Jewish Opera

From the curator

In her short film parody, All the Great Operas (in 10 Minutes), Kim Thompson suggests that, aside from music and singing, opera is little more than people falling in love and dying. Of course, opera encompasses more than that. Sex, violence, magic, mystery, comedy, tragedy, murder, suicide, betrayal, deception… Scanning the world of Jewish opera, as we do in Heroes and Heriones, one would be hard-pressed to find much difference. And while there is nothing uniquely Jewish about opera per se, there is a world of Jewish opera that has something unique to offer.

Neil W. Levin’s appraisal of the treatment of Jewish subjects in the history of opera in his introduction to this volume is enlightening. But perhaps most compelling is his contention, following Shakespeare, that if all the world’s a stage then Jewish history and its associated lore could effectively be viewed as one constantly unfolding opera.

Consider the bible, reflected here in classic episodes told through a contemporary lens. Samuel Adler’s The Wrestler depicts Jacob’s wrestling with the angels as a metaphor for trying to come to terms with one’s past. Esther by Hugo Weisgall is an adaptation of the biblical story with details and plotlines modified to render it a meditation on Jewish identity and modernity.

On lighter side are two humorous stories, each of which involves a goat. Ripe with innuendo, Strassburg’s Chelm features a bumbling protagonist in search of a "she-goat" to give to his new bride as a wedding gift. A friend advises him "to go see Khaya who lives near the bay. A she-goat she’ll sell you, and something more, so they say." David Schiff’s Gimpel the Fool, based on the I. B. Singer story, explores virtue and faith through the eyes of a "town fool," and may be the only opera to feature a singing goat. Gimpel and his goat share a duet when Gimpel is distraught by his wife’s giving birth "a little prematurely"—four months after their wedding.

On a more serious note, David Amram’s The Final Ingredient depicts prisoners attempting to hold a Passover seder within the walls of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but is ultimately a fable of faith and Jewish identity. Ellie Siegmeister’s Lady of the Lake explores the perils of passing and the denial of Jewish identity, while Bruce Adolphe’s Mikhoels the Wise recounts the life and tragic demise of the legendary Soviet Jewish actor and activist, Solomon Mikhoels.

Abraham Ellstein’s The Golem and David Tamkin’s The Dybbuk explore worlds of magic and mysticism in two of the most well-known folk legends of the Ashkenazi world, as does Paul Schoenfield in The Merchant and the Pauper. Based on a Hassidic tale attributed to Reb Naḥman of Bratzlav, Merchant is essentially an allegory of exile and redemption (see Neil W. Levin’s informative notes to that piece). Its profundity was eloquently expressed by soprano Jennifer Larson in an interview conducted at the recording session: "It takes all those things that are so human, and all the passions that we want to sing about, and it presents them in a way that just glows of pure love of God."

While Larson’s comments might speak more directly to the skills of this particular composer, they cannot be divorced entirely from the uniquely Jewish subject matter of the opera. For while the operas of Heroes and Heroines elucidate particular Jewish themes and circumstances, they ring with a beauty and truth that speaks beyond boundaries.

—Jeff Janeczko


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