MONDAY, April 19 — Twenty years ago, Michigan State University music major Matt Eldred frequented the campus library to listen to CDs. That’s where he became fascinated with “The Holocaust Cantata: Songs From the Camps.”
“I became obsessed with it,” Eldred said. “I have had this music memorized for years.”
On April 23, he directs and conducts a virtual “Holocaust Cantata” for Peppermint Creek Theatre’s YouTube channel. The 40-minute mix of singing, music and monologues is a perfect fit for April’s “Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.”
The “Holocaust Cantata” origins go back to when Nazis exterminated six million documented Jews and also persecuted LGBTQs, non-whites and several other minority groups.
Aleksander Kulisiewicz survived five years in a German concentration camp during World War II. He secretly wrote and sang music to help prisoners cope with their horrific situation. When freed, Kulisiewicz devoted himself to documenting the music of the death camps — eventually collecting over 500 songs from 34 camps.
“It was a real, living, breathing account of people who were there,” Eldred said. “I’ve loved these words and music for so long.”
Donald McCullough, Master Chorale of Washington music director, adapted the songs into his “Holocaust Cantata” composition. It included readings from the Veterans History Project and debuted at the Kennedy Center in 2005. Eldred said the “Holocaust Cantata” takes a tragedy that might feel distant and inconceivable and makes it tangible and personable. “The sheer scale of the tragedy can often make people not want to address or remember it,” he said.
Increases in Holocaust ignorance and rising Neo-Nazism helped motivate Eldred to create his personalized version of the tribute to the people of the camps.
“There is something about a viewer having to stare into the eyes of somebody saying or singing a personal story from the Holocaust,” Eldred said. “It makes it feel very raw but affecting.”
He began work on the production in January. Eldred’s duties went well beyond those of most directors — and surely more than when he directed “Elegies” for a Peppermint Creek Theatre Renegade Festival entry in 2015. Eldred is a Peppermint Creek Theatre Board Member who has also acted on their stage.
“I also sing, teach the music, mark the scores, edit the initial submissions, hold rehearsals and talk-throughs, provide feedback and lead recordings and re-recordings,” Eldred said. “It’s a ton of putting people in positions to be successful and trying to best utilize the digital medium.”
“First, I would make a video for each movement where I conducted the entire song with verbal notes and cues,” he said. From that, instrumentalists made recordings Eldred pieced together. After adding more cues, the singers used the edited music to make their recordings. “We would edit those videos on top of each other to create a finished product,” Eldred said.
“Everything was recorded individually on cellphones and then edited with software,” he said. Bill Bartilson from Willow AV Labs was the engineer. “He is my hero, savior and MVP,” Eldred said. “This work wouldn’t be half as impactful without his help.”
“I recruited the musicians by calling in favors from friends around the country,” he said. “Places such as New York, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and more.”
They are professionals Eldred worked with when at MSU, or when he was the music director at St. Tomas Aquinas Parish and St. John Student’s Center in East Lansing. “Or at various times in my musical career in Greater Lansing,” Eldred said.
Peppermint Creek Theatre artistic director Chad Swan-Badgero assembled the seven guests who deliver the monologues from across the country.
Eldred said the finished work was better than anticipated. He underestimated how deeply invested the brilliant collaborators became and how polished submissions would be.
“When we put together the first cut of the video for the fifth movement it made me cry,” Eldred said.