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Scene 2 08:46
Scene 3 06:47
Scene 4 06:32
Scene 5 04:09
 

Liner Notes

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. 

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

(Excerpts)

SCENE 2

LEAH
Was I heavy, my love?

DAVID
Heavy? Like the smile on your face when I first caught your sight, like the gleam in your eye when I kissed you good night. Like my soul when it leaves my body in flight.

LEAH
I mean heavy, heavy, heavy.

DAVID
Heavy, heavy, heavy.

LEAH
Like the pain in my heart when we part at the door, like my limbs when caressed by the one I adore. Like your love when it pierces my breast to the core.

LEAH, DAVID
Heavy, heavy, heavy. Like the feel of a child nestled close in my arms, like the weight of a treasure chest full of your charm. Like the sun when it burns through my skin as it warms. Heavy, heavy. My love for you is heavy, heavy.

DAVID
Leah, my love, I have a confession to make.

LEAH
A confession, my sweet? You need not confess to me. In my eyes, you can do no wrong.

DAVID
But I did, I did! In my excitement I forgot to buy you your wedding gift—a lovely lace shawl.

LEAH
My poor darling, you’re so very good. Please do not feel so badly. We really should save the money for our family.

DAVID
No. I won’t be happy until I bring you your wedding gift.

LEAH
My David, your love is all I need—oh, my dearest.

DAVID
No, my dearest.

LEAH
Then I shall tell you what you may do. If you must buy a gift, buy something useful for our home.

DAVID
Express our love with some dead piece of furniture! No! Never!

LEAH
It need not be dead. You can buy a live gift—an animal, a pet, even useful, like a she-goat.

DAVID
A she-goat?

LEAH
A she-goat. I always wanted a she-goat, and besides, I’ll need plenty of milk for the future.

DAVID
Then I’ll do as you say. But I still feel badly. My heart is heavy.

LEAH, DAVID
Heavy, heavy.

LEAH
Like my limbs when caressed by the man I adore.

LEAH, DAVID
Like the weight of a treasure chest full of your charms, like the pain in my heart when we part at the door. Heavy, my love for you is heavy.

SCENE 3

DAVID
Berel, oh Berel, I need your advice.

BEREL
Speak frankly, my friend. In me you may confide.

DAVID
It’s nothing like that! I need a she-goat!

BEREL
A she-goat?

DAVID
A she-goat!

BEREL
It must be a she? A he won’t do?

DAVID
A she, not a he, as a gift for my bride. Biri biri bim, biri biri bim.

BEREL
I suggest you see Khaya, who lives near the bay. A she-goat she’ll sell you, and something more, so they say.

DAVID
Berel! You forget I am a married man. It’s nonsense that you speak—pure nonsense, I say. But I’ll go and see Khaya who lives near the bay.

BEREL
Forgive me, David, but do you know one end of the she-goat from the other?

DAVID
Of animals, I must admit, you are the one that knows. But a goat I must have, young and pure, giving lots of milk as she grows.

BEREL
Then check her head most carefully. No nonsense, I say. But go and see Khaya who lives near the bay.

DAVID
A scholar to me you’ve always been, but in this—but in this I will not bow. I’ve paid close attention to all you’ve said, but of growing, this I know. One grows up from the feet not down from the head. This is the way we grow.

BEREL
You should leave the head work to me. It’s nonsense that you speak—pure nonsense, I say. Go and see Khaya who lives near the bay.

DAVID
I can prove what I say. Listen to me carefully: when my trousers I put on, they were short at the feet but not at the head, don’t you see? Don’t you see? Which should prove from which end we grow.

BEREL
You can’t convince me!

DAVID
Biri biri bim, biri biri bam. Look at me! Don’t you see? Which should prove from which end we grow, biri biri bim, biri biri bim.

BEREL
It’s nonsense you speak—pure nonsense, I say. Go see Khaya, who lives near the bay.

DAVID
Look at me! Don’t you see from which end we grow?

