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In 1955, Cantor Raymond Smolover founded the Opera Theatre of Westchester, in White Plains, New York, a northern suburb of New York City. Inspired by the success of such intimate stage works in the general operatic realm as Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Old Maid and the Thief, Smolover saw analogous operatic possibilities in Jewish lore and literature, but he realized that no single opera program yet existed to champion that cause. The new Westchester County project was intended to encourage both the creation and the performance of chamber operas on Jewish themes on a regular basis. After initial performances there, the productions might go on tour to various cities on the Eastern Seaboard and even in the Midwest. All productions were thus required to have casts of no more than five people; sets that could fit into one station wagon; and small instrumental ensembles, with alternative piano accompaniment for those situations where further instruments were unavailable.
Robert Strassburg’s Chelm, a one-act comic folk opera, was one of the first two chamber operas commissioned by the Opera Theatre in the year it was founded. Smolover invited Strassburg, who was then living in Florida, to compose a work to a libretto in English that the cantor had already written. It was based on Yiddish folktales and had an eastern European Yiddish folkloric character. Strassburg was intrigued by the opportunity to express musically and dramatically that Yiddish lore and also to draw upon the Yiddish folk melos. Chelm received its New York City premiere in 1956 at the 92nd Street YMHA, paired with Frederick Piket’s Isaac Levi (with a libretto also by Smolover), a one-act opera about the 19th-century Hassidic master and folk hero Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Since then, Chelm has been presented at least forty times on the East Coast and often elsewhere in the United States.
The very mention of the city of Chelm can evoke laughter, owing to a large body of humorous folktales connected to its mythical former Jewish inhabitants. Since at least the 19th century, generations of eastern European Jews and their émigré descendants have been entertained by those sometimes satirical, sometimes nonsense stories mocking Chelm’s population of fools—known sarcastically in folklore as khelmer khakhomim—the “wise men of Chelm.” Although it is often erroneously assumed to be a completely fictitious town, Chelm [khelem in Yiddish] is actually a small city in Poland, southeast of Lublin, with a centuries-old Jewish history. Its Jewish community, virtually extinct since the German deportation and slaughter of the Jewish population in 1942, is thought by some to be one of the oldest in Poland—possibly of medieval origin. (It numbered approximately 15,000 Jews in 1939, but only 15 of the handful left behind by the Germans survived to be liberated by the Red Army in 1944.) The earliest documented evidence of the city’s existence dates to 1442. Early in the 19th century, a local Hassidic dynasty was founded there, after which the city’s rabbis were Hassidim. At its peak, the Jewish community—probably about fifty percent of the total population at the time of the 1939 German invasion—boasted the typical communal and religious institutions: a yeshiva (talmudic academy), an orphanage, an old-age home, a secondary school, two Jewish weekly periodicals, and synagogues (one of which may have dated to the 13th century). All were destroyed by the occupying Germans between 1939 and 1944.
Chelm’s comic notoriety stems from the perception of its residents as naïve and sometimes childlike simpletons, unable to separate theory from practice; incapable of deductive reasoning, logical understanding, or problem solving; and prone to silly conclusions and confusions. Those perceptions eventually acquired the status of folklore throughout Poland and other regions of eastern Europe—much as jokes or comically derogatory anecdotes about stereotypical daftness have characterized inhabitants of Gotham, England, or certain regions or rural parts of the United States, however unfairly.
Typical stories about the “wise men of Chelm” concern senseless solutions to dilemmas and portray a community mentally overwhelmed by ordinary as well as self-created problems and befuddled by questions requiring even a modest degree of practical wisdom. Many Chelm tales and their variants are found in published collections.
For his libretto, Smolover compiled a selection of Chelm anecdotes and vignettes and fused them into a central plot. The story revolves around David’s wedding gift to his bride, Leah; the problems he confronts; and his interactions with the town “wise man” and the local seductress. There are ten scenes in all, of which four (scenes 2–5) have been excerpted for this recording. In Scene 2, David has just brought his bride home. After a mutual declaration of love, he confesses to her that he has forgotten to buy her the wedding gift he has selected. Leah protests that no gift is necessary and that it would be better to conserve their funds. But David insists, and Leah agrees that perhaps he could buy her a she-goat—something practical that she has always wanted. David consults Berel, the wise man, regarding where he might find a she-goat and how he can determine both the gender and the quality of the animal. Berel advises David to visit Khaya, for she has goats to sell. In Scene 3, a comical debate ensues between the two men over whether the head or the feet should be the determining factor in selecting a young goat that will grow into a healthy and productive animal. Scene 4 opens with Khaya both bemoaning her unmarried state and proclaiming its advantages at the same time. Her conversation with David is peppered with double entendres and innuendo in reference to the gender of the goat he seeks (“What would you want with a he? You need look no further: I am a she.”) Scene 5—in which David reports to Berel on his success in finding and purchasing the goat—shows the two men engaged in a disputation over obvious explanations for natural phenomena: from how to identify gender (again, with a sexual innuendo) to why days are longer in summer than in winter. To the latter question, David proposes the “obvious, scientific” answer: that summer days are longer because heat causes expansion!
For much of the melodic material, Strassburg drew upon actual Yiddish folksongs as well as fragments of ubiquitous folk tune motifs. Scene 2 is based upon a well-known folksong, Papir iz dokh vays (As Sure As Paper Is White), about a young man’s yearning for his beloved. However, the tune is not merely arranged or quoted. It is used as a foundation for the composer’s improvisation, and it is developed through fragmentation and extension. The other scenes here contain melodic references to archetypal Yiddish folksong phrases and motives.
At some point during the 1970s or 1980s the orchestrated score and parts were lost when the composer moved. The present orchestration— for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, cello, and harp—was reconstructed expressly for this Milken Archive recording.