I attended a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane recently at Portland Center Stage. It was one of the most touching and moving experiences I have had in the theatre. What made it so? Listening with an open heart.
The story is a retelling of the true life experience of Lisa Jura (YOO-ra), a 14 year old Jewish girl in 1938 Vienna. The story is filled with deep, powerful feelings: love, fear, pain, discipline, passion, homesickness, uprootedness, determination, and joy.
Playing the Piano Saves Her Life
Lisa was one of the 10,000 Jewish children who escaped the Nazi terror with a ticket on the Kindertransport to London and relative safety. The story follows her life through the end of the war in 1945.
A key element to this story is that Lisa plays the piano. The stage is sparsely set with a grand piano dominating center stage and large picture frames above the stage into which photos and movie clips are projected.
The lone actor is Mona Golabek, the real life daughter of Lisa Jura. Mona is a pianist like her mother and grandmother before her.
The Last Piano Lesson
Golabek uses word and music to tell the story. In one segment she describes a piano lesson with Professer Eisiles, how they bow to one another in greeting at his door.
During her lessons, he would coach her as she plays the piece she is working on; cajoling here, singing along there. But not this time; not at this particular lesson. It is her last lesson with her piano teacher.
As she tells this story, she begins to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
While she plays the sonata, we can imagine the professor standing aloof and unengaged. We see “Lisa” play with passion, tenderness, confusion, tentativeness, and sweetness. Finally she stops playing, looks at her teacher and asks, “Is everything alright, Professor?”
“No! It is not alright,” he cries out with frustration, sadness, and fear. He tells her the Nazis have made it illegal for him to teach piano to Jews any more. It is dangerous for both of them just with her being here.
I feel tears sliding down my face. I feel the loss and pain and fear of this story.
The music teased out such a reaction in me. Without the music, the story is still quite powerful and conveys a depth of emotion. But with the music, I have no defenses to feeling.
Music touches our hearts in a way that simple words may not. The music itself slips through any defensive walls your heart may have built. Music took me on a journey to 1938 Vienna, Austria.
Music lives in my heart
Music has that way of slipping in through the tiniest crack of one’s personal armor. Once inside, the wordless sounds, the highs and lows, massage this feeling-est of muscles.
What each of us feels will vary from person to person. But this phenomena of pitched sounds and silences touching emotions in us can be so – – – surprising!
The Viennese Streets
The photos and movie clips projected into the frames above the stage also contribute to the emotional experience. There is a clip of adults and children walking the Viennese streets; some children and adults wear tattered and ragged clothing. A woman holding a small, limp child cries out to passersby. No one engages with the woman.
I see the humanity. I see myself in all the people in the story. Then I hear the dramatic rendering of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. And believe it or not, I feel even more.
I brought my open-heartedness to the theatre that day. And the music’s influence opened my heart even further.
The hardest part about writing this article has been finding the words to express all my deep emotions.
Forgive me if I leave you with no more words, but instead, the Music.
- Non-profit organization Hold On To Your Music founded by Mona Golabek: https://holdontoyourmusic.org
- Trailer for the stage production: https://youtu.be/5-KZFwl3I0U
- Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor passionately performed by Khatia Buniatishvili with L’Orchestra National du Capitole de Toulouse directed by Tugan Sokhiev. Watch for her eyebrow lift and tilt of head to convey tempo (12:46). And so much more. https://youtu.be/e1CMsIXBSss