BEREL
Now you listen to me. Don’t you recall when we sat on the ground in the gray morning light, to watch the king’s infantry pass. Ah, what a sight! Their feet were all the same. They all touched the ground. But their heads were all different; they varied in height.

DAVID
It’s nonsense you speak—pure nonsense, I say, but I’ll go see Khaya who lives near the bay. It’s nonsense you speak—pure nonsense, you say, but I’ll go see Khaya who lives near the bay.

BEREL
It’s no nonsense I speak. No nonsense, I say, but go see Khaya who lives near the bay.

SCENE 4

KHAYA
This is the life? Ai ai ai ai ai. This is the life? Ai ai ai ai ai. The day is warm, the sky is clear, my goats are grazing, I have nothing to fear. I’m healthy and strong, though fifty I’ll be, my life would be happy, if I just had a he. This is the life? Ai ai ai ai ai. This is the life? Ai ai ai ai. No husband to scold me, no mean ugly looks, no clothes to be mended, no dinner to cook. I’m quite independent, quite free. How I could enjoy it if I just had a he. This is the life? Ai ai ai. This is the life? Ai ai ai ai ai.

DAVID
Forgive me. I hope I’m not intruding.

KHAYA
Intruding?

DAVID
I’ve been told you have a she to sell.

KHAYA
A she to sell? You need a she already?

DAVID
Yes! A she!

KHAYA
Naturally, what would you want with a he? You need look no further. I am a she.

DAVID
I mean a she-goat!

KHAYA
A she-goat?

David
Yes.

KHAYA
I should have known. So what can you do. Go over to yonder gate and pick yourself a she-goat. I’m quite independent, quite free. How I could enjoy it if I just had a he. This is the life? Ai ai ai ai.

SCENE 5

BEREL
Well, David, you got her?

DAVID
Yes, Berel. She’s outside. She’s quite pretty.

BEREL
You like her? Huh?

DAVID
Yes, I think that I do, though I didn’t think I would.

BEREL
Well, it takes a little time to get used to Khaya, but she grows on you.

DAVID
Berel!

BEREL
All right, all right, but tell me, David, how do you know a he-goat from a she-goat? Tell me how you know.

DAVID
What do you mean? It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s natural!

BEREL
It’s not always. It’s not always so simple because it’s natural for instance.

DAVID
Why, it’s simple, it’s natural!

BEREL
Tell me, David, since you seem so bright, why are the days in summer so long but the days in the winter—correct me if I’m wrong—grow shorter day and night?

DAVID
Well, I—I don’t know.

BEREL
For this information I turn to my science, upon which I’ve full reliance. We know that the cold makes the elements contract, that snow and ice freeze the land, but the days in summer grow longer, you see, because heat—yes, the summer heat—makes the days expand—yes, expand.

DAVID
A scholar to me you’ve always been, but please excuse me just a moment while I ...

BEREL
Why, by all means, David. I’ll watch your she for you. It’s so simple, so natural, “it’s easy” he tells me, to tell a he from a she. Would his bride be surprised if her David came home to find that he had a he not a she? Biri biri bim. Biri biri biri biri bim.


 

Credits

Composer: Robert Strassburg

Length: 26:14
Genre: Opera

Performers: Jorge Avila, Violin;  Matthew Chellis, Tenor;  Sara Hewitt-Roth, Cello;  Paul Hostetter, Conductor;  Richard Lalli, Baritone;  Karen Longwell, Soprano;  Sato Moughalian, Flute;  Grace Paradeis, Harp;  Russel Rizner, Horn;  Maureen Strenge, Bassoon;  Liuh-Wen Ting, Viola;  Carla Wood, Mezzo-soprano;  Robin Zeh, Violin

Date Recorded: 03/01/2001
Venue: American Academy of Arts & Letters (A), New York, New York
Engineer: Lazarus, Tom
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Lee, Richard

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Robert Strassburg
Orchestrator: Tony Finno

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