The broad sweep of Jewish history, literature, and folklore bursts with an abundance of potential operatic material, spanning its entire arch from antiquity to the modern and so-called postmodern eras. From theatrical vantage points, one might even view the totality of Jewish political, biblical, social, and cultural history, with all its tributaries and offshoots, as a continuously developing opera in itself—open-ended, to a libretto replete with an infinite array of constantly unfolding plots and subplots, new twists, and an always expanding cast of newly created roles. It would invite evolving interpretations, reimagined stagings, updated productions, and, in its reviews, every conceivable opinion; and for those of us with unshakable faith in a timeless Jewish continuum, it would, of course, have no final curtain.
Recalling the Bard’s view of the world as a stage, we might imagine the venue of the aggregate story of Jewish civilization and culture as a multiplex opera house with stages both large and small—some with dangerous trapdoors, some with extended prosceniums and aprons fanning out into the audience of world history and civilization, some in the round, some with secondary stages within stages, some with scrims for effect, all with the lighting technology to create brilliant illumination and near darkness. And—for those who have come to accept the innovation, however grudgingly—they would have the capability for supertitles in many languages. In the conceit, the composite opera of the Jewish people would be a diverse, sometimes even mixed-media production, embracing within its formal scope all the variety of established operatic genres and conceptions—from tragic to comic, chamber to grand, lyric to dramatic, fanciful to verismo, opera seria to opera buffa, singspiel to music-drama, and perhaps even 20th-century folk, folk rock, and electronic operas to minimalist and postminimalist quasi-operatic productions. Eventually it might invite unforeseen operatic forms of its own. And, like a number of important—even seminal—operas by well-known composers, it would remain always incomplete.
In light of the superabundance and richness of genuinely Jewish themes, incidents, characters, ideas, stories, and settings that almost cry out for operatic treatment, it might appear surprising at first glance that so few works in operatic history—apart from those on biblical or apocryphal subjects—are built upon such foundations or fashioned from such ingredients. The wonder dissolves, however, when we are reminded that opera itself, as a Western art form, has not been a traditional mode of Judaic or Jewish expression, and that until well into the 20th century, if at all, Jewish prominence among the ranks of opera composers was a rarity—the international fame of the few exceptions notwithstanding. Then, too, awareness on the part of the general public (and therefore audience), as well as classical composers, of the very kinds of Jewish stories and other cultural artifacts that could make for intriguing and viable opera outside insular ethnic Jewish circles is a recent—and mostly American—phenomenon in the Diaspora. Of even more recent vintage, and arising out of a complicated convergence of factors less obvious and more subtle than they might seem, are similar currents of curiosity in western and Central Europe—especially in Germany and Poland and to some extent in Austria. But even such late-20th-century European fascinations—involving a people that was supposed, through no fault of present generations, to have been extinct—have in some respects taken their cues from American activities and developments. They have been fueled in large measure, of course, by an entirely different past. The proliferation of so-called klezmer bands in late-20th-century Europe—some composed exclusively of non-Jews, and all inspired by the unabated emotional appeal of the “klezmer revival movement” that became airborne in 1970s America—transparently illustrates this sequence of events. And the belated acknowledgment of Jewish culture as part of the whole of a nation’s heritage, as exemplified by annual Jewish music festivals in Poland, also follows—though for very different historical reasons—an American lead.
Thus, the 1994 production and premiere in Vienna (by Operanhaus Zürich) of an opera such as A Fool’s Paradise, by the Israeli-born American composer Ofer Ben-Amots—based on an original Yiddish story by Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and drawn from Yiddish folkloric sources and sensibilities—could not have been imagined in prewar or even 1950s/1960s Vienna, even though its prewar Jewish population was roughly equal to that of present-day greater Chicago. (The production enjoyed three performances there for mostly non-Jewish audiences and met with enthusiastic Viennese acclaim before continuing with another twelve performances in Zürich.) Nor could a fundamentally Jewish story by an author of Singer’s eastern European Yiddish cultural persona have met with much interest in that earlier milieu; and the Nobel Prize committee would probably not have been ready to recognize Singer’s medium as part of world literature, either. But David Tamkin’s opera The Dybbuk, based on S. An-Ski’s [a.k.a. Solomon Zainwil Rapaport, a.k.a. Shloyme-Zanvel Rappaport, a.k.a S. Ansky] Yiddish play about a Jewish folk legend of demonic possession in the hinterlands of the czarist Pale of Settlement, met with enthusiastic response in America as early as 1949 in Portland, Oregon (and two years later in New York).
“Jewish opera” in the Diaspora—if indeed there is ample repertoire even to justify the appellation—is largely a function of the American experience in one way or another. With its seeds planted probably no earlier than the 1930s, it took root in the immediate postwar era and began flowering after the 1960s, perhaps bolstered by the admirable if short-lived attempt to establish an institutional framework in New York in the 1980s. But it also owes its bloom to the new level of general American interest in Jewish literature and theater that emerged as part of ethnic awareness in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the concept of “Jewish opera” is likely to continue to invite questions, and even skepticism, in the foreseeable future.
How, then, shall we explain, without falling into the trap created by stabs at airtight definition, what is meant by the designation here? For one thing, we should acknowledge that we accept a priori the term “opera” according to a relatively liberal construction. Attempts at narrow definition have never succeeded to everyone’s satisfaction, even among opera lovers; and none will likely do so. One can identify musical stage works that all would agree are operas in the context of high art that the term implies; and there are musically driven theatrical works that no one would even suggest qualify as operas. But on the wide spectrum between those two poles is a vast array of musical theater works about which consensus has never been reached. The boundaries between serious operatic art and popular entertainment have often been more porous than some opera lovers would like to believe, including productions by some of the most celebrated Italian opera composers of previous centuries. And there are 20th-century stage works whose operatic persona and possibilities came to be recognized only after the fact, sometimes even by their composers, which—like Leonard Bernstein’s Candide or Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd—were intended originally as Broadway musicals. Yet they came to be understood also as operatic vehicles that can perhaps be better served by operatic production. Some stage works that first played as musical shows, such as Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, have since been catalogued or otherwise listed, correctly or not, as operas.
The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) offers a reasonable definition of opera as “a drama that is primarily sung, accompanied by instruments, and presented theatrically,” and distinguishes it from dramatic works in which music is incidental “or clearly subsidiary to the drama.” A decade later, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland suggested a wider embrace by referring to opera simply as “a work containing music and words that one puts on in an opera house,” as if to forestall needless bickering over whether a given work is in fact an opera. No doubt his tongue was at least a bit curled toward his cheek (as was, probably, the American composer Stanley Silverman’s when, at the inaugural meeting of the National Opera Institute, he attempted a distinction between American musical theatre and opera with the remark “Opera is an octave higher”). Obviously, the composer’s intention plays some role, too, although not all composers have indicated in their own catalogues or on their own published scores their preferred generic designation. And surely Holland’s reference to “an opera house” was not meant to be divorced entirely from a composer’s originally intended venue. Nowadays, most American opera houses will rent their property, out of season or on off nights, to just about anyone. Chicago’s fabled Auditorium Theatre, home to that city’s enviable opera company before the auditorium was abandoned during the Depression and then restored in the 1960s—with the unfulfilled hope of reclaiming its lost grandeur and historic place in the operatic and classical music world—has most frequently reaped its revenue from heavily amplified shows and even rock concerts.
