Isolde 1939

Getting the Shadows Right

I struggled with the title of this post for a while. Since my last two posts were on Julie Orringer and Thomas Mallon, two writers known for their high-caliber historical fiction, I knew I wanted to discuss my own fiction writings for today's post - especially Isolde 1939, where my main protagonist is a made-up character inspired by a real-life opera singer who sang for the Nazis, and my current project, where I write fiction about well-known musicians who fled the Third Reich. I usually come up with a title for the blog post almost immediately, but this one stumped me. I had a very good idea of what I wanted to express but couldn't summarize it into a few words, until the words practically wrote themselves: getting the shadows right. 

I used the fictitious character of Yvonne Chevallier in Isolde 1939 because the opera singer her story is loosely based on - Germaine Lubin - saw her career irremdiably tainted after the war by accusations she had fraternized with the enemy during the Occupation. She lost her French citizenship, lived in Switzerland for several years. She also sang Isolde at the Bayreuth festival in 1939 - a festival that was attended every year by Hitler himself, a long-time friend of Winifried Wagner's (the composer's daughter-in-law) and had an active operatic career during the war, including in 1941 when she sang Isolde in Paris with the Berlin State Opera and Herbert von Karajan.

If you do a Google search on her name and Hitler's, you'll find a picture where she sits at his feet at the Bayreuth festival. A French biographer who wrote about her in the 1970s absolves her of any wrongdoing. Saying that the woman had a complex personality is an understatement. I chose to use a fictitious character instead of because, if you are going to give center stage to real-life controversial characters,  you absolutely have to get the shadows right - you have to see the real person and not the person you wish he or she had been just because it would make for a better story. Who am I to pretend I know for sure what Germaine Lubin did and why she did it? In this case, using a fictional character seemed an absolute necessity.

For the project I am currently working on, on the other hand, the real-life protagonists are very positive characters: multi-dimensional people without a doubt, but with high integrity, a compelling personal story, and a network of similarly famous friends. I am still debating how many names to change, but it is not as important as in Isolde 1939 - because my characters and the people who have inspired them are fundamentally good people. The book will not be on their shadow the way Yvonne Chevallier's (shadow) drives a lot of what she does during the war.

Recognizing the inherent goodness of a character is not nearly as fraught as shining a light on her dark side. It is also more difficult to portray deep flaws in biographies since it may leave the reader with the impression that the author is "finding excuses" for his subject, who may have caused tremendous hardship to living people and not be deserving of the slightest excuse whatsoever. On the other hand, writing fiction about positive people who really existed allows members of the general public to become more aware of a real-life story they may not have known, while making it come to life thanks to the liberties fiction writers can take by creating lively dialogue or tightening the story line. I'm not sure when I'll be done, but it should make for an interesting new book.


More on Germaine Lubin

Casanova-Nicole-Isolde-39-Germaine-Lubin-Livre-240593030_MLA book that was quite useful when I researched Germaine Lubin, the French soprano who sang for the Nazis during the Occupation and inspired the character of Yvonne Chevallier in my book Isolde 1939, is her biography (veering toward the hagiography, in my opinion), in French and currently out of print but available at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Cullman Center at Lincoln Center). You can see the book's cover to the left. (Digression: I need to point out how tremendously useful the NYPL library has been to my research. Even in this day and age, there is something to be said about living close to New York City when it comes to researching music icons, and that is true of my current project too. That library is a gem.)

The author is clearly taking sides with Lubin regarding the controversial parts of Lubin's past, and the book's value isn't in the insights she sheds on Lubin's personality - except perhaps unwittingly, because I suspect Lubin was very good at charming people, both during the Occupation and, it seems, decades later when talking to strangers who could help her become rehabilitated in public opinion. That motivated the scene in the cemetery at the end of my book, although the stranger who approaches Yvonne Chevallier in front of her son's grave is the pure product of my imagination.

The biography helped me understand the protagonists in Germaine's life a bit better and, most importantly, it had a stunning picture of Germaine Lubin sitting at the feet of Adolf Hitler at the Bayreuth festival. I can't bring myself to show the picture here, but you can find it easily with a Google search. In my book, the picture ends up playing an important role in Yvonne's life, especially during her trial. The picture stuns me every time I look at it, so of course it had to be part of my story.   

If you'd like to know more about Germaine Lubin to better distinguish the facts of her life from the fiction of my novella, you might want to read her biographical notes on Wikipedia and Cantabile Subito. She truly was a complicated woman with enormous talent and a complex personality.


Wagner in Baltimore

DidiBalle(Picture credit: Didi Balle didiballe.com) This is another of those posts I meant to write before I left for Paris but wasn't able to, in the rush to finish the semester and get everything ready in time. As a matter of fact, I couldn't go - I had to be in New York that same evening - but I thought Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had yet again treaded new ground in explaining music to a wide audience when she commissionned "A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner and King Ludwig II" from Didi Balle, who had previously collaborated with Alsop three times on symphonic shows.

From the program: "The symphonic play is a seamless blend of music and theater dramatizing the backstage story behind the making of the Ring Cycle." It was performed mid-April at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore and at the Strathmore in Bethesda, one night each. I find the mix of multiple media (theater and opera, in this case) particularly useful in drawing in audiences which may be reluctant to sit through, say, four hours of Götterdämmerung as their first introduction to Wagner.

I was also pleased to also recognize, in the list of cast members, the name of Pomme Koch (playing King Ludwig II, no less), a young local - meaning DC area - actor I'd seen in February in Henry V at the Folger in a role he had understudied for and had been thrust into due to the sudden illness of another performer. He'd done remarkably well, not only under the circumstances, but as a matter of fact it was completely unnoticeable that he didn't usually play that role. I always enjoy watching young actors getting the success they deserve.

My big regret is not to have seen another of Dalle's symphonic plays, about my other big (musical!) love besides Richard Wagner: Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin premiered at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and for some reason I never heard about it. (I'm very good at not paying attention to anything besides work when it's the middle of the semester and I have tests and assignments to prepare.) Hopefully these shows will be recorded some day and I'll get to see them then.


Brigitte Hamann on Winifried Wagner

HamannBook The Bayreuth Festival plays an important role in my novella "Isolde 1939", and because Wagnerian fans can be passionately opiniated about any matter regarding their beloved festival (I've attended a performance at Bayreuth where the director was vociferously booed by half the audience, for instance, and another where the first boos were covered by thunderous applause that silenced the naysayers), it was particularly important for me to know the basic facts surrounding Germaine Lubin's participation to the festival in 1938 and 1939, as well as her relationship to Winifried Wagner.

For that I was fortunate to draw upon Brigitte Hamann's exceptional scholarship, summarized in her book Winifried Wagner oder Hitler's Bayreuth. I read the book in German, so I can't judge the translation in English (which seems to be out-of-print anyway), but at least as far as the original version is concerned, Hamann's thorough research was complemented by an engaging writing style that made this thick book truly spellbinding.

This is where I learned about Lubin's meeting with German officer Hans Joachim Lange, her relationship with Winifried (including Winifried's role in asking Hitler's help when Lubin's son was made prisoner of war) as well as her singing Kundry in 1938 while Frida Leider sang Isolde, and her singing Isolde in 1939 after Leider - who was married to a Jewish man - had to flee the country.

Of course because my book is a work of fiction, I was able to create scenes to make those moments come alive without having to worry about being absolutely faithful to everything that happened seventy-five years ago - a technique that is most definitely not recommended in nonfiction but helped me convey some key elements of my leading character's personality, whether she was similar to Germaine Lubin in those aspects or not.

In particular, I made up the scene with Frida Leider. I wanted to show Yvonne's cluelessness and also her lack of insight regarding Europe's situation in the summer of 1938 (Yvonne being the fictional character inspired by Germaine Lubin, if I need to make that clear). I believe this is how many people began their involvement with the Third Reich: by not paying attention, by focusing only on their own life, by not realizing that what was happening around them required them to take a stand - so that when power finally changed hands, it was so much easier for them to continue with their oblivious behavior. So much more convenient too, for someone with Yvonne's ambition and her burning desire to sing. She compromised herself one step at a time, and thus no one step seemed particularly wrong, but her path taken altogether clearly left her on the wrong side of the moral fight.


Background Reading: "And the Show Went On"

AlanRiding-Book Today's (short) post is about another nonfiction book - after The Shameful Peace by Frederic Spotts, which I wrote about here - that will be of interest to those readers of my novella "Isolde 1939" who want to learn more about cultural life in Paris during the Occupation: And The Show Went On, by Alan Riding.

While General de Gaulle "above all people purveyed the healing notion that the French had been united in their resistance except for a few traitors and weaklings" (from the New York Times review), it has been known for a long time that the situation in Occupied France had many more shades of grey than what was politically correct to admit at the Libération. Riding, a former cultural correspondent for the New York Times, focuses on the shades of grey seen in cultural and intellectual Paris.

The Financial Times review provides this quote of professor, literary critic and Résistant Jean Guéhenno, included in Riding's book and which I can't resist to share with you: "The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print." This gives you a preview of many intellectuals' attitude during the Occupation.

I didn't find the book to be a page-turner - at least not in the way I found Villa Bel Air by Rosemary Sullivan, about Varian Fry, to be a page-turner - but it is very well researched and I liked how Riding, in the words of the Guardian reviewer, "traces how [the collabos] came to be by painting an elaborate picture of the terror of the German invasion, the collapse of French morale following the first world war, the immense humiliation and fear of a defeated population." It is only by understanding why some people chose to collaborate with the invaders that we can, perhaps, prevent such behavior from happening again.The book provides a stunning picture of the compromises people make with their conscience in devotion to their art - or their name in the headlines.


Germaine's Son

A key redeeming feature in the main protagonist of my novella Isolde 1939 is the love that Yvonne Chevallier has for her son, who is never shown in the book and yet plays a major role in the end, through a decision I won't name in order not to spoil the story for people who haven't read it.

The purpose of today's short post, then, is to point out that what Yvonne's son does in the book is also what Germaine's son did in real life, and Yvonne's reaction to it is true to the way Germaine reacted as well. Of course I made up a lot of moments, such as the scene in the last chapter between Germaine and the stranger, but the facts remain: Germaine Lubin's love for her son was enormous, which I hope to have conveyed successfully in the book, and perhaps, just perhaps, the enormity of that love may also be what brought about the son's last stand.


Who was Jacques Rouché?

Jacques_Rouché_1914In my novella, "Isolde 1939", the general manager of the Paris Opera performs - throughout the Occupation - a difficult balancing act when he sticks by his musicians (keeping the Jewish ones on the payroll despite Nazi orders) but also attends social events with the Occupants - if he really has to. My main protagonist, who is much more willing to socialize with the Nazis than he is, helps him stay in the good graces of the Germans. I didn't go into the general manager's story with any depth - I was writing a novella, after all, and the rules of the genre require a tightly-packed story - but for today's post I thought I'd point out that the man truly existed. 

His name was Jacques Rouché (1862-1957), and he was an outsider to the world of opera - an outsider with money, which allowed him to pump substantial amounts of his fortune into the Opéra Garnier. While largely forgotten now, a 2007 exhibition in Paris helped raise awareness of his work and contributions to French performing arts.

The following consists of highlights of his Wikipedia page. He graduated from the prestigious officer/engineering school Polytechnique in 1882 and later got a degree from the just as prestigious Sciences Po, after which he worked in the "Inspection des Finances", a highly sought-after government office. He kept working for the government before heading the Universal Exposition in 1889 to great acclaim, for which he received the French Legion d'honneur at age 27.

His true passion, however, lay in theater and stage direction far more than governmental bureaucracy. He married a perfume heiress in 1893 and then managed and modernized her family's business, through which he built the considerable fortune he would later spend (part of) on the Paris Opera. He led a law-related publication from 1907 to 1939 (at which time the journal ceased publication), and practices directing for three seasons at the Théâtre des Arts, where he already implements some of his novel ideas about programming and scenography.

In 1913, he was named at the helm of the Paris Opera, which did not please everyone. He would remain in those functions for over thirty years. (He is said to have spent 22 million francs-or of his personal wealth during his tenure on the opera. It is hard to make a conversion in euros, but what is sure is that we're talking about dozens of million of euros.)

During the Occupation, Rouché made a point of producing French operas such as La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz and Thaïs by Jules Massenet. He kept Jewish musicians in the payroll until December 1942 although he was forced to part with them in the fall of 1940. He also continued to negotiate with unions after they'd been dissolved and kept employing a Hungarian set designer until December 1943. Nevertheless, he was put on civil trial at the Liberation and terminated in January 1945. (Again, much of this information is drawn from his French Wikipedia page, while the great lines of his career are also provided in the Spotts book.)

