Opera review: Trimpin’s ‘The Gurs Zyklus’ has its premiere at Stanford University


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Gurs was not a famous Nazi internment camp, we learn in Trimpin’s music theater oddity, “The Gurs Zyklus,” which had its premiere in Memorial Auditorium at Stanford University Saturday night. But as a way station in the French Pyrenees for Jews destined for Auschwitz, it was, we are told, cruel enough in its day. Inhuman enough. Many died there of exposure or disease or starvation.

“The Gurs Zyklus” (The Gurs Cycle) makes no attempt at re-creation or reenactment of the horror of Gurs. Nor is the production particularly effective theater. But in what must be the most curious example of Holocaust art ever, it is a cabinet of wonders.


Trimpin, a German artist long based in Seattle who goes by that single name, is an inventor of ingenious sound sculptures. And his opera, if you want to call it that, includes four singers and an actor/narrator. There are also projections. Still, Trimpin’s quirky contraptions littering the stage sustain the work.

The sound of his fire organ, made by Bunsen burners flaming in long glass tubes, suggests eerie chanting. A picture wheel is a Ferris wheel turned by hand that projects photos when revolved. Two 40-foot teeter-totters, each with a loudspeaker embedded in a ball, send sounds in crazy rotation. A pair of Trimpin-adapted player pianos produce superhuman results. The hall is surrounded by other, mostly unseen, percussion devices, operated behind the scenes by Trimpin and Jeff Aaron Bryant. The job of these and other enthralling instruments is to tell, obliquely and as an act of discovery, a story of curious coincidences presented as a kind of theatrical ritual. The somber vocalists (Thomasa Eckert, Susan Rode Morris, Katya Roemer and Linda Strandberg) occasionally set something in motion or intone backup to mechanized sound. Rinde Eckert, who directed the production, is the powerful narrator.

Trimpin’s preoccupation with Gurs began as a boy growing up in post-World War II Efringen-Kirchen near Gurs and learning from his Protestant parents that their small German town’s Jews were sent to the camp during the war. He later discovered from Conlon Nancarrow, who created dazzling 88-hand studies for player pianos, that he had been interned in Gurs. As an American, Nancarrow had fought in the Spanish Civil War against Gen. Francisco Franco and was later rounded up in France.

When this came out in a New Yorker profile of Trimpin in 2006, he was then contacted by the relative of a Gurs survivor and presented with a box of letters sent from the camp, which were used to form part of the text.

The opera, which lasts 73 minutes and is given without a break, is simply a series of inventions telling an aspect of this story as a kind of theatrical mosaic. Each is a piece of a puzzle that can never be quite put together.

The performance begins with the four women placing glass jars, filled with different levels of water, on the stage under dripping machines that create pinging counterpoint.


Player pianos play Nancarrow’s bluesy Study No. 6, which is then picked up by some sort of automated castanets surrounding the audience, as part of a Morse code section representing the death of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca by Franco’s Spanish Fascists.

“Franco was a man of no art, no music, who will rule for 40 years without poetry or grace,” Eckert screams. “Lorca is dead. They have scooped out his eyes.”

The horror, not yet the Nazi horror but the one that drew Nancarrow to fight in Spain, has begun.
The story, fractured and unclear, slowly unravels. The vocalists unroll a long scroll. Does it contain the names of the dead? Does it stand for the Torah? Or a player piano roll? They tear it in anger. The women set crystal ball pendulums in motion, a symbol of Kristallnacht.

Gurs is unveiled through Trimpin’s inventions. The picture wheel projects the train trip he took three years ago re-creating the journey of the Jews from Efringen-Kirchen to Gurs. Nature is evoked. The trees are now the only witnesses of Gurs, and the annual rings in their bark are yet more Gurs ‘cycles.’ Fire, water and air drive the strange instruments, with flames having the last unspoken and unspeakable word in a hauntingly beautiful finale with fire organ.

In the end, though, Trimpin’s creations belong as installations in a great space rather than squeezed onto and around a proscenium stage. Ritualized staging obscures the more important demystifying aspects of these funky magical machines with their surprising power over our emotions. Once such a cabinet releases its wonders is opened, they can no longer be contained.


Opera plugs in to the high-tech

Trimpin at the Ojai Music Festival

-- Mark Swed, reporting from Palo Alto