A new opera about Nazi-looted art opens in Chicago this month

'Before It All Goes Dark' is based on a true story.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan
Studebaker Theater
Photograph: Courtesy of Studebaker Theater

Before It All Goes Dark is a new opera by composer Jake Heggie that tells the real-life story of Mac, a middle-aged Vietnam veteran from Illinois that goes on a hunt for the artworks that Nazis looted from a distant ancestor of his decades prior. Throughout his journey, the protagonist also becomes more familiar and in tune with his own Jewishness.

Following a run in Seattle this weekend, the show will transfer to San Francisco and then land in Chicago at the Studebaker Theater on May 25 at 7:30pm and May 26 at 3pm. Tickets for the Chicago shows are available here right now. 

Although mostly set in Prague, Before it All Goes Dark is intrinsically connected to Chicago. According to WBEZ Chicago, in fact,  the origins of the opera lead back to Howard Reich, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, "Who in 2001 and 2002 was working on constructing the family tree of Emil Freund, a Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust." According to the outlet, Nazis stole Freund's art collection and, years later, the pieces wound up in storage across Czech museums. 

Reich studied obituaries and was able to create a family tree that eventually led him to the real-life Mac. 

After knocking on Mac's door and identifying himself, Reich reportedly said to him: "If you are who I think you are, you're heir to this priceless art collection in Prague." 

Reich wrote about his discovery, and the journey it took to get there, in a two-part series that was printed in the Tribune in the summer of 2002, over two decades ago.

After retiring, the journalist connected with Heggie, who was looking for source material for a new opera. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Although mostly based on real life events, the production takes a few creative liberties: A Reich character never appears on stage, for example. 

Given the current tensions surrounding Israel and the Middle East and recent developments relating to stolen art across some of the most important museums in the United States, the very core of Before it All Goes Dark feels imbued with added resonance, making the opera that much more important to see while it's in town.

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