Interestingly, while I portray his wife in my novella as someone who share his distaste for the Occupants, at least one book I've read suggested that much of his troubles at the Liberation were due to her own tendency to associate with the Germans, and that although his own behavior had been exemplary, the authorities just couldn't keep him in place given the way his wife had behaved. But you never know how much of it is true, since Rouché had made some enemies due to his fortune - and his exemplary conduct. This was an inspiring man who deserves to be widely remembered.


"Tristan und Isolde" on DVD

T-und-i Sometimes people ask me what DVD of "Tristan und Isolde" I recommend, since the opera plays such an important role in my book. It took me a while, in fact, to find a production I wanted to recommend. Although many were very good, it was important for me to get ahold of something that matched my own tastes - if you're going to buy a DVD because of me, I'd rather be thrilled about what I suggest, because even on Amazon.com we're talking about a $45 purchase.

I'm delighted that the 2009 La Scala production - with Wagnerian superstars Waltraud Meier and Ian Storey in the title roles and directed by movie great Patrice Chereau - has turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Stunning voices that make you gasp, handsomes actors that look the part, and the sleek visual lines of a modern production that doesn't indulge into gratuitous nonsense to feel important, but instead puts the whole staging to the service of the actors. Only caveat: in the third act, the engineer over-indulged in the "fading to black" feature between camera angles. (This doesn't happen in Acts 1 and 2, though.) But if you put up with that very minor inconvenience, you'll get over four hours of pure musical and visual perfection.

No need for any other DVD after that one, and if you care to hear Storey sing Tristan in real life, he'll be in DC in September, opposite the amazing Deborah Voight for the Tristan und Isolde run at the Washington National Opera. Mark your calendars!


Background Reading: "The Shameful Peace"

ShamefulPeaceI first read about Germaine Lubin - who loosely inspired the main character in my short novel "Isolde 1939" - in a book by Frederic Spotts called "The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation". I got the book in hardcover - discovered it in the now-defunct B&N at Lincoln Center, if my memory is correct - and then later bought it again in paperback because I wanted to be able to carry it around to re-read some chapters.

It is a Yale University Press book, which already tells you it's going to be overpriced ($35 for hardcover and $24 for paperback) - or perhaps it is priced exactly right, since people like me, passionate about the topic, pay the price without a second thought. But the book is a bit misplaced on the YUP list, because it reads much more like a general-audience book than a scholarly one (which I mean as a compliment, having slogged through many scholarly books whose authors wasted a great topic, with the related opportunity to connect with many readers, through their turgid prose).   


I had never heard about Lubin before. The issue of the German Occupation remains a very sensitive topic in France, where I am from (I am also from Belgium and Germany, but from France most of all, and I am a French citizen) - see for instance the 2008 scandal surrounding the exhibition "Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation", showing photographs of Parisians during the Occupation in Paris - and the French have preferred to think about that period in their history as little as possible.

I remember thinking right away, when I read the few paragraphs about Lubin, that it'd make a great novel. For me it remains as important as ever to write about such individuals - not the heroes and not the monsters, but people who ended up somewhere in the middle on the white-to-black continuum of ethical (or unethical) behavior, and for whom it is still not clear whether history has been too harsh or too kind - and it may well have been too kind. It is this sort of people, nowadays, who may hesitate between looking away or taking a stand, running in the other direction or speaking up for justice, writing anonymous slander or making a difference in the world. We need to talk about them - the ones who haven't yet moved to the dark side - so that they'll recognize their dilemma when the moment of choice comes and, perhaps, they'll do what some French people didn't 70 years ago: they'll stay on the right path.


Germaine Lubin and her voice

The French soprano whose life inspired my short novel "Isolde 1939", about an opera singer who sang for the Nazis, was named Germaine Lubin (1890-1979) and before her career became irremediably tainted by her actions during the war and the German Occupation of France, she was best known for her spellbinding voice.

So, before I go into the details of her life, I wanted to share the following YouTube video, in which Germaine Lubin sings Isolde's role in Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival in 1939. It so happens that Adolf Hitler, a longtime friend of Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifried, attended the festival every year, and he had already seen Lubin sing at Bayreuth the year before, that time as Kundry in Parsifal. But Isolde is undoubtedly the role she's most remembered for.

This video was uploaded on YouTube by dantitustimshu and in it Lubin sings the Liebestod - the final, dramatic aria of the opera after Tristan has died.