By Len Lear
Beatrice Beer is a local opera singer with a most impressive resume. The soprano, born in Nice, France, but now living in this area, has been a featured guest soloist on a live telecast performance at the Philadelphia Marathon for an audience of about 90,000 people! She has performed her father’s music as a soloist in concert in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Atlantic City and in Europe in Vienna, London and Germany. She has also sung in more than two dozen operas in recent years all over the Delaware Valley with the Mt. Airy-based Amici Opera Company and at the Atlantic Coast Opera Festivals.
But Beer is not obsessed with her own career. Quite the contrary. The talented soprano, who speaks 12 languages and also has volunteered for causes such as impoverished women and animal welfare, has dedicated much of her time, energy and skill to reviving the music and reputation of her father, Joseph, a Holocaust survivor whose brilliant career as an opera composer was abruptly halted by the Nazis.
Joseph (1908-1987) is almost certainly the greatest composer you never heard of. Although he survived the Holocaust by being hidden by friends and being shuffled from one location to another, he was never the same after the war. His desire to compose had been dulled, but he still left behind an important body of work presently being represented and published by Europe’s premier publishing house, Doblinger Musikverlag.
“A few times my dad mentioned the musical glory he had achieved before the war, but he was humble,” said Beatrice. “He would have coffee in Vienna (in the 1930s) and look at newspapers from all over Europe. They would usually have a rave review of one of his works somewhere. My mom was born in Munich, but her family escaped before the war.
“My favorite opera is ‘Midnight Sun,’ by my father. My mom and dad met in Nice, France, in 1948, way before I was born. She was 6 in Munich in 1933 when her family left. They could see what was coming. She was dedicated to my dad and typed all of his librettos. She supported him but never saw him get famous, which he was in Europe before the war. She died at 88. I miss her so much. She supported me so much”
Joseph Beer was a composer, mainly of operettas, “singspiele” and operas. Beer started composing music as a young man in Vienna in the 1930s. His operettas, “Der Prinz von Schiras“ and “Polnische Hochzeit,“ premiered at the Zurich Opera House in 1934 and 1937, respectively, and subsequently toured extensively in Europe and South America.
According to Beer’s Wikipedia biography, Joseph Marx, who was Beer’s professor at a music conservatory in Vienna, where Beer graduated with the highest honors, wrote a congratulatory letter to his former pupil, enthusiastically stating that in his first work, Beer had displayed “a knowledge and mastery that few established operetta composers possess.” Beer was just 25 years old at the time.
Beer, who was Jewish, fled Austria in 1938 for France while his family remained in Poland and were killed in Nazi extermination camps. He left a large number of works for the stage. Beer was granted a visa by the French government and settled in a hotel room in Paris. He adapted instrumental works for orchestras and received a commission from a conductor at the Zürich Opera House for a work to be performed under the latter’s name. He completed this work, including all orchestral and voice parts, in just three weeks and without the benefit of a piano.
After the German invasion of Paris in 1940, Beer, who was enrolled in the Polish army-in-exile, tried to reach his troops in England, but the last boat from Bordeaux was gone. He then escaped to Nice in the south of France, where he stayed until the end of the war, aided by musician friends. When the Nazis completed their occupation of France in 1942, Beer had to go into hiding, using the name “Jean Joseph Bérard.”
During this time, his father, mother and sister, who had remained in Poland, were caught in the Lwów Ghetto. Beer always thought his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz and his younger sister Suzanne in Buchenwald. His librettist, Fritz Löhner-Beda, was murdered in Monowitz (Auschwitz III) in December of 1942. Following the events of the war, Beer became increasingly withdrawn and refused performance rights to his previous works.
Still, “Polnische Hochzeit” was performed in Scandinavia without his co-operation or consent, even posthumously up until 2005. In 1946 his oratorio, “Ave Maria,” premiered at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nice. “Stradella in Venedig,” composed during his years in hiding, premiered in 1949 at the Zürich Opera House. The music critic Kurt Pahlen called it “a comic opera of the highest sort,” and a member of the Académie Française, André Roussin, adapted the libretto to the French stage. Beer spent most of his time until his death in 1987 creating two new works, the operas “La Polonaise” (1975) and “Mitternachtssonne” (1987).
After the war Beer married a young German-Jewish refugee, Hanna Königsberg, in 1957. They had two daughters, Suzanne and Béatrice. (Suzanne, who has a doctorate degree in philosophy and lives in France, is also a very talented pianist and painter.) In 1966, Beer earned a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Beer’s family founded the Joseph & Hanna Beer Foundation to perpetuate the memory of the composer and increase his recognition by a worldwide audience and inclusion in the standard operatic repertoire.
“I feel called on to keep my father’s name and music alive,” Beatrice insisted. “If not for the Holocaust, he would be known worldwide. His music would be part of the classical music repertoire. I’ll feel my own life is significant when I succeed in making him known. My father and mother are both my heroes.”
Beatrice Beer has a B.A. in comparative literature from Louisiana State U. and a bachelor’s in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music. She was admitted to the Juilliard master’s program but did not finish. She moved to Philadelphia instead to study with voice coach Robert McFarland. More information can be found here.