Mikhoels the Wise
Act I, Scene 4
Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00
No Work Selected
Mikhoels the Wise is the first of Bruce Adolphe’s two operas written for the “Jewish Opera at the Y” program at New York’s 92nd Street YMHA, where it was premiered in 1982. The opera is based on historical accounts of the life, career, and murder of Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948), the adopted stage name of Solomon Vovsi—one of the greatest serious actors of all time in the legitimate Yiddish art theater and the most prominent figure in the Soviet Yiddish theater during the decades immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution. As head of the Moscow State Jewish Theater (beginning in 1928), he was internationally renowned for many of his roles—including his acclaimed portrayal of King Lear in Yiddish. However, as chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Mikhoels was also in many respects the de facto head of and spokesman for Soviet Jewry during the Stalin years—especially with reference to Yiddish culturally oriented segments of Soviet Jewish society. Because of his celebrity status and position of respect not only within the Soviet Jewish world, but also among left-leaning Yiddish cultural circles abroad, he was conveniently “used” by Stalin as his personal representative to the Jews for as long as it served the interests of the Soviet regime.
Like much, if not most, of the mainstream of post-Revolution Russian Jewish society—Jewish intelligentsia as well as indoctrinated proletarian circles—Mikhoels was for a long time genuinely supportive of and naturally committed to the professed communist ideals of the party and to Stalin. For those Jews, Stalin and the party represented many things: the bulwark against the Fascist threat; the continued advancement of the “new order” against the perceived ills, decadence, and built-in inequities of Western bourgeois societies; and the protection against nationalist regression and alleged plots to undermine the world communist cause and the progress of the Revolution and its unfinished tasks. (The truth about Stalin vis-à-vis Russian society as a whole—as well as the Jews—did not begin to emerge for most of the world until after his death; and then, publicly, only after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations in the 1950s.)
Moreover, Stalin’s early policies appeared, for whatever self-serving reasons of Realpolitik, to encourage and even foster secular Jewish—i.e., Yiddish—cultural and educational activity, beginning with his commissariat during the first Soviet government. Those policies were reversed only later, with suppressions, wholesale purges, and liquidations of the bulk of Yiddish cultural institutions—leaving only token remnants, such as the Moscow Yiddish theater, intact as “show” propaganda and public relations instruments.
Once the Soviet Union was at war with Germany after June 1941, Mikhoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee provided Stalin with a convenient vehicle for seeking Jewish support in the West (which Stalin and the party perceived as a sinister but now potentially useful pressure on Western governments) for the Soviet war effort and for opening a second front. To those ends, Mikhoels traveled to the United States in 1943 (as well as to Canada, Mexico, and England) on a publicity campaign for the Soviet Union and its ultimate struggle in its “Great Patriotic War” against Fascism. He appeared at a now famous rally at New York’s Polo Grounds, in which the naïvely pro-communist sympathizers, film star Charlie Chaplin and singer Paul Robeson, were also involved. That event is depicted graphically in this opera in Act II, where Mikhoels is not only hailed by a Jewish working-class outpouring but saluted by an American Communist Party singing group (“The Branch Needs You”). He also attempts to recruit disaffected left-leaning American Jews for emigration to the Soviet Union, where they would supposedly reinforce settlement in the Jewish Autonomous Region, be better able to realize the socialist ideals for a “better life,” and set an example to the world—at the same time bolstering Soviet Yiddish culture.
After the war, Mikhoels acted as the representative and spokesman for returning Jewish Holocaust survivors and those who had been evacuated to Soviet Asia during the war. He lobbied for their proper resettlement and continued to be an advocate for Jewish culture. By that time, however, despite official party line denials, Stalin had come to perceive any thriving Jewish culture in the Soviet Union as a serious threat, and to view those who had had contact with the West during the war as irrevocably tainted—potential recruitments for espionage against the state. In 1948 Mikhoels was brutally murdered and his body savagely mutilated. The official government position ascribed the murder to criminal thugs or to an accident. Stalin disavowed any connection and even permitted a state funeral in Moscow with elaborate eulogies, which attracted thousands of Jewish mourners. It was, of course, a sham; Mikhoels’s tongue had been severed, probably as a warning.
It was subsequently established that the murder had been ordered by the Soviet secret police. Further, it is now suspected that Stalin was not only fully complicit in the cover-up (as acknowledged by his daughter in her book), but was almost certainly involved in the orders for the murder itself. The motivations behind Stalin’s self-perceived need to eliminate Mikhoels are still shrouded in some mystery, and they may be connected to Mikhoels’s association with the proposal to create a region for homeless Jews in the Crimea—a plan Stalin feared as a security risk.
Apart from discrepancies in factual details, it is generally accepted that the killing of Mikhoels symbolized the inauguration of a new, more intense phase of the suppression of Jewish culture and the organized murder of many of the most famous Jewish poets, authors, artists, and actors during the remaining years of Stalin’s life. In fact, Mikhoels was even accused posthumously in the Soviet press in connection with the infamous “Doctors’ Plot,” where he was called “a Jewish bourgeois nationalist” secretly involved with United States intelligence.
The final scene of the opera recalls Mikhoels’s funeral, as the Jews of Moscow not only mourn his passing but lament the demise of Jewish culture and the Yiddish language.
ACT I, SCENE 4 takes place in 1935 at a railroad station in Birobidzhan, the colloquial name (and capital city) of the Yiddish-speaking “Jewish Autonomous Region” (oblast) in the Khabarovsk territory in the Soviet Far East. Settlement had begun there in 1928—in part as a Soviet alternative to Zionism, and in part from central Soviet concern for fortifying security in the far eastern regions out of growing fear of potential Japanese or Chinese incursions. During the period of this scene, i.e., after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32, the latter consideration had taken on increased significance for the U.S.S.R. (Ultimately, the Birobidzhan project failed for a complex variety of reasons, not least of them the two waves of Stalinist purges, before and after the war.)
Mikhoels has come to Birobidzhan to address the populace there. He is met at the station at midnight by a young Korean telegraph operator, Sin-Cha, who has come from Vladivostok, the Russian port for refugees from the Japanese invasions. To his surprise, she speaks Yiddish, and explains that the Japanese atrocities against her people have led her to sympathy for the plight of the Jews. She has come to Birobidzhan to help the Jewish people build a new socialistic society of their own. She tries unsuccessfully to persuade Mikhoels to remain there permanently as an example, as well as to serve as their leader. More optimistic than she is about the future of Jewry, he insists that he can better serve the cause centrally from Moscow. They are startled by distant flashes from Japanese and Chinese artillery, which interrupt their conversation. Sin-Cha reminds Mikhoels that a welcoming committee awaits him in the dining hall. As he goes off, she remains alone to sing “The Lullaby of Birobidzhan.”
Adolphe deliberately employed a wide range of musical styles in the opera in order to express various emotions and historical developments—from optimistic projections for Soviet Jewish culture all the way to its demise. In the opening sections he incorporated a “feeling of folk music” in connection with theater-related moments, but he “gradually drained it from the score as the situation worsens for the Jews in the Soviet Union.” By the final funeral scene, he has thus avoided all reference to Jewish musical material, suggesting its obliteration by the regime. Adolphe’s stated goal was to have the music reflect the disintegration of Jewish culture within Soviet life. In the scene recorded here—which involves a dramatic situation and the unusual phenomenon of a Yiddish-speaking Korean—he consciously quoted some strains of music with an Oriental flavor, which he integrated into the overall musical fabric. Adolphe also feels that much of his vocal writing throughout the opera reflects an overall cantorial background and approach.