Internationally acclaimed Dutch Yiddish singer Niki Jacobs will bring her Yiddish version of Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis’s “Mauthausen Cycle” to three Northeastern U.S. venues in mid-March. Performing with her classical/klezmer ensemble, Jacobs will present her Holocaust-themed program drawn from “The Ballad of Mauthausen,” also known as the “Mauthausen Cantata,” at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre in Manhattan on Thursday, March 17, at 9:30pm; Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Friday, March 18, at 8pm; and at Bombyx in Florence, Mass., on Sunday, March 20, at 7:30pm.
Theodorakis’ original composition was a cycle of four arias with lyrics based on poems written by Greek poet Iakovos Kambanellis, a survivor of the Nazi slave labor camp in Mauthausen, Upper Austria. Mauthausen was one of the most brutal Nazi concentration camps, where over half the inmates died simply as a result of the severe conditions, before 1940, when the Germans began systematically killing prisoners in gas chambers.
Theodorakis wrote the song cycle with Kambanellis in 1965 and recorded it the next year. The libretto was originally written in Greek, Hebrew, and German, and the story was based on Kambanellis’s own experience in the camp, where he carried on a love affair with Lithuanian-Jewish woman amidst the horrors surrounding them. Kambanellis drew on the Biblical Song of Songs for some of the lyrics and imagery. Within a year after its release, Theodorakis was imprisoned by the Greek military junta and his music was banned in his homeland. “The Ballad of Mauthausen” had its official world premiere at Mauthausen in 1988, starring the great Greek vocalist Maria Farandouri, who sang on the original recording and who was a frequent collaborator with Theodorakis.
Several years ago, Niki Jacobs, a world-renowned Yiddish singer, had the “Mauthausen” libretto translated into Yiddish – the language that most Jewish inmates of Mauthausen would have spoken – and the music was transcribed for her small but mighty ensemble. Theodorakis himself approved the project, which he both praised and supported. Jacobs has assembled an outstanding group of musicians, with roots in jazz, Balkan, klezmer, classical and improvised music, for the project. The musicians include Ro Krauss, viola/vocals; Peter van Os, accordion; Ruud Breuls, trumpet; and Emile Visser, cello.
Jacobs’s current U.S. tour takes her to both the East and the West coasts.
Mikis Theodorakis, who died in September 2021, was Greece’s best-known composer and something of a national hero. He is known internationally for his scores to films including “Z,” “Zorba the Greek,” and “Serpico.” He was outspokenly political, which led to periods of imprisonment and banning of his music in Greece when the nation was under right-wing rule. He was a prolific composer in all forms of music, including symphonic works, chamber music, cantatas and oratorios, hymns, ballets, operas, theater music, and film music.
Theodorakis’ major innovation and signature style were fusing traditional Greek sonorities drawn from folk music with classical and symphonic elements while also incorporating sounds and rhythms from contemporary music, including international pop and rock music.