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‘Before It Goes Dark’ tells story of suburban Vet

BASS-BARITONE RYAN MCKINNY  stars as Gerald “Mac” McDonald in Before It All Goes Dark. (Photo by Jiyang Chen).

This May, Music of Remembrance (MOR) celebrates its 25th Anniversary with a three-city tour of “Before It All Goes Dark,” a new opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer based on reporting by legendary Chicago journalist Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune. This world premiere run kicks off with a performance in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on May 19 and continues to San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre on May 22, before concluding with two performances on May 25-26, in collaboration with Chicago Opera Theater, at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago.

“Music of Remembrance” is acclaimed for developing new art works that confront compelling issues in today’s world. Recent premieres have included works addressing the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, the worldwide refugee crisis, and the struggle for women’s rights in Iran. This season’s premieres bring the organization’s total commissions to 45 new works, including song cycles, chamber works, operas, film scores, and choreography – all persuasive testimonies for tomorrow.

This one-act opera is the organization’s fifth commission of composer Jake Heggie and his 21st collaboration with librettist Gene Scheer. The plot is based on the compelling true story of Gerald “Mac” McDonald, a gravely ill and deeply troubled Vietnam War veteran, which was first reported by Reich. 

Mac grew up poor, angry, and disenfranchised in the suburbs of Chicago, his family’s Jewish ancestry hidden from him – until Reich tracked him down as part of an investigation inspired by his own family’s experiences during the Holocaust. When Mac learned that he was heir to a priceless art collection stolen by the Nazis, the two men embarked on a quest to Eastern Europe to uncover secrets of the past.


“When Howard Reich told me Mac’s story, I immediately felt a shiver of recognition,” said composer Jake Heggie. “The story is bursting with surprising influences, soaring vocalism, and remarkable intimacy. It is a very specific American story, yet universal, for we are all in some way heirs to the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

“When I first identified Mac as the heir to this invaluable art collection, I had no idea how this news would change his life,” saidReich. “If Mac were alive today, I believe he’d be stunned and pleased to discover that the world still wants to hear from a long-forgotten Vietnam Vet. Thanks to Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer, and “Music of Remembrance,” Mac’s story of tragic loss and surprising redemption will live forever on the operatic stage.”

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who recently opened the Metropolitan Opera season in Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” will create the role of Mac. In her MOR debut, mezzo-soprano Megan Marino takes on three characters: Mac’s neighbor, a curator at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and Mac’s ancestor, Emil Freund. Each performance of “Before It All Goes Dark” will begin in Freund’s vibrant salon, where audiences will be surrounded by projections of the looted art and the sounds of Czech music – all written by composers who would ultimately perish in concentration camps. 

The action then moves to Mac’s sparse, dark apartment in Chicagoland 63 years later, drawing a sharp distinction between Mac’s reality and the astonishing world of color, identity, and connection embodied by Freund’s collection.

“The world continues to struggle with questions – moral, legal, and political – about what it means to own works of art,” says “Music of Remembrance” Artistic Director Mina Miller. “Without giving us easy answers, “Before It All Goes Dark” explores the complicated relationship between art and identity, while challenging audiences to consider the unexpected ways that historical events affect later generations. In many ways, this work encapsulates what “Music of Remembrance” is about – demonstrating the power of art to make a difference in the world.”

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