Book and Lyrics by Elise Thoron, Music by Gary S. Fagin
“Life? or Theater?” is the name a young Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon, gave to a series of over eight hundred gouaches she painted between 1940-42 in the South of France. Subtitled a “three color play with music” this work combines images, texts, and musical references to tell the story of her life growing up in Berlin, a life ravaged by family suicides and Nazi persecution. Charlotte, on the verge of being overwhelmed by these destructive forces, paints this remarkable play as an affirmation of life.
“Life? Or Theater?” follows Charlotte’s journey from the tragedy of her mother’s suicide to her birth as an artist during the war. It explores her relationship with her father, a cancer surgeon, and her glamorous step-mother, a well-known opera singer, whose vocal coach, “the poet of song,” becomes Charlotte’s lover. It begins with her in exile from Berlin in the South of France in an empty room, where Charlotte is struggling to paint “Life? or Theater?” as the war rages on. Seven characters bring her paintings to life, singing an original score by Gary Fagin, which echoes the music of the period.
Before her deportation to Auschwitz, Charlotte entrusted her “life work” to a local doctor. The paintings survived the war in a suitcase and were given by her parents to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Despite several publications, films, and exhibits of her work, Charlotte Salomon and her extraordinary work is not widely known. Exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, The Ontario Gallery in Toronto, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Jewish Museums in New York and San Francisco have done much to introduce people to her work. The play also expands her audience.
Art by Charlotte Salomon®, Collection Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam©.