Not Your Average Arias


‘I’ve always been fascinated by the Holocaust,” playwright Steven Carl McCasland mused recently, as one of his plays was about to open in New York. In one of them, “Der Kanarienvogel,” soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf (Anna Kirkland) grapples with accusations that she is a Nazi sympathizer. A cast of more than two dozen actors is presenting a total of five of McCasland’s plays in repertory this month in Kips Bay; the festival also includes “Little Wars,” about a fictional dinner party in which Gertrude Stein has a fateful dinner party with Lillian Hellman, Muriel Gardiner, and other writers, in the middle of which France falls to Germany.

Directed by the playwright, “Der Kanarienvogel,” billed as “a play with music,” centers on the performer whose interpretations of Richard Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put her in the first ranks of 20th-century opera singers. But her membership in the Nazi Party put a major blemish on her legacy.

McCasland, 28, is the founder of the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective. In addition to his playwriting, he has directed “Rags,” “Yentl,” “Crossing Brooklyn” and many other plays. In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that he grew up in the “very Jewish town” of Dix Hills, L.I., in which he was the “odd man out” because he was raised Roman Catholic.

A classically trained pianist, he has a particular interest, he said, on the “impact of the Holocaust on music.” “Der Kanarienvogel” examines both the music of those composers who died in the Holocaust, such as Pavel Haas, and those who escaped, such as Arnold Schoenberg. It also shows the forced resignation of Strauss from the Deutches Opernhaus because he refused to fire his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig.

While Schwartzkopf claimed that she needed to join the Nazi Party in order to sing in German opera houses, she may have gone even further by having an affair with Joseph Goebbels. (However, she is not mentioned in Peter Longerich’s exhaustive 1,000-page biography of Goebbels, which was just released last week.) “She wouldn’t have seen Hitler and the other top Nazis in the war room,” McCasland noted. “But she would have seen them at the dinner table, talking about the round-ups of the Jews.”

The Nazis’ wives and mistresses, the playwright speculated, were “probably disgusted but not willing to sacrifice their own lives to stop what was going on.” Schwartzkopf, he pointed out, “spent the rest of her career apologizing and dancing around the subject.” He wanted to direct the play himself, he said, in order to show “how she’s pulled like a puppet by all the different men in her life.”

“Der Kanarienvogel” runs at the Clarion Theatre, 309 E. 26th St. Remaining performances are Sunday, May 24 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, May 30, at 1 p.m. For tickets, $18, visit