Still, opera can serve as a legitimate generic umbrella for many different and even radically divergent types and forms of expression. The history of Western music will certainly support that interpretation.
For our purposes, the “Jewishness” of Jewish opera is entirely dependent on the libretto’s principal foundation in some aspect of concrete Jewish experience—Jewish history (from Jewish or Judaic perspectives), literature, folklore, or other subject matter—and on the composer’s intention to create a work of fundamental rather than marginal Jewish connection. As with all classical music of Jewish connection or experience, the religious faith, ethnic background, or ancestry of the composer (or the librettist) is irrelevant.
The irrelevance has not been uniformly espoused by Jewish arts organizations. The policy of the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin, for example, which was founded in what was formerly Communist East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) by American composer and critic Leonard Lehrman and which functioned there between 1983 and 1986, was to include any opera or other stage work by a Jewish composer (viz., a composer who simply happened to be a Jew, which, of course, could in itself raise other issues)—without regard to the subject matter or intention as a Jewishly related work. Thus, had a composer who was a Jew by birth—and perhaps, but not necessarily, by religious practice as well—written an opera on a Danish folktale or on the life of Saint Luke, for example, it could have been a candidate for production by that theatre company. This approach to dealing with matters of Jewish identity, which was freighted with political baggage, must be understood in the peculiar context of East Germany’s U.S.S.R-dominated regime, which, unlike West Germany, did not face or openly acknowledge specifically German responsibility for the Holocaust vis-à-vis Jews as Jews, coping with it mostly by ignoring it as a Jewish issue and as the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. Instead, the Holocaust was largely subsumed within the wider framework of Fascism’s (read anti-Communist) generic evil as directed at all its perceived enemies—especially “the Party” and the supposed masses it represented—and of the Socialist victory over “the Fascists” (therefore not usually identified as Nazis, or National Socialists) in the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War.” That Party line made for a strange situation for Jews in East Germany, apart from any who were genuinely dedicated to the Party. The modus operandi of the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin might thus have had some legitimacy in that environment, perhaps partly as a means of providing opportunities to hear works by Jewish composers that might not otherwise have interested other state-sponsored arts institutions. But it can make no sense, nor can it serve any substantive purpose, on the American scene. The personal life of a composer—which includes religious affiliation as well as ethnic heritage and ancestry—does not necessarily have any bearing on the Jewish nature of an opera.
Marginal Jewish references in an opera, or roles based on characters who rarely happen to be Jews, do not in and of themselves render an opera an artistic work of Jewish experience, any more than such references would on their own identify literary or dramatic works as Jewish. Whether one considers Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice a conscious reflection of antisemitism as we understand that phenomenon in the modern world (and many objective Shakespeare scholars, including Jews, do not), no one would consider it a Jewish play by virtue of its Jewish character Shylock. Nor would anyone suggest that the presumed Jew Fagin renders Oliver Twist a Jewish novel—or Dickens a Jewish author in that instance.
Even Jews as victims of antisemitism or anti-Israel bias within an opera might not ipso facto suggest a Jewish opera; it would depend on the primary substance of the story. John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, for example, would not be included in the Milken Archive as an operatic treatment of Jewish experience or a Jewish theme. Based on the actual incident in 1985 in which an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish steamship passenger was murdered without provocation by Arab terrorists who seized the ship, the work’s central purpose was to frame in operatic terms an obviously political message of empathy (or sympathy) with the murderers—or at least a liberal “evenhanded” understanding of “the other side” from opposing perspectives. The libretto explores nothing of Jewish life or experience even as it gives the impression of allowing that Klinghoffer’s cold-blooded murder was a tragic by-product of the extended so-called Arab-Israeli conflict (to which, of course, Klinghoffer was not a party). The opera, which received extraordinary media attention, has been vigorously protested by the Klinghoffer family as a vehicle of exploitation rather than a refraction of a Jewish situation.
On the other hand, a story principally about antisemitism or persecution might, depending on how the story unfolds in terms of the effect on Jewish life situations, make for Jewish opera. In fact, the world’s best-known opera of Jewish experience, and with a Jewish subject, remains to this day Jacques Fromental Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess; prem. 1835). A story from beginning to end about medieval Jewish persecution, it explores not only antisemitism’s toll in human suffering and death, but also the encrusted bitterness it induced over centuries. (See below.) The issues are not always clear-cut, nor the dividing lines always readily apparent. Is the film Gentleman’s Agreement—in which a reporter poses as a Jew in order to expose a genteel, “civilized” New England brand of antisemitism—a Jewish film? Some would interpret it more broadly in universal terms, as a condemnation of racial or ethnic prejudice and perhaps as an illustration of hypocrisy. There is, after all, no portrayal of Jewish life in the film, nor any examination of Jewish communal responses to antisemitism. Yet an opera based on a story about a pogrom in the Czarist Empire could well be considered an inherently Jewish work, the more so if it brought to the stage any related or resulting Judaic rituals. So might an opera about a Jew’s exclusion from an American medical school during the infamous years of the quota systems (well into the 1960s), especially if it were to trace the origins of the systems and the nature of Jewish family consequences as well as institutionalized reactions. In the end, whether a particular work is viewed under an umbrella of Jewish opera may come down to a question about which reasonable people may differ. The composer’s intention may count for more than our judgment in many cases.
Opera, the Bible, and Jewish Antiquity
The Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and a few post-biblical Jewish heroic episodes in antiquity have appealed repeatedly to opera composers over the past three centuries. Biblical opera, however, as a more or less self-contained genre that played especially well during certain periods—notably the late Baroque and the early to mid-19th century—is not synonymous with grand opera based theatrically on biblical subjects. Nor does either category equate automatically with Jewish opera as intentional expression of specifically Jewish themes, even in the absence of any Christological agendas. The latter is generally intertwined with some form of quasi-religious expression, experience, or purpose, often with a theological or other religious message couched in musical-dramatic treatment. In that regard, it can be akin to some biblical oratorios of those same periods—sometimes amounting to, in effect, staged versions of the religious oratorio genre, which usually involves the use of biblical stories primarily as theatre—such as Verdi’s Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar)—about the Babylonian Captivity—and Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah, to cite two of the most prominent biblically based operas in the standard repertory. Neither would be considered Jewish opera, any more than Aida would be perceived as Egyptian opera; and neither was conceived with the intention of expressing anything Jewish.
