the Atlanta Opera’s 2016 production of “The Abduction of the Seraglio.” For the role of Gad, he’ll primarily speak, but for the first time, he’ll also be required to sing a cappella.
“Tomer invited me in, trusting my skill set,” says Key. “We’re not thinking of ourselves as singers working with actors working with dancers. We’re all invested in telling the story, and it’s a very exciting process.”
“Out of Darkness: Two Remain” centers on the stories of two Holocaust survivors who are visited by ghosts from their past. In Act I, Polish dissident Krystyna (Soprano Maria Kanyova) shares her story of survival with a journalist, and is helped by the ghosts of Auschwitz who were once inspired by her written lyrics. In Act II, gay German Jew Gad Beck (Key) is visited by his first true love, the poet Manfred Lewin (Baritone Ben Edquist), who perished in Auschwitz. The narratives are based in part on the true stories of Holocaust survivors.
“It’s a gorgeous score,” says Kanyova. “It’s a theatrical piece. It’s opera, it’s theater. There’s a lot that goes into it. It seems to meld together in such wonderful story-telling.”
John McFall, former artistic director for the Atlanta Ballet, has returned from Amsterdam where he’s been living with his family to choreograph movement for the show.
“The collaboration is really spirited, it’s really robust and inspiring,” he says. “Having an opportunity to participate in this sort of presentation was something that really magnetized my sensibility.”
For McFall, it was an opportunity to work again with former company members, some of whom, like Nguyen and dancer Nicole Johnson, he’s known for years.
“Nicole was in the ballet school,” recalls McFall. “She was in ‘Nutcracker’ as one of the little acrobats in the Mother Matryoshka version. I’ve known her since she was a child, maybe 7 years old.”
Performances will be held at Theatrical Outfilt’s home venue, Balzer Theatre at Herren’s. The intimate production represents a bit of a synchronicity: its themes fit well with the theater company’s focus this season on stories of gay, lesbian and transgender men and women.
“I think there was something bigger than all of us responding to what stories needed to be told,” says Key.
That focus was a leap that some conservative members of Theatrical Outfit’s audience were not ready to take.
“It’s been a transformative step for our theater this year,” says Key. “There have been some who couldn’t go there with us. And there have been many more that have joined us. Everyone’s experience of attending Theatrical Outfit has been enhanced and deepened.”
In the end, dancers, actors and singers alike say the important thing about Heggie’s work is the way everything comes together to tell a timely and crucial story.
“The storytelling art form is an occasion where instead of arguing doctrine, debating or shouting sound bites at one another, there can be a story presented,” says Key. “We don’t have to make conclusions for other people. There is an opportunity to understand what it is to be human. It’s the sustaining power of love that’s dramatized. There’s a reason it’s titled ‘Out of Darkness.’ To come through it is such catharsis.”