In “Man and Boy: Dada,” Michael Nyman takes a disillusioned German Dadaist exiled in post-war London and a young boy obsessed with train tickets and delivers an amusing, moving and ultimately harrowing look at the horrors of the Holocaust and the healing power of innocence.
In a fascinating libretto, as good on the page as it is in performance, Michael Hastings uses the true story of artist Kurt Schwitters as a jumping-off point. Schwitters split from the Berlin Dada scene and founded his own obscure school, which he called Merz. This consisted largely of painstakingly constructed collages of found objects ranging from small paper pieces to huge rooms, sometimes with the furniture hanging from the ceiling (Schwitters pronounced floors obsolete but admitted ceilings were inconvenient for pissing). During a visit to Oslo, Schwitters learned that his work had been appropriated by the Third Reich as part of the historic “degenerate art” exhibit that also categorized jazz as “nigger music.” He remained in Norway.
When the Nazis came north, Schwitters escaped to the U.K., where he was interned in several refugee camps before gaining independence in 1945. He lost his wife and all existing examples of his work to Allied bombs (a Merz room in Oslo was destroyed by fire in 1951). He died in 1948 before beginning a Merz barn commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Hastings places Schwitters in multiple encounters with 12-year-old Michael in which the two jostle for possession of used bus tickets: Michael needs them for his collection, Schwitters for a collage. A strange friendship is formed, and Schwitters becomes an odd fixture in Michael’s household.
Complicating matters is a flirtation between Schwitters and Michael’s mother, who also lost her spouse in the war. While the working-class widow never quite comprehends Schwitters’ artistry, she is appreciative of the attention to both herself and Michael.
Schwitters, destitute and ill, is haunted by the past. When he assists Michael in breaking into a depot to obtain the last ticket needed to complete the youngster’s collection, he is overcome by memories of the camps. He tells Michael it would be best to end their relationship, declaring himself a bad influence. But Michael persists, offering a solution simultaneously simple and profound, to the dark question that gnaws at the artist’s soul.
Nyman is probably less known as a classical composer than as scorer of films such as “The Piano,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Gattaca” and “The End of the Affair.” His operatic work is from the same sonic palette: jazzy sax riffs over a pulsing synthesizer.
But Nyman comes up short in the lyricism department. His jerky vocal lines seem to serve merely as a device to put forth Hastings’ superb, absorbing libretto, so rich it probably could stand on its own as drama.
In the long run, Nyman does little more than set the mood and supply background accompaniment for the text. There are moments of great charm, such as when the composer turns to traditional British music hall fare when Schwitters seduces Michael’s mum into a little tango at the local dance palace.
Peter Werner’s set, itself a piece of chaotic Merz art, disappears into a grid pattern with some lighting magic, underscoring Michael’s need for order in a world gone mad, exemplified for him by Schwitters’ seemingly haphazard art.
Robert Tannenbaum directs with clarity and flare. James Clark, Karolina Bubleova Berkova and Jirina Markova-Krystlikova contribute endearing, committed and often humorous performances.
As opera it’s negligible, but as a theatrical experience, it throws a punch to the gut softened by a million tickles.