About actual Jewish connection, content, or intention among the larger repertoire of far lesser known biblically, apocryphally, or Jewish historically based operas—many of which belong now to operatic arcana, whose production would at best be left to small companies specializing in obscure revivals—we cannot always be so certain. Any valid assessment would require a separate project in which those librettos were examined in detail and the circumstances surrounding the composition of the operas investigated according to rigorous standards of musicological scholarship. The related questions, issues, findings, and interpretations could of course form the basis for a string of doctoral dissertations. In the meantime, with the exception of those operas about which there is no uncertainty, we must be cautious about making assumptions in the name of currently fashionable nods toward “inclusiveness.” Many operas based on the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, or other sources of Jewish antiquity clearly reflect—as do many biblical oratorios—perspectives entirely foreign to Jewish sensibilities. Some also overtly promote Christological agendas, viewing the Hebrew Bible and aspects of Jewish antiquity as precursors, predictors, and foundations of the New Testament. Nonetheless, an exhaustive scholarly study might reveal that such factors apply only to some biblical operas, while others might be read as serious expression or encapsulations of Judaic elements.
One of the Hebrew biblical subjects that appears to have elicited an almost disproportionately large number of operatic responses is the story of Jephta and his daughter in the Book of Judges. (Further information on musical treatments of the story is contained in the accompanying notes to Volume 11.) One of the earliest such operas is Pol-Larolo’s [Pollarolo] Jefte (1692). Rolle’s Mehala, die Tochter Jephthas was completed in 1784. Other operas on the story include La Figlia di Jefte by Sanpieri (1872), a Spanish opera produced in Madrid by Luis Cepeda (1845), and a French opera by Monteclaire (1832?) with a prologue and five acts that was prohibited by Cardinal de Noailles after its first performance. The first opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of the towering figures of 19th-century French opera, whose father was a lay cantor in a private Berlin synagogue, was Jephta’s Gelübde (Jephta’s Vow, 1812). Written in Germany before Meyerbeer relocated to Paris, the one-act opera clearly reflects a Judaic reading with an upbeat conclusion that the Talmud suggests could have been an alternative ending to the story, had Jephta and the high priest Pinchas acted differently (the high priest releases Jephta from his vow to sacrifice whatever was first to emerge from his house—which turned out to be his daughter). Bat yiftaḥ (Jephta’s Daughter; 1922), by the seminal figure in Jewish musicology, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, is the first opera to have been composed in modern Israel (Mandatory Palestine) and is generally thought to be the first opera in modern Hebrew. Ernst Toch, the American émigré composer originally from Vienna, whose programmatic symphonic work on the Jephta story will be found in Volume 11, had intended to create an opera on the same subject, but he never did.The story of Deborah the prophetess in the Apocrypha has spawned a number of operas over the centuries, for example, I. Pizzetti’s Debora e Jaele, a three-act opera that has been produced at La Scala in Milan.
Preceding Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, excerpts of which are included in this volume, are a number of operas based on the biblical Book of Esther. Among them are Antoine Mariotte’s Esther, Princesse d’Israël (1925), a tragédie lyrique in three acts and seventeen scenes; Jacob Knoller’s Esther (1938–41); Paul R. Neal’s Haman’s Wife (1958), a satirical opera in one act; and Darius Milhaud’s Esther de Carpentras (1925–27; premiere 1938), based on the southern French, or Provençal, version of the medieval purimspiel tradition. Written to a libretto by Milhaud’s fellow Provençal Jew, Armand Lunel, the farcical opera takes the form of a play within a play (a play within an opera in this case). It traces the preparations, rehearsals, and production of an “Esther play” (as the French purimspiels were known) in front of the historic synagogue in Carpentras, a city in the region known as the Comtat Venaissin—where those plays were staged annually until the French Revolution.
Through a clever twist combined with double entendre, Hadassah—the character in the opera who plays the role of Esther in the Purim play—succeeds yet again in saving the day for the Jews, this time by spontaneously creating a situation onstage whereby she could essentially blackmail the cardinal who had just ordered the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Milhaud wrote another biblically based opera, David, in 1954 in celebration of the three thousandth anniversary of King David’s founding of Jerusalem as the capital of ancient Israel. Premiered in Jerusalem in Hebrew translation, David was staged the following year at La Scala in Milan, and it received its American premiere in 1956 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
(Hanell’s opera Esther, premiered in East Berlin in 1966, is completely unrelated to the biblical Esther or the story surrounding her. It is a strange, almost surrealistic, and obviously propagandistic and politically tinged Holocaust-related work involving the infamous Nazi medical experiments on Jews. Esther, a young Jewish violinist who is the subject of one of those experiments, falls in love with a young “Aryan” who has been restored to life from an experimentally frozen state by Nazi German doctors who extracted and implanted in him her “non-Aryan warmth.” Their mutual “anti-Fascist love” gives her a measure of restored faith in humanity—even though she is eventually murdered in one of the Germans’ gas chambers—because she has been able to find at least one decent German within the clenches of the Nazi-controlled society, as if that discovery provides some weird measure of compensation.)
Other biblically based operas include Étienne-Nicolas Méhul’s Joseph [Joseph in Egypt] (1807), which emphasizes Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers; Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David (1902), his first opera; Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba; premiere, 1875), a four-act opera to a libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal; Ezra Laderman’s And David Wept; Gerald Cohen’s contemporary opera, Sarah and Hagar, which explores the relationship between the patriarch Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and his handmaiden Hagar, who had borne him his son Ishmael, according to the biblical account in Genesis; Ira B. Arnstein’s The Song of David (1929); and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Saul, Op. 191 (1958–60), after V. Alfieri, not performed. Anton Rubinstein’s Moses (1885–91), a “sacred opera” in eight scenes or tableaux to a libretto by Mosenthal, liberally and imaginatively follows events related in the Hebrew Bible. Rubinstein once referred to it as “the most significant of my works.” As stylistically as well as theatrically different from Rubinstein’s opera as could be imagined, Yoav Gal's Moshe, a multimedia opera about Moses in the context of “an ancient-futuristic ritual,” is scheduled for its premiere in 2010. (Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, one of the seminal works of the 20th century, is discussed below.)
Henoch Kon, the illustrious Yiddish theater composer in interwar Poland, wrote a biblically based opera there in 1924, Dovid un bas sheva (David and Bathsheba), to a libretto by the then equally celebrated Moshe Broderzon—a Yiddish poet, journalist, theater director, and playwright who headed the literary society Yung-Yidish and is credited with discovering, encouraging, and promoting many talented candidates for the Yiddish stage. Broderzon also founded Khad Gadyo in Poland, the first Yiddish marionette theater, in addition to small repertory Yiddish art theaters such as Ararat and Sho ha’Bor in Łódź, and Azazel in Warsaw. Dovid un bas sheva was greeted with enthusiasm by Yiddishist elements among interwar Warsaw Jewry. But it was perceived as unwelcome competition by the government-supported principal opera company there, which also had the patronage of upper-middle-class Jews. A local decree attempting to block its performance was rescinded only through the intercession of an influential Jewish arts patron and theatre aficionado, Dr. Yitzhak Shifer. Critical praise for Kon’s opera came from Alter Kazintze in the Yiddish periodical Literarische Bleter: “The composer fulfilled his aims...dared to speak to us in a Yiddish musical language, which at times reached a certain purity of expression.” Writing in the same issue, Y. Vaserman observed that “in a few spots one can clearly discern echoes of the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony; not, it should be noted, because Kon took from Beethoven, but from the same source from which Beethoven and Wagner drew: namely, ‘Christian’ solemnity.’ ” The reference to Christian solemnity was probably the critic’s way of applauding the opera’s serious artistic level and classical approach, as opposed to the lighter, more popular fare often associated with Yiddish theatrical music.
