Lady of the Lake
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In the 1980s, Elie Siegmeister turned to his theretofore mostly untapped Jewish heritage for a pair of one-act operas (his last two) on two short stories by Bernard Malamud (1914–86): Angel Levine and Lady of the Lake, with librettos by his long-term collaborator for theater and other vocal works, Edward Mabley. Scenes 5–7 have been excerpted for the Milken Archive recording.
Lady of the Lake, from Malamud’s collection The Magic Barrel, is an exploration of Jewish identity, and of the inner tensions between acknowledgment and concealment of that identity for social gain and romantic pursuit. In this case, denial of Jewish heritage, even by an assimilated Jew on whom religion appears to have no hold, leads to an ironic and unnecessarily tragic outcome. When he is finally able to come to terms with his evasion and redeem himself by revealing his identity and accepting his lineage—though only for the purpose of winning back his love—it is too late.
A secondary, more general issue here is the inherent danger of mendacious misrepresentation, which becomes a tangled web from which the perpetrator cannot extricate himself, even with the truth.
Henry Blumberg, a floorwalker at Macy’s department store in New York (an employee who directs customers to the appropriate departments or sales personnel), has received a modest inheritance and decides to leave his job and travel in Europe. (In the original story, his name is Levin. Why the librettist renamed him Blumberg, an equally perceived “Jewish name” in America, is not clear, but it may be that he wanted to avoid confusion with one of the central characters in Angel Levine, since the two operas were conceived as a double bill.) In Europe, Blumberg begins identifying himself as Henry R. Freeman, apparently assuming that this name seemed more neutral (even though it too was often a Jewish family name in America, especially by the 1960s—when this story occurs). In the opening paragraph of the unadapted story, Malamud explains that “in Paris, for no reason he was sure of, except that he was tired of the past—tired of the limitations it had imposed upon him; although he had signed the hotel register with his right name, Levin took to calling himself Henry R. Freeman.”
Eventually his travels take him to the beautiful town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy, where he stays in a pensione in a villa. Disenchanted with the commercial tourist atmosphere of the islands in Lago Maggiore that are routinely visited by foreigners, he is urged by the padrona of his pensione to visit the little-frequented, privately owned island known as Isola del Dongo—which, she tells him, has an historic palazzo, with tombs and statues of famous regional figures, and where Napoleon once slept. After resisting the idea initially, he hires a rowboat and rows to the island himself. There, he meets the beautiful Isabella, who tells him that she is a princess, the daughter and heiress of the aristocratic del Dongo family, owner of the island. They are instantly attracted to each other, but on the assumption that his Jewish identity would dampen her enthusiasm for romance, Blumberg keeps to his new pseudonym, Henry Freeman. Their love takes root, only to complicate the web of misrepresentations, of which she is part as well.
Scene 5 opens with Isabella waiting for Henry to arrive, and when he does, he declares his undying love for her. Intent on finding out whether he is a Jew but reticent to ask him directly, she points to the mountains onshore and asks him if the seven snowcapped peaks remind him of a m’nora—the seven-branched candelabrum used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and a ubiquitous visual symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people (not to be confused with the special Hanukka m’nora, or ḥanukki’ya, which provides for nine candles or lights). When his response is withheld by “a what?” she asks him if it reminds him of the Virgin Mary’s crown. He replies evasively that perhaps it does, depending on how one looks at it. Isabella doesn’t press the issue, assuming that he is not Jewish, and the two engage in a love duet, swearing they have found permanent love that cannot be denied.
After their avowals of love, Isabella confesses that she has lied—that she is no princess or heiress, but the poor daughter of Ernesto, the caretaker, who is looking after the property while the del Dongo family is away. Angry at having been deceived, Henry—still maintaining his own deception—accuses her of trying to get to America through such a pose, in which he suggests she was in league with her father. Denying that there was any scheme, in a veiled comment she alludes to her suspicion that he is hiding something from her. Henry insists that he is hiding nothing, and her father takes him back to Stresa.
Scene 6 is Henry’s sung soliloquy, in which he reminds himself that though he still thinks Isabella’s lie was part of a calculated scheme, he has deceived her as well. His conflict centers around the realization that he pretended “to be what [he is] not.” He determines that her status or origins make no difference, that his love is undiminished, and he orders a boat to return to the island.
In Scene 7 Henry tells Isabella that he has come to ask her to marry him, but she says that they must part forever. When he remonstrates, she tries one last time to learn his identity, this time asking him outright, “Are you a Jew?” And once again his reply is a blunt and annoyed evasion: “How many noes make never? Why do you persist with such foolish questions?” Replying sadly that she hoped that he was indeed Jewish, Isabella slowly unbuttons her bodice to reveal concentration camp numbers tattooed on her breast. She was interred in Buchenwald as a little girl. That, she explains, is why she cannot marry him. She and her father are Jews, and since their last meeting, she has realized the importance of her heritage, for which she and her family suffered. As she goes off, Henry finally confesses that he is a Jew, pleading for her to listen. But put off by a Jew who could so easily deny his Jewishness for the sake of acceptance by an aristocratic family, she disappears behind one of the statues. He gropes for her in the mist that has arisen from the lake, only to find himself embracing a moonlit statue. She is gone, and his fantasy has evaporated into the night.
Writing about Lady of the Lake (as well as his other Malamud opera), Siegmeister questioned whether “opera” was the appropriate generic designation. What he had tried to do in his stage works, he said, was to find a new American form of musical theater that would be “as honest and direct as any spoken theater.” Thus, as in his other “operas,” he shunned what he called “the outworn artifices of old European opera.” What he sought instead was a form that would elicit the kind of direct audience response to singing actors as might attend speaking actors in a typical Broadway or off-Broadway play or film. “Singing theater” is how he proposed to characterize this work.
Neither the action nor the continuously flowing recitative lines halt for conventional arias or other self-contained numbers, and even the love duet is not separate. Rather, it flows from, and back to, the sung dialogue—in some ways part of it more than a duet per se. The vocal lines are punctuated by a variety of orchestral effects, timbres, and gestures, but the orchestration is always sublimated within the vocal lines, so that even at its most dissonant or strident—for dramatic reinforcement—it never submerges the singing. The relative ranges of the voices and the orchestra make for a clarity that permits the words always to be heard easily, with little need to follow a libretto. If there are no developed melodies with their own arches that will remain in the audience’s memory, there is nonetheless an overall melodic character to the opera, and the vocal lines—which often flow with lyricism despite mildly disjunctive intervallic leaps—are infused with melodic bits and fragments.
Lady of the Lake received its premiere in October 1985 on a double bill with Angel Levine at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, whose innovative but lamentably short-lived “Jewish Opera at the Y” program commissioned both works.