Mt. Lebanon resident sings role of Anne Frank in Mendelssohn Choir production
Beyond her school-assigned reading of “The Diary of a Young Girl,” Amelia D’Arcy has what she feels are some personal connections to Holocaust victim Anne Frank.
“My own grandfather was an American soldier who liberated the concentration camp Dachau right at the end of World War II,” the Mt. Lebanon resident said. “I grew up hearing – mostly from my mother, who had heard the stories from him – about the conditions when he walked into this camp and what they found.”
Earlier in 1945, on an exact date that’s lost to history, 15-year-old Annelies Marie Frank succumbed to typhus in another German death camp, Bergen-Belsen.
A nonstop flight between Pittsburgh and Minneapolis takes less than two hours.
“I use that time to get work done,” Matthew Mehaffey said. “I have four kids, so there’s a couple of hours of no one pulling at my pant leg. It’s actually very valuable.”
Mehaffey, a 1993 Upper St. Clair High School graduate, makes the round trip regularly in attending to business as music director of two respected civic choruses, the Oratorio Society of Minnesota and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.
“I had to work out my professional and personal life to make it happen,” he said. “But so far, it’s been great for me. I love coming to Pittsburgh every week.”
A longtime resident of the Twin Cities area, where he also is an associate professor of music at the University of Minnesota, Mehaffey took over the Mendelssohn position July 1. He called the group, which was founded in 1908, “a real cultural treasure to Pittsburgh. It’s been really rewarding to work with them, and to come back and feel welcomed home,” he said.
The choir’s first production under his direction was “The Music of Downton Abbey,” based on the popular British period drama, in October.
“It was a nice success for us,” Mehaffey said. “We had a great crowd, and we chose fun music to work on for the first concert.”
He earned degrees in music from Bucknell University and Westminster Choir College, and his doctorate from the University of Arizona. At Minnesota, he conducts the University Singers and Men’s Chorus, teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in conducting and music literature, and is the 2015 recipient of the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award.
Mehaffey is co-author of “Choral Ensemble Intonation: Methods, Procedures and Exercises,” and co-editor of three volumes of “Teaching Music Through Performance in Choir.” He also co-authored the chapter “A Multiplicity of Voices: Choral Music in the United States” for the internationally released volume “The Cambridge Companion to Choral Music.”
“So many people say to me, ‘I can’t imagine all that traveling,’” he said about his Minnesota-Pennsylvania commute. “But it’s actually the super-easy part, one of the easiest parts of my week.”
Her reminiscences, first published in 1947 as “Het Achterhuis” (“The Annex”), recently have been adapted as a choral work, and D’Arcy will perform as soprano soloist on Feb. 25 when the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh presents the local premiere of “Annelies.”
D’Arcy, whose married name is Amelia Baisley, can relate further to the subject matter.
“I have two children, and they’re boys. But they’re 13 and 15, and that’s the age she was when she was writing it and when she was in hiding,” D’Arcy said about the diarist and the day-by-day account of life under Nazi persecution. “I really see everything that she was going through in all of our struggles.”
Upper St. Clair native Matthew Mehaffey, the Mendelssohn Choir’s music director, envisioned D’Arcy for the lead as soon as he considered the group presenting “Annelies.”
“She’s an amazing singer, and I think she will really captivate the audience in the way she’ll kind of become Anne Frank,” he said.
During a Jan. 29 discussion about “Annelies” presented in conjunction with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and Rodef Shalom Congregation, which is hosting the choral production, D’Arcy addressed her preparation for the role.
“We talked about the challenges of taking it from the page to the concert hall, the challenges and opportunities,” she said about the piece, written by English composer James Whitbourn with libretto translated and compiled by Melanie Challenger. “It just is incredibly powerful, and those first few times going through it, it was very difficult for me not to get emotional.”
She subsequently switched gears.
“What I describe as attaining some emotional distance from the piece had to happen,” D’Arcy explained, “so that I can start to work on it technically without that real, immediate emotional charge that is a little bit disruptive, artistically.
“I also wanted to fully immerse myself in the historical context, just to feel like I really got the whole picture,” she said, noting that she reread Frank’s diary and did further topical research, such as into the writings of Bergen-Belsen survivors: “day-by-day accounts from women who had been there with her in those last months.”
“With a piece as kind of complex and as serious as this, you just want to peel off each layer and get to what’s underneath it,” D’Arcy explained.
Mehaffey offered similar perspective about “Annelies.”
“I think it will be a rewarding concert, but challenging subject matter, for sure,” he said. “The performance is thought-provoking, and I think the music brings another level of meaning to it that you might not get from just reading the book.”
A magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University, where she founded the Columbia Opera Ensemble, D’Arcy finds deeper philosophical meaning in the musical adaptation of “Het Achterhuis.”
“Anne Frank was fighting complacency with every word she wrote. She was a lifelong learner, living an active life with every breath she took,” D’Arcy said.
“So, what is it that we do with this music? I feel that it’s carrying along her fight against apathy, her fight against indifference, because every performance fights the same complacency.”
The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s presentation of “Annelies” is at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., on the line of the Oakland and Shadyside neighborhoods. For more information, visit www.themendelssohn.org/current-season/annelies.