Dovid un bas sheva was not, however, as has been asserted erroneously in various sources, the first known Yiddish opera. That distinction is generally given to Melekh akhaz (King Ahaz) by Samuel Alman (1877–1947), England’s leading traditional synagogue composer. Based on Abraham Mapu’s novel, it was premiered at Feinman’s Yiddish theater (the Pavillion Theater) in London in 1912 and ran for twenty-three performances.
Yaakov Ter’s Yiddish opera, Di yidishe m’lukhe (The Jewish State), is described as a “historical opera in four acts and ten scenes from the time of the Babylonian Captivity.” Completed in 1899, it thus might predate Alman’s opera by eleven years, depending on when Alman actually completed Melekh akhaz and how much time elapsed until its premiere. But from what little we know of Ter’s work, it appears to be more a theatrical piece with music than a bona fide opera. Until a serious study of it is possible, Melekh akhaz will probably stand as the first opera written in Yiddish.
Unknown to most American Yiddish theater aficionados, Sholom Secunda—one of the principal composers for the mass-oriented genre of Yiddish musical theater known as Second Avenue—also tried his hand at opera. His Shulamis (1926) was based partly on Abraham Goldfaden’s famous operetta of the same title. It also used some of Goldfaden’s melodies (or the melodies in his operetta) as thematic material. But unlike Secunda’s many Second Avenue productions (for one of which he composed the enduring song Bay mir bistu sheyn, probably still the most famous Yiddish song of all time), Shulamis never achieved recognition.
Another of Second Avenue’s principal composers, Joseph Rumshinsky, who preceded Secunda and reigned for decades as its dominant musical force, wrote a full-length opera in Hebrew, Ruth. It has never been performed, although it contains much musical merit.
More operas appear to have been inspired by the story and character of Judith than any other in the Apocrypha. Among them are Leopold Kotzeluch’s Judith und Holofernes (1799); S. Levi’s Giuditta (1844); Arthur Honegger’s Judith (1926), an opéra sérieux in three acts that was an expansion of his earlier incidental music for a play about Judith by René Morax; Yehudit and Holofernes, completed in Palestine in the 1930s by Israeli composer Gabriel Grad; and others by Achille Peri (1860), Sarri (1875), Naumann (1858), Doppler (1870), Myron Fink (premiered in 1978 and based on Giraudoux’s play), and David Lang (1989). The most famous of all Viennese light operetta composers, Franz Lehár, of Merry Widow fame, addressed Judith (Giuditta, 1934) in his only attempt at serious opera. The once better-known and more frequently performed American composer George W. Chadwick wrote a Judith opera, which, when he was unsuccessful in obtaining a staged production, he transformed into a cross between a concert version opera and a cantata. Martin Roder has written an opera about Judith, as has Siegfried Matthus (1998).
The story of the Hasmonean-Maccabean revolt against the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire in 168–165 B.C.E. (essentially, for Jews, the Hanukka story) has attracted a number of operatic treatments, beginning as early as the 17th century. The librettos follow in varying degrees the account contained in the Books of the Maccabees (the last two books of the Apocrypha) as well as other legendary sources, but there appear to have been a variety of purposes and motivations behind the composition of several of these operas. In some cases the basic story serves as a broadly appealing mise-en-scène in which secondary plots are played out and in which secondary heroes and heroines as well as other invented or imagined roles can interact. In other cases, the story is exploited as a romantic tale of heroism that might have resonated at certain times with emerging nationalist sentiments. And in still other conceptions the Maccabean (thus the perceived ancient “Jewish” or Israelite) triumph over idolatry and paganism becomes a harbinger for future events in Jerusalem, providing an underpinning for the cultural and theological merits—even superiority, in terms of universal truth—of what, for Christianity and the West, would eventually become the Judeo-Christian heritage. Overtly or subliminally, such operas could serve to emphasize the restoration of Judaic religious autonomy in the Holy Land as the necessary condition for messianic appearance. Seen (and heard) in that context, the Maccabean episode offered the reconfirmation of monotheism out of which subsequent religious history could unfold. None of these readings of the story, of course, accorded with Jewish tradition or Jewish worldviews. But Jews did not make up the audiences of these kinds of operas.
Maccabee-based operas include J. W. Franck’s Die maccabaische Mutter (1679, Hamburg); Ariosti’s La Madre dei Maccabei (1704); and Beethoven pupil Ignaz von Seyfried’s Di Makkabäer, oder Salmonäa (1818). (Handel’s Judas Maccabeas, the most familiar of all musical representations and interpretations of the story, is not included in this discussion only because it is an oratorio, not an opera.) Probably the most intriguiging Maccabee opera, however, is the virtually forgotten Die Makkabäer (1874–75) by Anton Rubinstein. An opera in four acts to a libretto by Mosenthal (adapted from a drama by Otto Ludwig), who, with Rubinstein, built a secondary plot with additional characters, its St. Petersburg premiere was in 1877; for a time it enjoyed some currency in Germany. One might be naïvely tempted to see in Rubinstein’s interest in the subject a nod to his Jewish ancestry prior to his Christian conversion, or even, in 20th-century terms, some desire to explore roots. The Jewish music bibliographer and scholar Alfred Sendrey discerned in it the use of certain traditionally Jewish musical/melodic materials. But when Ludwig’s character Leah dreams, while pregnant with Eleazar, about an announcement “from heaven” that God will eventually send a “savior” who will one day “mount the throne of King David,” little doubt is left concerning its agenda and its Christological implications.
Among other pre-20th-century operatic portrayals that reflect the Christian world’s perception of Jewish antiquity, we may mention Giovanni Pacini’s L’ebrea (1844); Rossini’s Moïse; and Giuseppe Apollini’s L’Ebreo (1855), with a prologue and three acts. Premiered in Venice in the year of its completion, with performances following in Barcelona and Malta, L’Ebreo was widely produced. Given a different title for performances in Rome and Bologna by order of the censors, Lida [Leila] di Granata, it was also produced in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. Twentieth-century revivals have been mounted in Venice, Trieste, Malta, and Vicenza.
Jewish Opera and Standard Repertoire
Notwithstanding the many operas of genuine Jewish content—even in view of the heightened attention to Jewish themes by a host of 20th-century American opera composers—Halévy’s 1835 La Juive still stands as the only one not merely generally known, but actually part of what by any consensus in the opera world is acknowledged as standard repertoire, even though performances by the late 20th century were less frequent than earlier in the same century.
