Oratorio rises out of composer’s Holocaust obsession

  • October 5, 2011

TORONTO - Composer Zane Zalis has a story to tell. Give him 90 minutes, 200 singers and a huge orchestra and Zalis will lead you through an emotional tale of the Holocaust.

I Believe is a 12-part oratorio that marshals enormous, complex orchestral forces but tells its story with popular, musical theatre singers. The work will get its Toronto premiere at Roy Thomson Hall Oct. 25 as a kind of lead-in to the 31st annual Holocaust Education Week, Nov. 1-9.

Zalis, who grew up Ukrainian Catholic but later slid his family over to the Roman rite, intended his oratorio to be educational and accessible to young listeners.

“I did not do atonality intentionally,” Zalis told The Catholic Register. “I have no desire to make some kind of statement in an abstract manner. None. I want to get straight to the heart of the matter. The survivors are dying. We have to remember why we need to remember. We need a tune.”

Zalis emphasized melody and rejected classically trained operatic voices for the solo roles. However, he defends the work as thoroughly contemporary, harmonically and orchestrally complex and offering plenty to musically sophisticated listeners.

“If I do want to make young people aware, and I am looking at young people, then I have to have voices they can relate to,” he said.

The oratorio began as a single movement composed in 2004 for the opening of the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba. But as Zalis spoke to Holocaust survivors and read obsessively about how the Nazi regime planned and carried out the murder of six-million Jews and others, he was compelled to a larger project.

By 2009 Zalis estimates he had spent thousands of hours researching the Holocaust and turning what he learned into music.

“It changed me,” said Zalis. “When I spent 3,000 to 4,000 hours thinking about human beings and what we do to each other, of course it changed me.”

For Zalis, the fact that he’s not Jewish only emphasizes the universality of the lessons which must be drawn from the Holocaust.

“I’m not Jewish. I was raised in very strict adherence to the practices of Ukrainian Catholicism. I was the catechism boy and the altar boy and the accordion player on Saturdays,” he said. “Being Catholic gives me a perspective that’s embracing, wide-reaching and able to converse with different aspects of this.”

Zalis isn’t the only Catholic getting a jump on Holocaust Education Week. Scarboro Missions is hosting two events in the weeks leading up to it.

“Face to Face and Side by Side” will be an evening reviewing Jewish-Christian dialogue as it was experienced at a recent conference in Krakow and Auschwitz, Poland. Catholic teacher Chris Loben and Marty Rotenberg, interfaith chair of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students, will make a presentation on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. A week later the Scarboros’ interfaith department is at it again with The Power of Good, a documentary narrated by former CBC reporter Joe Schlesinger on the story of Nicholas Winton. Winton saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazis, including Schlesinger. Schlesinger will be there Oct. 26, 7 p.m., to tell his story after the film.

Both events are free. For information, e-mail lthorson@scarboromissions.ca or call (416) 261-7135.

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