Believe in the power of music

Why is a Canadian Catholic composer so focused on the Holocaust and how has he managed to touch so many people with his work?

Zane Zalis 88 248 (photo credit: Jewish Federation of Winnipeg)
Zane Zalis 88 248
(photo credit: Jewish Federation of Winnipeg)
You have to hear it to believe it. On the surface, there's no reason why I Believe, a Holocaust-themed oratorio by Canadian composer Zane Zalis, should work. First, there's the question of the music. For five years, Zalis has been working on I Believe, which will be premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on May 21. Though the piece is scored for a full orchestra and a chorus of almost 200 voices, its style is often closer to musical theater than it is to contemporary classical repertoire. "For me, it is quite an intense, strange project. I don't know of anything like it," said Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor and music director of the WSO. In addition, the Holocaust is about the farthest thing from Zalis's own life experience. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Zalis comes from a strictly Ukrainian Catholic background. "I was raised a Ukrainian boy, with Baba and Gigi in the house, I played the accordion, went to Catholic school. I was raised in traditional ways," he told The Jerusalem Post. But despite superficial indications to the contrary, Holocaust survivors who have heard excerpts from the work are unanimous in their verdict: Zalis gets it. "He's in there, in a way. I give him credit that he got close enough to the barbed wire that he could hear the children. In his mind, he's there physically," said Arnold Frieman, a Winnipeg Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in a slave labor camp near the Hungarian-Romanian border during the Second World War. Frieman first heard a portion of I Believe during a community performance by the WSO at Miles Macdonell Collegiate, where Zalis heads the school's acclaimed music production program. After the performance, Frieman approached Zalis, overcome by emotion. "I have read many books on the Holocaust. And as you read those accounts of what they did to us physically and spiritually, it does impact you. But the music and the lyrics give it life. It takes you back," he said. "Even non-survivors can get a reasonably good feeling as to the fear. The fear was always there. This feeling that you're nobody, you're doomed, you're finished. You can feel it, both from the music and the lyrics." ZALIS BEGAN working on I Believe in 2004 when he was commissioned to write an overture for the inauguration of the Arthur Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba. "What do you write for a center for peace and justice?" he wondered. After reading up on the history of genocide, he realized that for him, there was no subject more moving, challenging or relevant than the Holocaust. Following the initial 12-minute performance of the overture, he came swiftly to another conclusion: He would expand the short work into a concert-length piece. Years of reading, writing, and interviewing Holocaust survivors followed. As he wrote I Believe, individual movements were performed at community and educational events, including a presentation he made in the summer of 2008 at Yad Vashem. On each occasion he was confronted by the same reaction: People were moved to tears and wondered how he did it. "This one lady came up who had been in Auschwitz. She said to me, 'I didn't think that you would get to me because I've seen so much. But you hit the nail on the head,'" Zalis recalled. "It has been a mystery for many, many people. How did I get the pulse of whatever it was? I don't know. Why fish around? I don't have an answer," he said. Though I Believe is unquestionably about the Holocaust, its lyrics shy away from explicit references, giving the piece a universal resonance. The words Jew and Nazi, for example, are never used. And despite some similarities to musical theater, its story is mostly conceptual. "You know Tevye and the Fiddler on the Roof? It's not like that. It's about inside the mind of a survivor. It's written for feeling the Holocaust," Zalis said. "I have been trying to share and walk in those shoes so I can understand. And that's how come I don't think a history book does it. And that's how come I don't think facts and dates and numbers do it," he said. "Do you know how it feels to lose everyone? Do you know what alone means? Do you know what it means to turn your back on a God that you believed in since your childhood and feel empty? Now you start to understand the Holocaust. That's my take. That's what's in the music." Though I Believe is envisioned as a full-scale symphonic work, it is also designed so that it can be used in smaller settings, such as classrooms. Following the premiere, a workshop based on I Believe will be held for Winnipeg teachers. Ephraim Kaye, the director of international seminars at the school for international studies at Yad Vashem, will be traveling to Winnipeg especially to attend. Other plans are also in the works to extend I Believe beyond its initial performance. For now though, it's the premiere that matters most. Approximately 5,000 people have already seen portions of I Believe in one form or another, but this is the first time it will be performed in its entirety with a full orchestral line-up. Visiting dignitaries and tour groups are coming to Winnipeg from as far away as Austria and Israel, and tickets sold out weeks ago. It's the culmination, and perhaps the new beginning, of an intense emotional and artistic odyssey. In the end, Zalis may yet make believers of us all.