Howard Reich’s tragic saga of stolen art collection to be ‘reborn on operatic stage’

Howard Reich (Photo: Pam Becker)

It’s been 20 years since former Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich uncovered the story of an ailing Vietnam veteran living in west suburban Lyons who turned out to be heir to a multimillion-dollar art collection looted from a Jewish collector murdered during the Holocaust.

The result was “Mac’s Journey,” a two-part Tribune series in which Reich reported tracking down the heir, Gerald “Mac” McDonald, and traveling with him to Prague to see the artworks that belonged to Emil Freund, a great-great-uncle he never knew.

The Czech government never released any of the treasures to McDonald, who died penniless at 55 — three years after his thwarted mission with Reich. Now his story is about to be presented as an opera.

The work is being written by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, widely considered one of the most important duos in contemporary American opera. Heggie is best known for writing “Dead Man Walking,” based on the film and Sister Helen Prejean’s book.

Still to be titled, the new opera will be staged in May 2023 in partnership between Music of Remembrance and Chicago Opera Theater as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. It also will be presented in Seattle and San Francisco.

Reich, 67, who grew up in Skokie and lives in Deerfield, covered jazz, blues, gospel and classical music at the Tribune for 43 years before he accepted a buyout in 2021.

“I always considered it a privilege to have found Gerald ‘Mac’ McDonald and to have told him not only that he was heir to a looted art collection but that he was Jewish by heritage,” Reich told me.

“Yet I never imagined that two decades after I wrote the ‘Mac’ stories they would be reborn on the operatic stage. I’m grateful for that, because what happened to Mac’s forebears in the Holocaust and what happened to Mac in Vietnam should never be forgotten.”

Added Reich: “Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer are uniquely gifted to tell this story, and it could not be in better hands than those of Chicago Opera Theater and Music of Remembrance.”

Earlier this year Reich was acclaimed for “Kimiko’s Pearl,” a ballet he wrote for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, commissioned by the nonprofit Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts. It tells the story of Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II in balletic/multidisciplinary form.

Reich’s best-known multimedia project, Prisoner of Her Past: A Son’s Memoir, about the lifelong trauma his mother suffered from her ordeal in the Holocaust, inspired an award-winning 2010 Kartemquin Films documentary.

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the film will have its 12th annual broadcast May 1 on Window to the World Communications WTTW-Channel 11.

Thursday’s comment of the day: Frank Baker: Maybe I missed it, but was there any type of formal announcement that the price of the Sun-Times literally doubled on Monday and now costs $2? I realize that $1 wasn’t a lot compared to what other papers charge, but a 100 percent increase overnight? It seems like a last-ditch effort on the part of the Bright One to hold out hope that devoted readers will be willing pay twice as much as what they were paying last week (for the same product), knowing that a significant number of readers will no longer pony up to pay twice as much money for the paper that has a great sports section, but virtually nothing else going for it. I don’t know, it just seems like a “Hail Mary” attempt to stop the bleeding.