Unlike some of his fellow Jewish composers on the mid-century Paris opera scene, Halévy, one of the dominant personalities of French opera of the day, retained open Jewish affiliation and was active to some extent in the Jewish communal affairs of the Consistoire Israélite. He also wrote several worthy liturgical pieces for the French Synagogue. The libretto for La Juive was written by Eugène Scribe, one of the premier librettists of the period, whose initial impulse was to call the opera Rachel, ou l’auto-da-fè. He based some of his characters loosely on little-known historical figures: Cardinal Brogni, for example, an arch persecutor of Jews in Scribe’s version, who—after his attempt at rapprochement and even pardon, is spurned by Rachel’s adoptive father, Eleazar, a Jewish goldsmith—unsuccessfully demands Eleazar’s conversion and repudiation of Judaism in return for Rachel’s life. In the end, it turns out that Rachel is the biological daughter of the cardinal (born before he took his vows), which Eleazar continues to hide from him—telling him that he knows his daughter’s whereabouts but revealing her identity with vengeance only as she dies. This, of course, provides yet another twist of bitter irony to an already cluttered plot, since la juive might or might not have been Jewish. The libretto is silent about any possible conversion to Judaism.
Scribe took a 15th-century Swiss story originally about Christian heretics and the Inquisition and replaced them with Jews. The opera that emerged at his and Halévy’s hands had all the makings of an elaborate, crowd-pleasing grand opera with spectacular staging possibilities: the suffering of anti-Jewish persecution at the hands of the Church as well as the mob; a Jewess’s illegitimate love affair with (unbeknownst to her) a married Christian; hidden identities revealed only after it is too late; betrayal and vengeance; and the gruesome details of the auto-da-fé itself.
The Passover seder scene at the beginning of Act II became one of the most memorable parts of the opera. And the aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur,” sung by Eleazar, has become one of the staples in the repertoire of countless operatic tenors in every generation since the opera’s premiere.
Halévy’s courageous and unmediated exposure of the Church’s historical persecution of Jews—seen from Jewish perspectives (viz., devoid of familiar theological justifications)—and his untempered portrayal of unforgiving Jewish bitterness at the past, in themselves made the opera a watershed event completely apart from its artistic merit. For here the Jewish victim is the heroine, not a more typical stubborn villain who, in the eyes of the Church, stands in the way of universal redemption. And it is she who evokes the audience’s sympathy. What made La Juive perhaps even more pathbreaking was its intended invitation of respect for the tenacity of the Jewish people in its refusal to accommodate to surrounding majority culture by renouncing ancestral faith. Halévy intuited that post-Revolution, Emancipation-era audiences (in mid-century Paris especially, in an atmosphere of assumed relative tolerance) were ready to confront this history of persecution as told from “the other side”—or at least to consider it without rejecting the opera. Its resounding success, however, probably had more to do with the lavish spectacle onstage, which Paris audiences craved the sheer exoticism of a Jewish tale and the beauty of the music. But even if the message was lost on many or most among the audiences, who could well have seen it as secondary, La Juive was nonetheless—as music historian John Baron has observed—“a statement of a Jew to the French as well as to the world that Jewish sensitivities, emotions, history, and liturgy [the seder scene] can legitimately form the material for serious art—no less so than Christian concerns.”
James Robinson Planché subsequently translated Scribe’s libretto into English as The Jewess, and it was produced as a melodrama at Drury Lane Theatre in London. But the ending was altered—reportedly to satisfy London audience preferences for the reprieve from death of beautiful heroines—to allow Rachel to live, shorn, of course, of her martyr status that made the opera so powerful. Eleazar still dies, from heart failure rather than in defiance of the cardinal’s ultimatum, thus depriving the audience of the scene in which he joins his adopted daughter in death. (According to Planché’s memoirs, he later regretted those changes, and his published version contains an apology to Scribe.)
Halévy wrote another opera on a Jewish theme, Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew; 1852), but it failed to gain anything like La Juive’s reception. And he left unfinished another small-scale opera, Noe, which was completed posthumously by his non-Jewish son-in-law, Georges Bizet. Both operas, however, would be known only to serious opera aficionados.
Musical Modernity and Jewish Opera
The most sophisticated and musically as well as theologically and philosophically complex opera concerning Moses as lawgiver and teacher is undoubtedly Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron), which he always considered uncompleted (even though it has been performed, in concert as well as staged versions, and recorded). Many would consider it the iconic opera of modernism, and it continues to form the basis for theses, dissertations, scholarly articles, and other studies. It is also an exemplar of opera as a medium for ideas, which, as abstractions, supersede the story line in overall significance.
Infused with Schoenberg’s own wrestling with Jewish identity, as well as his lifelong struggle with the concepts of perfect order and absolute, immutable, and autocratic authority, the opera’s conflicts and tensions—between a concrete belief system and an abstract “God-idea” or “God-awareness”—can be viewed as reflecting a profoundly Jewish quest. It represents an ultimately futile search for faith in an abstract idea and, at the same time, a concrete acceptance of the Torah’s revelation of absolute truth and monotheism. In the end, it is impossible for Moses to communicate the essence of Divine truth precisely because it is inherently abstract as an idea. Yet the core of the opera’s message is that despite such an impossibility, the mission to perpetually attempt its communication cannot be abandoned. That Schoenberg considered the opera uncompleted, or that he was unable to complete it to his satisfaction, has been interpreted as emphasizing his own awareness that the pure abstraction of Divine truth can never be reconciled with the notion of concrete articulation—that materialization of such a pure idea can never be realized. Faith might signify the acceptance of that conundrum.
Although awareness of Moses und Aron is a necessary part of 20th-century musical as well as general operatic literacy, few if any would consider it part of the standard repertoire—especially in terms of audience expectations. Its productions are still seen as major events in the international operatic world. At one time, its performance was thought to require an entire cast and chorus with perfect pitch. And it remains by all accounts an adventurous undertaking.
Another Judaically framed, biblically based opera (this one truly unfinished) by one of the major figures in 20th-century music is Ernest Bloch’s Jezebel. Bloch’s work on the opera coincided with the period of his so-called Jewish cycle (or the first round of Jewish works, since he later resumed, in his American years, composing works of direct Jewish connection). It was a time during which he was struggling to flesh out an artistic approach to Jewish identity. It was to be a Jewish artistic identity, based not on observance or necessarily on beliefs, but on pride in Jewish heritage.
Written to a libretto by Edmond Fleg, Jezebel makes use of a biblical story and its component incidents, along with creative interpretations and slants, to illustrate Bloch’s convictions concerning Jewish heritage in relation to other surrounding or opposing cultures—in this case, paganism, but perhaps its extension across the millennia and into the modern world in other guises and versions as well. The incidents drawn from I and II Kings are used to demonstrate the moral polarization between Judaism and pagan values—to which Bloch referred in one of his letters as “the opposition of two moralities, of two conceptions of life.” Jezebel, who traditionally symbolizes the biblical epitome of cruelty, cunning, and amorality as an enticer to Baal worship and a promoter of paganism, is actually the heroine of the opera precisely because she personifies and clarifies the incompatibility of Judaic and pagan worldviews and the moral superiority of Jewish heritage over pagan-based cultures. As one of Bloch’s letters makes clear, his objective was to interpret the biblical incidents through the medium of the opera in order to present ancient Israel’s moral values as they stemmed from the Torah, particularly with regard to the value of human life, in contrast to paganism’s indifference to humanity and the sanctity of the individual.
Institutional Frameworks for Jewish Opera: American Commissioning Programs
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 opera program 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 could 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 singers; sets that could fit into one station wagon; and small instrumental ensembles, with alternative piano accompaniment for those situations where additional instruments were unavailable.
Robert Strassburg's Chelm, which is included in this volume, was one of the first two chamber operas commissioned by the Opera Theatre in the year it was founded. At its New York City premiere in 1956 at the 92nd Street YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association), it was paired with another newly commissioned work, Frederick Piket’s Isaac Levi (to a libretto by Smolover)—a one-act opera about the 19th-century Hassidic master and folk hero Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
That opera, which featured Cantor Harold Orbach, remains in manuscript and has never been orchestrated. Another important product of the Opera Theatre of Westchester was Lazar Weiner’s The Golem (1956), based on the legend of the golem of Prague. The legend and its origins are described in the accompanying notes to one of this volume's other operas, Abraham Ellstein's The Golem. (Further information on the golem legend will be found in the accompanying notes to Joseph Achron’s suite of incidental music, in Volume 11.)
Lazar Weiner had been interested in writing an opera on the golem legend since at least 1940. Originally, he hoped to collaborate with the Yiddish poet H. Leivick [Leivick Halpern] (1888–1962), who had written a play, Der goylem, that was produced by Habima in Hebrew in 1924, in Moscow, and subsequently in other cities in Yiddish, Polish, and English as well. Weiner had anticipated Leivick’s adapting his play to a libretto, and Leivick did send Weiner a draft of a first scene—which he described in a letter as “half narrative and half dialogue.” He also promised that drafts for additional scenes would be forthcoming, but he apparently abandoned the project. Leivick’s partial work did not, however, go to waste. Independent of any future opera, Weiner used it as the basis of a cantata, The Golem Prologue, whose premiere, insofar as we know, occurred in 1949 at New York’s Town Hall. It was subsequently revised for soloists, chorus, and orchestra (1950).When Smolover invited Weiner to compose an opera for the Opera Theatre of Westchester, Weiner automatically returned to the golem theme; and when their initial choice for a librettist, Morton Wishengrad—known for his scripts for the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Eternal Light radio series—declined, Smolover wrote the libretto himself. The opera was premiered in 1957, and it enjoyed more than fifty performances in the ensuing years.
The golem legend lends itself especially well to operatic treatment and creative staging, and it has been addressed by numerous composers in addition to Weiner and Ellstein. Australian composer Larry Sitsky wrote a golem opera in the late 1970s. Richard Teitelbaum’s 1989 Golem is an “interactive electronic opera;” and English composer John Arthur Casken’s Golem, premiered in London in 1989, employs an idiosyncratic range of styles and techniques, folk music references, synchronized sections, and prerecorded electronic tape—all designed to mediate, as the composer has explained, between two worlds: that of the community in which the principal action of the story takes place, and a “timeless mythic past.”
In 1980 New York’s 92nd Street YMHA inaugurated its imaginative and ambitious program, “Jewish Opera at the Y,” which had been inspired and encouraged by the success there the previous season (1979) of David Schiff’s opera in Yiddish, Gimpel the Fool. Though the program lasted only five seasons for want of further funding and administrative imagination, it succeeded in commissioning and presenting several important contributions to the operatic repertoire.
Paired with Elie Siegmeister’s Lady of the Lake (excerpts of which are included in this volume) at the Y in 1985—in what turned out to be the program’s swan song—was another one-act opera of his, also to a story by Bernard Malamud: Angel Levine. The libretto, like that for Lady of the Lake, was written by Edward Mabley. The story concerns a mysterious symbiotic interaction between a Jewish tailor in New York and Alexander Levine, an American black man who claims to be an angel and also claims that the tailor’s dying wife will recover if only he will believe that Levine is indeed an angel, in which case he (Levine) will be rewarded as an angel in the next world. After a series of talmudic-type debates, ponderings, and chase scenes involving a nightclub singer and a bar in Harlem, the tailor eventually comes to believe. His wife’s health improves, and Levine, having accomplished his mission, can now find his heavenly reward. (In 1995, an unrelated Angel Levine opened as a Jewish Repertory Theatre musical at Playhouse 91, with a new book, music, and lyrics by Phyllis K. Robinson. It was soon forgotten.)
Following the artistic as well as critical success of Bruce Adolphe’s opera (excerpts of which are included in this volume) Mikhoels the Wise, which was commissioned by Jewish Opera at the Y and premiered there in 1982, Adolphe was invited to compose a second one for that program. The result was The False Messiah, the Life of Shabtai Zvi (premiere 1983), based on the historical and legendary 17th-century episode in which a Turkish Jew, Shabtai Zvi, following a host of earlier charlatan pretenders, publicly proclaimed himself the long-awaited Messiah in 1665 and succeeded in attracting huge masses of Jews in Europe. Even after he converted to Islam in Constantinople in 1666, following his arrest and a stint in an Ottoman Turkish prison where he is said to have maintained an extravagent state, some adherents continued to promote his claim. Many of them followed him into Islam following his death in 1676, maintaining their allegiance through loyalty to his putative son. But Zvi’s conversion nonetheless marked the collapse of the Shabtaian movement. In the next century, an eastern European Jewish rogue, Jacob Frank [Leibovitz] claimed to be Shabtai Zvi’s reincarnation, also attracting thousands of adherents. Many of those who remained Frankists accepted conversion to Christianity, though their sincerity remains dubious. The entire episode made for widespread disappointment and demoralization among European Jewry.
The same subject had inspired Alexandre Tansman’s opera Sabbataï Zevi: Le faux messie, which received its premiere in Paris in 1961.
One of the most eagerly anticipated and exciting events on the national opera calendar for the 1997 spring season was the premiere in Chicago of Shulamit Ran’s opera Between Two Worlds. Commissioned by the composer-in-residence program of Lyric Opera of Chicago, the work is based (as is Tamkin’s opera, cited above) on the eastern European Jewish folk legend of the dibbuk [dybbuk]—about unquenchable love, a vow unremoved even by death, and demonic possession—which in turn was the source for An-Sky’s famous Yiddish play of that title (Der dibek), upon which Ran and her librettist, Charles Kondek, drew. She titled her opera as she did because An-Sky had originally titled his Yiddish play (first written in Russian) Tsvishn tsvey veltn—der dibek.
Ran had first encountered the play as a child in Israel, and it left what she describes as an indelible impression on her: “The moment when beautiful young Leah, dressed in her white wedding gown, possessed by her beloved’s dead soul...emitted the dibek’s first words—a woman speaking in the unmistakable voice of a man—has remained with me to this day in all of its spine-tingling, bloodcurdling power.” But what she also saw in that play, making it so suitable for operatic expression, was its transcendent human drama. “At the core of it all,” she explained in her program notes to the premiere, is “a moral statement on commitment and justice, issues I associate with the very essence of Judaism. A vow taken, a promise made, cannot be erradicated—not even by death.” While she intuited in the story a statement of universal power and appeal, neither she nor Kondek were tempted to reset the play in a modern environment, locale, or time frame, because they agreed on the necessary significance and value of An-Sky’s specific setting: “a world no longer in existence: a Jewish town or village in late 19th century eastern Europe, where life’s physical hardships are mitigated by a fervent quest for a higher existence and a life of moral rightness and spiritual exaltation.” The setting is thus an integral part of her opera.
Also in her program notes, she expanded on the significance of the opera’s title:
Between Two Worlds as a title implies many “two worlds”; most obviously those of the living and the dead, but also the accepted and the forbidden, with all the different layers of meaning embedded in such terms.
Among the opera’s many musical inventions, some of which function as melodic, intervallic, or harmonic leitmotifs and thematic gestures, is an interesting whole-tone-based theme that occurs for the most part in the cellos. Ran called it her “lust motif” from the moment she conceived it “because, when all is said and done, Between Two Worlds is, first and foremost, the story of a great and unusual love.”
Following the premiere, a lead article in Opera News declared that Between Two Worlds “may be the first dibbuk [dibek] opera to gain a foothold in the repertory.” Sadly, that has yet to happen.
Like the golem legend, the story of the dibek has incited many operatic treatments. Among them was Lodovico Rocca’s Il Dibuk (1931). The most intriguing case will always remain a “what if?” in music history. For there has persisted a rumor—substantiated by some biographers—that George Gershwin at one time gave serious thought to an opera based on An-Sky’s play and on the legend behind it. His friend and early biographer (writing during Gershwin’s lifetime), Isaac Goldberg, alludes to a Metropolitan Opera Company invitation for a full-length opera. And he claims not only that Gershwin was seriously considering An-Sky’s play (among other subjects as well), but also that Gershwin had suggested in passing that they “go abroad for a month or so, to make a special study of Jewish music” in the event that he would decide to adopt Der dibek for an opera. Of course, it went no further. Gershwin appears at that stage to have been ambivalent about opera, especially in its traditional forms. And according to Goldberg, he was more interested in an operatic subject concerning New York City as an ethnic melting pot—a “meeting place, a rendezvous of the nations.” There is probably little reason to assume that, had he written another opera in addition to Porgy and Bess, it would have involved either the dibek topic or anything else specifically Jewish—despite wishful thinking all these decades since his death. But had he indeed chosen—and lived—to do so, we might have had one of the truly great, quintessentially American operas, and a Jewish one at the same time.
Israeli Composers and Jewish Opera
It will come as no surprise that a number of modern Israeli composers—beginning with European émigrés to Mandatory Palestine—have focused on Jewish themes for opera. As early as 1930, Karel Salmon made use of regional Jewish folk material in his marionette opera about David and Goliath. In 1945, Marc Lavry, one of modern Israel’s most successful and best-known composers throughout the 1940s and 1950s especially, completed his opera Dan hashomer (Dan the Watchman). Written to a libretto by Max Brod, who based it on Shin Shalom’s play Shots on the Kibbutz, the opera was premiered by the Palestine Folk Opera in Tel Aviv and produced thirty-three times in eight cities and towns in Palestine. Throughout the music, Lavry juxtaposes eastern European musical clichés and motifs against Near Eastern ones as a way of representing distinctions, almost as typological leitmotifs, between the older generation of immigrants from Europe and the young generation of pioneers and kibbutz workers. Dan hashomer is generally considered the first Hebrew opera composed in the y’shuv to be produced in Israel (Palestine). Another opera by Lavry, Tamar (1958), is based on the biblical story of Judah and Tamar.
Six of Josef Tal’s [Gruenthal; 1910–2008] nine operas (or operatic works) are Jewishly related. Saul at Ein Dor (1957) is an “opera concertante” after the biblical story and character of King Saul. Amnon and Tamar (1958) is based on those two biblical characters. Ashmedai (1971), in two acts and sixteen scenes, draws on a talmudic legend, which Tal used as an allegory about totalitarianism. It is a twelve-tone work with some parlando and some Sprechstimme (speech-song) intervals, blending electronic and symphonic media; its five-minute overture makes use of electronic sounds only. His Masada (1973), composed for Israel’s twenty-fifth anniversary of statehood, is based on the story of the holdout by a radical sect of Jewish rebels against the Romans, and the Roman army’s inevitable and brutal victory in 73 C.E. It, too, incorporates electronic sounds among its fifteen scenes. Tal’s Der Turm (1983) is a parable about political forces behind both the building and the destruction of the Tower of Babel. And his Der Garten (1988) is a chamber opera about the story of Adam and Eve.
Mark Kopytman’s Chamber Scenes from the Life of Süsskind von Trimberg (premiere 1983) concerns the legendary medieval minnesinger who is believed to have been a Jew. Other Israeli composers who have turned for operatic subjects to Jewish themes include Abel Ehrlich; Ami Maayani; and Menahem Avidom, whose operas range from parodies and early Jewish history to contemporary Israeli politics. His two-act opera, The Crook (premiere 1967), one of the first musical satires on the Israeli government bureaucracy, combines synthesized sounds and live instruments along with videos, slides, and other visual projections.
Jacob Weinberg’s opera Heḥalutz (known in English as The Pioneers) might be considered a modern Israeli opera since it reflects his years in Palestine during the 1920s, after he left Russia and before his immigration to the United States. One of the first operas in Hebrew (preceded by Idelsohn’s Bat yiftaḥ, but predating most others), it was written to his own libretto about European settlers in Palestine. Its most poignant performance occurred in the 1930s in Berlin, during the Nazi era, where, forbidden from non-Jewish public venues as the work of a Jew, a concert version was presented at the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagoge under the auspices of the Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland—conducted by Chemjo Vinaver, with soprano Mascha Benya in one of the lead roles. One soprano aria, set to words from the Song of Songs (shir hashirim), has continued to receive performances, including one in 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center in a concert by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein to commemorate Israel’s fiftieth anniversary.
The Holocaust and Jewish Opera
In addition to the aforementioned Esther by Hanell, and David Amram's The Final Ingredient, which appears in this volume, a number of operas have emerged directly from the ashes of the Holocaust. Walter Steffens’s Eli (1967), an opera in twelve scenes, is based on a story by Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs. In it, a Jewish boy is slain by a German as he plays a tune on his shepherd’s pipe in a childish hope of summoning angels from heaven to his aid. Janice Hamer’s Lost Childhood (2001), a three-act chamber opera to a libretto by Mary Azrael, is based on Dr. Yehuda Nir’s memoir of his childhood in hiding from the Germans during their occupation of Poland during the Second World War, and on conversations with Gottfried Wagner—Richard Wagner’s great-grandson.
Adam Silverman’s Korczak’s Orphans (2003?) is based on the true story of a Polish Jewish doctor who sacrificed himself in order to protect and shepherd two hundred children in a Jewish orphanage he had founded in German-occupied Warsaw. Gershon Kingsley has written an opera about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who undertook a mission completely on his own to save thousands of Jews in Budapest from deportation to Jewish death camps by issuing false documents (as a Japanese diplomat had done earlier on his own in Germany) and at the conclusion of the war was taken into custody by the occupying Red Army, never to be seen or heard from again. (It is generally presumed that he was murdered then or sent to the gulag—on Stalin’s orders—to prevent his becoming a recognized hero in Hungary.) In his original, instructed staging, Kingsley has the narrator and all characters step out of the chorus to play or sing their roles on an open, sloping stage and then step back to become part of the ensemble again. Only Wallenberg is a solo role throughout the opera.
Two operas that came out of the Theresenstadt concentration camp (Terezín) in what is now the Czech Republic have only recently become well known: Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder der Tod dankt ab (The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates) by Viktor Ullmann, and Hans Krása’s Brundibár, a children’s opera. Franz Eugen Klein wrote a third opera while interned there, Der glaserne Berg (The Glass Mountain). It does not survive, however, except for its principal motive in piano reduction, even though it was prepared and performed privately at Terezín for the Council of Elders. The Terezín operas will be discussed further in the accompanying notes to Volume 19.
In Hugo Weisgall’s opera Nine Rivers from Jordan, a British soldier, out of submission to pacifist naïveté (a vision of a mysterious woman warns him to relinquish his weapon, claiming that man will meet his death according to the arms he bears), goes weaponless for the duration of the war and allows a German prisoner to escape. Eventually that prisoner becomes a guard at a German concentration camp. In an allegorical trial to establish guilt for the atrocities at the camp, the court’s verdict is that all mankind is guilty; but it also rules that if the guard’s life is forfeited, God will forgive the rest of humanity. Feeling guilty for having allowed the guard to escape as a prisoner of war on his watch, the British soldier takes the task upon himself. In the process, the guard outwits and nearly kills him, only carelessly killing himself instead.
Despite the setting and the characters, Weisgall did not think of Nine Rivers as necessarily Holocaust-related; for him it was as much a timeless lesson about personal responsibility to make choices between right and wrong, with the Holocaust only partly used as a setting. At the time of his death, however, Weisgall—still receiving acclaim for the unprecedented success of his 1993 opera, Esther—was planning his next opera. For it, he was attempting to obtain the rights to John Hersey’s book The Wall, a story about the Warsaw Ghetto.
Other Operas on Jewish Themes
There are a number of other interesting operas on Jewish themes that deserve mention, apart from those included as of 2010 in this volume. Some, such as A.M. Sharkansky’s Kol Nidre (1924?) and Karel Weis’s Der polnische Jude (The Polish Jew, 1901), are extremely obscure; little is yet known about them. Others have achieved at least initial recognition and, in a few cases, fairly high-profile performances. Myron Fink’s The Conquistador (premiere 1997) is based on a reputedly historical incident in which conquistador Don Luis de Carvajal, a devout Roman Catholic who is discovered to have Jewish lineage, is executed in the course of the Inquisition in Mexico. Boris Blacher’s 200,000 Taler, an opera after a Yiddish story by Sholom Aleichem, premiered in Berlin in 1969. Barry J. Drogin’s Love and Idols: A Jewish Opera (1985–86) was adapted from a dramatic poem by Matthew Paris, "All in Good Time". Seymour Barab’s Jewish Humor from Oy to Vey is, as the title suggests, a comic opera.
Marc Blitzstein began an opera to a story by Bernard Malamud, Idiots First. In it, a poor, aging Jew, Mendl, aware of his impending death, seeks to provide for his mentally retarded son, Itzhak, by sending him to an uncle in California. He needs thirty-five dollars for the railroad fare, and the only one who will help him is a poor rabbi who gives him a fur coat over his wife’s objections. Blitzstein was brutally murdered before he could finish the opera, which was completed by Leonard Lehrman—a Blitzstein scholar. Blitzstein also left uncompleted another opera to a Malamud story, The Magic Barrel. He had finished only a single scene and one song or aria. There is also Raymond Goldstein’s opera The Jewbird, to a Malamud story.
Lehrman himself wrote a one-act opera, Suppose a Wedding, based on a scene of a Malamud play in which the daughter of a retired Yiddish theater actor must choose between two suitors: an idealistic one, favored by her father, and a materialistic one, favored by her mother. Two other operas by Lehrman have Jewish connections: Sima, based on Edgar Lehrman’s translation of David Aizman’s Krasovitsky Couple, about the attempted adoption of a girl orphaned by a pogrom in the Ukraine in 1905; and his three-act Hannah (in collaboration with Orel Odinov), a “feminist anti-war Hanukka opera” that includes a Sukkot scene and draws on talmudic and other Jewish legends.
Much fanfare surrounded New York City Opera’s world premiere of Deborah Dratell’s Lilith in 2001. A reimagined story drawn from the Kabbala, the opera exudes transparently feminist sensibilities. In some revisionist readings of the kabbalistic source, Lilith predates Eve as Adam’s first wife—created not from his rib, like Eve in the biblical account, but, like Adam, from the dust of the earth. Thus his equal in terms of origin, she rejects the biblical female role of wife in relation to her husband. In a belligerent rage, she bolts, abandoning Adam and roaming the world in a wholesale seduction of sleeping men—which amounts to “female-male rape”—in order to acquire and accumulate their sperm for the procreation of child demons. Other readings emphasize at the same time her own insatiable sexual appetite.
In Dratell’s opera, Eve and Lilith become rivals for the legacy of being Adam’s widow—and for the archetypes of womanhood—beginning at a modern-type Orthodox funeral for Adam at which Lilith appears. Eve must now identify Lilith to her children. The tension between the two becomes an exploration of two equally feminine (and not always irreconcilable) natures: the free-spirited, willful, strong, self-determined, self-assured, and independent woman in Lilith; and the life companion, wife, mother, and bearer of her husband’s children in Eve—leaving aside her role as a temptress for evil and defiance of God’s mandate in Genesis.
As was to be expected in view of the proliferating explosion of hype attached to the Kabbala by the dawn of the new millennium (sometimes divorced from—and even without recognition or knowledge of—its Judaic connection or place in Jewish religious history), several recent operas have had kabbalistic bases. Stewart Wallace’s Kabbalah (1989), identified by its composer as a “post-minimalist” opera and a “dramatized ritual” in seven sections with a prologue, mirrors the seven days of Creation. Ron Kean’s The Master is a “kabbalistic rock opera” in which a boy in Brooklyn dreams about going back in time to eastern Europe and meeting Rabbi Israel, a Hassidic master. He is plagued by a problem concerning utterance of the Divine Name, and he seeks solution.
As the 21st century progresses, we can expect an increasing number of composers and commissioning agencies to consider Jewish themes for operas in a variety of forms and types. The timelessness of biblical, apocryphal, and Jewish historical subjects will no doubt continue to fascinate, and perhaps to inspire fresh interpretations. Broadened awareness of folklore may enrich our operatic repertoire as well. At the same time, the range of modern Jewish literature cries out for operatic attention, with any number of novels, plays, and short stories eminently suitable for adaptation for the opera house.