A Little Miracle

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Stock’s dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, A Little Miracle, has been described by its librettist, Bess Weldon, as an “operatic monodrama.” The story is her own creation, but it plays out against the very real and familiar theme of parent and child hiding and attempting to escape during the German war of annihilation against Europe’s Jews. Here, the tale is woven around the dual miracle of birth itself and of survival through the faith and courage sustained by the memory of a mother’s song.

Before the war, Tova and her husband, Yaakov, lived in a town somewhere in Poland, sharing their living quarters with her parents. When the Germans forced the Jewish population into one of the ghettos they constructed as concentration depots for ultimate deportation to the camps, her father refused to go, preferring to remain behind and face certain death. In the cramped quarters of the ghetto, Tova gives birth to Rosa—her “little miracle”—in the midst of the surrounding “decay and destruction,” which is punctuated by the sound of nightly gunshots. With simplicity and judicious economy, the libretto describes the deteriorating situation in the ghetto as fellow Jews are murdered and as the population dwindles with the deportations. Apparently knowing that their turn is imminent, Tova, Yaakov, and their baby, together with her mother, Berta, hide at first in a closet [cupboard]. But as Yaakov and Berta make preparations for the family’s escape, they are shot. Tova manages to flee with Rosa to an apparently prearranged location, where the two are hidden in a stifling farmhouse basement—presumably by local partisans or members of the Polish underground resistance who are willing to hide Jews. During that virtual imprisonment, when they could be discovered at any moment, Tova is sustained only by her recollection and repetition of a Yiddish lullaby that her mother sang to her as a child. The song calms her and her child and gives her courage to continue eluding her pursuers and ultimately to survive. And Tova credits the song—and its embodiment of her murdered mother’s spirit—with saving her and Rosa: “I am saved by a miracle, a simple song.”

Commissioned by the Mary Flagler Cary Trust, Stock composed A Little Miracle expressly for mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, with whom he had worked during her student days at Duquesne University. She sang its premiere at Lincoln Center in New York in 1999 with the New York Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Gerard Schwarz.

Stock, having determined that he wanted to write a Holocaust-related piece, discussed some ideas with Bess Weldon—an actress, writer, drama teacher (at Vassar College since 1997), and close friend of his daughter Rachel Stock Spilker (now a cantor in St. Paul, Minnesota, as is his daughter Sara Stock Mayo in Pittsburgh and his son, Jeffrey, in Haverhill, Massachusetts). “I told her what kind of work I wanted to write,” he later recalled, “and within a few days she had devised the general story plan.” Weldon’s text was then inspired by actual stories of Holocaust survivors, as well as by related fiction and poetry. “Her writing was so inspiring,” says Stock, “that the music seemed to compose itself.” The events of the story are related by Tova as a first-person narrator, but, where indicated, she also sings in the name of her mother and her young daughter. A Little Miracle is dedicated jointly to those who were murdered by the Germans and to those who survived.

By: Neil W. Levin