Programme Notes – The Path to Heaven (Opera in One Act) 2017-18

A new opera in one act on the subject of the Holocaust with an accompanying ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion.

Article for the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) magazine

During my compositional career research into my Jewish roots has become more important, and many of my works over the years have been inspired by Jewish themes including Kol Simcha (1995) a ballet commissioned by the Rambert dance company with an ensemble based on the set up of a klezmer band, Klezmer (1993) for solo violin, a Clarinet Concerto (1999) for Nicholas Cox and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and two wind ensemble works Yiddish Dances (1998) and Eine Kleine Yiddishe Ragmusik (2004) that have entered the general repertoire of wind ensembles world-wide. For this new work I intended to write a theatrical work steeped in Jewish culture with an accompanying instrumental group of wind, brass and percussion instruments, a combination often found in Yiddish music, and something quite unique in the field of opera which will hopefully enable many future productions.

The holocaust and its resonances in recent history is an area I have long wanted to explore musically and dramatically as a composer. My background is Russian Jewish and I still count myself fortunate that my grandparents’ generation looking for a new life to escape from the pogroms in Russia at the start of the 20th century chose in the main to settle in the UK rather than the European mainland. The theme of survival in impossibly dangerous circumstances is one that is all too relevant today and I hope the new opera reflects that the dangers faced now have continued relevance and resonance as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, as are the perils of human relationships across a cultural divide. ‘Art under the threat of catastrophe’ is a concept that excites me greatly.

With this in mind I became very involved with exploring the lives and work of musicians that worked under the threat of the Nazis. In December 2015 I travelled to Barletta in Italy to meet the musicologist and pianist Francesco Lotoro who is acknowledged as a world authority on music written in World War two camps. I interviewed him about his work for a radio programme about music written in the camps, with particular emphasis on the transit camp Terezin in the Czech Republic and the composers that worked there. The programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2016. I have met with many survivors, including Zdenka Fantlova, Arek Hersh and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, whose books about their wartime experiences provided invaluable inspiration for the project.

The Path to Heaven is my fourth collaboration with the librettist Ben Kaye. Our other works are Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall (2007) for narrator, bass singer, chorus, brass quintet and organ based on the experiences of the political prisoner John McCarthy, Eternal Voices (2010), a commission from the Royal Marines about war in the 21st century for narrator, mezzo soprano, chorus and Wind Ensemble and Anya 17 (2012) an opera on the subject of slavery and sex trafficking which has had productions in Germany and the USA.

Ben Kaye has written of The Path To Heaven:

The story is about Hatred, Love and Bread.

A group of friends and lovers in Berlin find their carefree lives suddenly turned into a waking nightmare when they come to the attention of the Nazi authorities. Returning home from her eighteenth birthday party, Sara finds the Uncle and Aunt who raised her arrested and abducted, her friends under suspicion and her entire family branded with a Jewish heritage of the parents that she never knew.

Abandoned by her lover Dieter, within hours, Sara, her sister Hanna, Hanna’s baby Inge and their cousin Magda are rounded up and packed into cattle trucks, heading ever East for slaughter. Following a brief respite to experience the irony of Nazi Propaganda at Terezin, the group arrive at their “ultimate destination” to undergo the first of many “Selections” by the terrible Doctor “Uncle Rudi”, where the babies, the children, the old, the infirm or frail of mind are routinely diverted straight to the gas chambers.

As the piles of spectacles, hair and shoes grow ever higher, here they meet “The Cobbler”, a Rabbi who has lost his faith and has been driven mad by the Nazi’s requirement that he survives to service their Jackboots, a sadistic Kapo (Camp Enforcer) and Dieter… Having sought to protect himself whilst Sara’s lover by signing up as a Wehrmacht Soldier, Dieter finds himself stationed as a Camp Guard.

Having seen The Final Solution first hand, he is now within a second’s decision of suicide. Seeing Sara brings the salvation of his mind within grasp, but the revulsion towards his indoctrination and his one true desire to save her can only end one way. “The die has been set, and the machinations of mere men can do nothing to alter the fickle ways of Fate.”

 My nightmare would be to live in a world where not only was The Holocaust denied as historical fact, but also where Hate Groups thrive unhindered to persecute minority groups to satisfy their lust for meaningless violence and political gain. Please… will someone wake me from my nightmare?

 Musically there were two great challenges: to write a dramatic stage work that, despite the horrific context there would be a hopeful message at the end of The Path to Heaven, which would chime in with my view borne out by my meetings with survivors that the Holocaust was a failure, and Jewish society and culture lives on triumphantly. The other goal was to write a work where fifteen woodwind, brass and percussion instruments could provide support, colour and vibrancy to complement the seven singers. This particular combination of instruments is capable of extreme force and great tenderness, plus humour and satire where appropriate. Most importantly where words need to be heard, they are, and the dramatic structure is clear to the listener.

The production of The Path to Heaven was semi-staged, and the premiere took place at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on June 19th2018, with a second performance at the Royal Northern College of Music on June 21st. The director was Stefan Janski and the conductor Mark Heron.

Reviewers comments include:

The work…is framed by touching Hebraic laments…. alive to humour, with several dances including a devilish waltz for a guard and a polka with klezmer clarinet….an appealing piece, worthy of its tricky topic.Martin Dreyer – Opera


It is a staggering achievement on many levels with the instrumental, vocal and narrative invention hanging in the head for days afterwards. It’s a landmark piece, not just in operatic terms but as an opera with wind ensemble accompaniment….he and his librettist Ben Kaye take us on a rollercoaster journey via a subject we think we know in a manner that’s unexpected, surprising, and very moving the conclusion of which is not despair but the exemplification of the human spirit. Bill Connor – Winds


The opera is beautifully constructed …this demands to be heard more than once…..

The music… of extraordinary skill, passion and beauty. Gorb has written exhilaratingly in klezmer style on a number of occasions before, and he gets that vernacular into his score to splendid effect. He’s also a master of pastiche of what he calls “bad music” – slimy 1930s populist stuff – and even has a go at sending up a staid Lutheran chorale…… Above all, he lets himself go with expressions of the horror and outrageousness of the truth he’s telling and leaves you in no doubt about his feelings and his passion for a truth to be told. Robert Beale – The Arts Desk


…a wonderful lullaby at the end of this opening scene which would have broken even the stoniest of hearts.

….a quality production, with the orchestra expertly conducted by Mark Heron Andrew Marsden – Number 9

The Path to Heaven is in one act and is 105 minutes in duration. The full 15-piece ensemble is two flutes (one doubling piccolo,) two clarinets (doubling E flat and bass, two saxophones (Sop/alto and alto/bass), bassoon doubling contrabassoon, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two percussionists and piano/celeste. The seven cast members of The Path To Heaven include two sopranos, two mezzo sopranos, a tenor, a baritone and a bass, and they were drawn from opera students from the RNCM. The ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion consisted of players from the Manchester based contemporary music ensemble Psappha working alongside RNCM instrumentalists.

For financial support for the project I am grateful to the Arts Council England, the PRS Foundation and the John S Cohen Foundation. For support in kind I am thankful to the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North and the Britten-Pears foundation.

For those interested in knowing more about The Path to Heaven I am happy to email a perusal score, a programme (including the libretto) and a video of the RNCM performance.

I am passionate to keep the memory of the Holocaust through the medium of music and theatre. Its relevance still resonates over the decades, and I want to do all in my power to keep its warning at the forefront of people’s minds, with a story of hope and triumph through the darkest of times. This is the most meaningful way that Ben Kaye and I can help try and make the world a better place for the next generations.

Article for the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) magazine