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SALZBURG Austria (Reuters) - French-American composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie would place the relevant watercolor by Auschwitz victim Charlotte Salomon in front of him while writing his opera based on her short life, so it is no surprise he felt her spirit working through him.
"Charlotte Salomon", which got a huge ovation for its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival on Monday, was the culmination of four years of often frustrating work, Dalbavie told Reuters.
Dalbavie, 52, scrapped one libretto and librettist for another, changed directors and was making revisions just two hours before the performance, but he remained confident.
"I feel really like a medium. When I was in rehearsal, for a lot of moments I was thinking to myself what Charlotte would think about that," Dalbavie said in an interview on Tuesday.
"It's like she was present, you know, it's a sort of very bizarre sensation, it's like we were not alone doing that ... It's very deep, I never felt that in my life," he added.
Salomon, the troubled child of a mother who committed suicide, grew up in a bourgeois, music-loving Jewish family in 1930s Berlin, coming to womanhood as the Nazis seized power.
She is increasingly known in art circles for a body of work she called "Life? or Theater?" which consisted of almost 800 watercolors linked by text and musical selections she worked on intensely while living in wartime exile in the south of France.
Seemingly she was out of range of the Nazi extermination net - but not far enough to avoid being transported to Auschwitz and gassed there, while she was pregnant, in 1943 at the age of 26.
Dalbavie said he had been attracted to the subject because it met his criteria for a main character and because the lives and personalities of the people surrounding her had just the right amount of ambivalence for him to imagine them singing.
"I have to believe why people sing, I have to understand why they sing. It has to be a necessity for me, it cannot just be a sort of genre like you do a police or a war movie ... It's the impact of the emotion in the opera," he said.
"It's very ambivalent because when the singer sings you don't know really if what brings you the emotion is the voice and the singing or is it the story she is telling? There is a total ambivalence, it's a very complex emotion."
For this work, though, he had to abandon his scruples about never having Nazis on stage, scruples rooted in a feeling that their insertion in operas by Mozart and others written long before the Third Reich had become a director's cliche trick.
"It's just a simple way to see politics, to see the relation of power, it's so caricatural," he said. "I have Nazis but in this way - the Nazis in 'Charlotte' are very important."
The opera and its reception must surely be a watershed in the career of Dalbavie, who is much more French than American but whose mother is the 1950s-era screen and stage actress Perdita Chandler.
Dalbavie said coincidence had played a role during the opera's creation in unearthing letters and other materials related to Salomon and people who had known her. Potentially one of the most significant coincidences was singer and Los Angeles Opera General Director Placido Domingo attending the premiere.
At present, no further productions of "Charlotte Salomon" are scheduled after the Salzburg run ends in August, so it needs a home. Dalbavie said that at a post-premiere cocktail Domingo had said he "loved the opera" but it being a party the chat went no further.
However, Domingo did suggest Dalbavie might consider doing an opera based on the life of the late French fashion designer Coco Chanel, which seemed to appeal instantly to his need for ambivalence in his opera characters.
"Her affair with (composer Igor) Stravinsky..." he said, thinking out loud. "And she was not clear during the war..." he added, referring to allegations she may have been a Nazi agent.
"Coco Chanel" the opera? Perhaps someday, by the French-American composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie.
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones