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Act I, Scene 4. A Train Station in Birobidzhan at Midnight 20:49
 

Liner Notes

Mikhoels the Wise is the first of Bruce Adolphe’s two operas written for the “Jewish Opera at the Y” program at New York’s 92nd Street YMHA, where it was premiered in 1982. The opera is based on historical accounts of the life, career, and murder of Solomon Mikhoels (1890–1948), the adopted stage name of Solomon Vovsi—one of the greatest serious actors of all time in the legitimate Yiddish art theater and the most prominent figure in the Soviet Yiddish theater during the decades immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution. As head of the Moscow State Jewish Theater (beginning in 1928), he was internationally renowned for many of his roles—including his acclaimed portrayal of King Lear in Yiddish. However, as chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Mikhoels was also in many respects the de facto head of and spokesman for Soviet Jewry during the Stalin years—especially with reference to Yiddish culturally oriented segments of Soviet Jewish society. Because of his celebrity status and position of respect not only within the Soviet Jewish world, but also among left-leaning Yiddish cultural circles abroad, he was conveniently “used” by Stalin as his personal representative to the Jews for as long as it served the interests of the Soviet regime.

Like much, if not most, of the mainstream of post-Revolution Russian Jewish society—Jewish intelligentsia as well as indoctrinated proletarian circles—Mikhoels was for a long time genuinely supportive of and naturally committed to the professed communist ideals of the party and to Stalin. For those Jews, Stalin and the party represented many things: the bulwark against the Fascist threat; the continued advancement of the “new order” against the perceived ills, decadence, and built-in inequities of Western bourgeois societies; and the protection against nationalist regression and alleged plots to undermine the world communist cause and the progress of the Revolution and its unfinished tasks. (The truth about Stalin vis-à-vis Russian society as a whole—as well as the Jews—did not begin to emerge for most of the world until after his death; and then, publicly, only after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations in the 1950s.)

Moreover, Stalin’s early policies appeared, for whatever self-serving reasons of Realpolitik, to encourage and even foster secular Jewish—i.e., Yiddish—cultural and educational activity, beginning with his commissariat during the first Soviet government. Those policies were reversed only later, with suppressions, wholesale purges, and liquidations of the bulk of Yiddish cultural institutions—leaving only token remnants, such as the Moscow Yiddish theater, intact as “show” propaganda and public relations instruments.

Once the Soviet Union was at war with Germany after June 1941, Mikhoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee provided Stalin with a convenient vehicle for seeking Jewish support in the West (which Stalin and the party perceived as a sinister but now potentially useful pressure on Western governments) for the Soviet war effort and for opening a second front. To those ends, Mikhoels traveled to the United States in 1943 (as well as to Canada, Mexico, and England) on a publicity campaign for the Soviet Union and its ultimate struggle in its “Great Patriotic War” against Fascism. He appeared at a now famous rally at New York’s Polo Grounds, in which the naïvely pro-communist sympathizers, film star Charlie Chaplin and singer Paul Robeson, were also involved. That event is depicted graphically in this opera in Act II, where Mikhoels is not only hailed by a Jewish working-class outpouring but saluted by an American Communist Party singing group (“The Branch Needs You”). He also attempts to recruit disaffected left-leaning American Jews for emigration to the Soviet Union, where they would supposedly reinforce settlement in the Jewish Autonomous Region, be better able to realize the socialist ideals for a “better life,” and set an example to the world—at the same time bolstering Soviet Yiddish culture.

After the war, Mikhoels acted as the representative and spokesman for returning Jewish Holocaust survivors and those who had been evacuated to Soviet Asia during the war. He lobbied for their proper resettlement and continued to be an advocate for Jewish culture. By that time, however, despite official party line denials, Stalin had come to perceive any thriving Jewish culture in the Soviet Union as a serious threat, and to view those who had had contact with the West during the war as irrevocably tainted—potential recruitments for espionage against the state. In 1948 Mikhoels was brutally murdered and his body savagely mutilated. The official government position ascribed the murder to criminal thugs or to an accident. Stalin disavowed any connection and even permitted a state funeral in Moscow with elaborate eulogies, which attracted thousands of Jewish mourners. It was, of course, a sham; Mikhoels’s tongue had been severed, probably as a warning.

It was subsequently established that the murder had been ordered by the Soviet secret police. Further, it is now suspected that Stalin was not only fully complicit in the cover-up (as acknowledged by his daughter in her book), but was almost certainly involved in the orders for the murder itself. The motivations behind Stalin’s self-perceived need to eliminate Mikhoels are still shrouded in some mystery, and they may be connected to Mikhoels’s association with the proposal to create a region for homeless Jews in the Crimea—a plan Stalin feared as a security risk.

Apart from discrepancies in factual details, it is generally accepted that the killing of Mikhoels symbolized the inauguration of a new, more intense phase of the suppression of Jewish culture and the organized murder of many of the most famous Jewish poets, authors, artists, and actors during the remaining years of Stalin’s life. In fact, Mikhoels was even accused posthumously in the Soviet press in connection with the infamous “Doctors’ Plot,” where he was called “a Jewish bourgeois nationalist” secretly involved with United States intelligence.

The final scene of the opera recalls Mikhoels’s funeral, as the Jews of Moscow not only mourn his passing but lament the demise of Jewish culture and the Yiddish language.

ACT I, SCENE 4 takes place in 1935 at a railroad station in Birobidzhan, the colloquial name (and capital city) of the Yiddish-speaking “Jewish Autonomous Region” (oblast) in the Khabarovsk territory in the Soviet Far East.  Settlement had begun there in 1928—in part as a Soviet alternative to Zionism, and in part from central Soviet concern for fortifying security in the far eastern regions out of growing fear of potential Japanese or Chinese incursions. During the period of this scene, i.e., after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32, the latter consideration had taken on increased significance for the U.S.S.R.  (Ultimately, the Birobidzhan project failed for a complex variety of reasons, not least of them the two waves of Stalinist purges, before and after the war.)

Mikhoels has come to Birobidzhan to address the populace there. He is met at the station at midnight by a young Korean telegraph operator, Sin-Cha, who has come from Vladivostok, the Russian port for refugees from the Japanese invasions. To his surprise, she speaks Yiddish, and explains that the Japanese atrocities against her people have led her to sympathy for the plight of the Jews. She has come to Birobidzhan to help the Jewish people build a new socialistic society of their own.  She tries unsuccessfully to persuade Mikhoels to remain there permanently as an example, as well as to serve as their leader. More optimistic than she is about the future of Jewry, he insists that he can better serve the cause centrally from Moscow. They are startled by distant flashes from Japanese and Chinese artillery, which interrupt their conversation.  Sin-Cha reminds Mikhoels that a welcoming committee awaits him in the dining hall. As he goes off, she remains alone to sing “The Lullaby of Birobidzhan.”

Adolphe deliberately employed a wide range of musical styles in the opera in order to express various emotions and historical developments—from optimistic projections for Soviet Jewish culture all the way to its demise. In the opening sections he incorporated a “feeling of folk music” in connection with theater-related moments, but he “gradually drained it from the score as the situation worsens for the Jews in the Soviet Union.”  By the final funeral scene, he has thus avoided all reference to Jewish musical material, suggesting its obliteration by the regime. Adolphe’s stated goal was to have the music reflect the disintegration of Jewish culture within Soviet life. In the scene recorded here—which involves a dramatic situation and the unusual phenomenon of a Yiddish-speaking Korean—he consciously quoted some strains of music with an Oriental flavor, which he integrated into the overall musical fabric. Adolphe also feels that much of his vocal writing throughout the opera reflects an overall cantorial background and approach.

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

SIN-CHA
Welcome to Birobidzhan. Sholem-aleykhem.

MIKHOELS
Sholem-aleykhem? Aleykhem-sholem. You look very un-Jewish in the light of the lamppost.

SIN-CHA
Yes. I am a Korean from Vladivostok—the “port of refuge ”Vladivostok.

MIKHOELS
And I am Solomon Mikhoels from Moscow and Riga.

SIN-CHA
My name is Sin-Cha.

MIKHOELS
What a beautiful name, a strange name, and yet you know Yiddish?

SIN-CHA
When not a guard or railroad greeter, I’m a simple worker, a telegraph operator.

MIKHOELS
And telegraph workers must know many languages.

SIN-CHA
Every citizen of Birobidzhan must know Yiddish, the mameloshn [mother tongue] of the Jewish people.

MIKHOELS
More than Yiddish, more than Hebrew, there are many tongues the Jews have spoken.

SIN-CHA
It will take some time, but I’ll learn them all. You’ve so many words and no place to put them. We’ll make a place here for them in Birobidzhan. The wanderings have stopped.

MIKHOELS
Sin-Cha, I’m thinking the Jewish people need more Koreans like you.

SIN-CHA
Don’t laugh at me, Solomon! Don’t make fun! The Jewish nation is a troubled tribe. There’s fire in the world. There’s madness around. Except here in Birobidzhan, for Stalin has thrown a band of steel and a ring of iron all around Birobidzhan. You’re safe here. I have come to Birobidzhan to protect your people, the Jewish nation, and to build a new world of socialism.

MIKHOELS
I won’t laugh if you tell me really why you’re here.

SIN-CHA
I’m here because I’m Korean. I know oppression, and I know the world’s burning. We needed a Birobidzhan when the Japanese came in their boots and salted our earth and torched all our ports and dealt an atrocity upon my Korean people. We needed a Birobidzhan when Hideyoshi’s men raided our temples, raped all our nuns, and sliced off their breasts so they could not nurse children. We needed a Birobidzhan when the Japanese gathered all our priests, gouged out their eyes, cut off their tongues, and shortened their fingers. We needed a Birobidzhan when Hideyoshi chained all our peasants to plows, took away all our rice and millet seed, forbid them their language, and made a slave race of my Korean people. We needed a Birobidzhan when our Chinese friends ransomed our leaders, when our Mongol allies crossed our border and looted our cities and sacked all our towns. That’s why we needed a Birobidzhan. And now, orphaned race, you have yours, Solomon Mikhoelovitch. Stalin has stopped time and given you a gift—the kind that comes once. Tell your remarkable people to take it!

MIKHOELS
Well, the Egyptians tossed us out of Eden. And the Spanish pushed us to the sea, it’s true. And the Cossacks became rowdy one evening and burnt a shtetl or two. But the world is my homeland, and socialism is the religion of Jews.

SIN-CHA
Every people must have its own territory, Solomon, or how can they save themselves? If you, the greatest Jewish actor, a Moscow city councilman, a friend of Stalin—if you came to settle, it would mean everything.

MIKHOELS
I prefer to live in a city with more than one restaurant.

SIN-CHA
More jokes. Tell me why you would not settle in Birobidzhan. You can speak freely. We’re in Siberia.

MIKHOELS
I see the world differently, Sin-Cha. I can do more good for my people in Moscow. I don’t share your feeling of doom.

SIN-CHA
I know this sounds mad, but if the fields of wheat should try to swallow you up, I’ll find a way, oh Mikhoels, to straddle the earth and hold your people high over my head.

MIKHOELS
Sin-Cha, you don’t know what you’re saying. You speak like a child.

SIN-CHA
If the forest trees should shoot up like arrows, I’ll find a way, oh Mikhoels, to bat them down if they’re aimed at your people.

MIKHOELS
Sin-Cha! Think what you’re saying! I hear a child speaking.

SIN-CHA
Stay with me, Solomon! Stay with me here in Birobidzhan, and we’ll find a way, oh Mikhoels, to rescue your people, the Jewish nation! I sense danger is near. Solomon, stay with me.

MIKHOELS
Sin-Cha, think, Sin-cha, what you’re saying. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Sin-Cha, my mad one. I’m tempted to laugh; I’m tempted to cry—you’re just like a child.

SIN-CHA
Yet a feeling inside me keeps telling me no harm shall come. No harm shall come to the Jewish nation as long as I walk on this earth, as long as I’m walking on this earth. Don’t be angry, Solomon. This is a feeling I have. I can’t stop my feelings. [Flashes of light are seen on the horizon.]

MIKHOELS
What’s that!

SIN-CHA
We are not supposed to say, but it’s the Japanese fighting the Chinese guerrillas. Actually it’s the hired Chinese lackeys fighting their own Chinese brothers. How can anyone fight against his people

MIKHOELS
Sin-Cha, you’re so very beautiful.

SIN-CHA
And they say, Solomon, you’re so very wise.

MIKHOELS
Oh, let me not be mad. Not mad! Sweet heaven! [laughts]

SIN-CHA
Oh, they are waiting for you in the dining hall. Please hurry. That way!

MIKHOELS
Farewell, Cordelia.

SIN-CHA
Sholem-aleykhem. Sholem-aleykhem. “Lullaby of Birobidzhan”

Cradling your toy rabbit you call socialism, Jewish child, you cough through the night.
Now breathe easy, the chase is over.
You’re safe from the world that’s trying to get at you.
The murderers and drunkards, the pharaohs and Führers!
I won’t let them near you!
I can’t let them touch you.
I’ll fight like a tigress to keep them away.
So sleep soundly, my child.
Don’t think of the hands and knives poised over your cradle, just dream of your rabbit, my Karl Marx child, a Red Army of ten million stands under the stars, between you and your nightmares.
Now trust us, my child.
The pogromists will never get at you!
We’ll fight like bears to keep them at bay.
So sleep with your rabbit, your socialist rabbit,
O my child, my precious child, my Jewish child, my Karl Marx child.
Sleep and grow stronger because someday, darling, your children will liberate mine.
Sleep and dream sweetly.
Just remember, my darling, to tell your children’s children that once, when the whole world was on fire, a girl named Sin-Cha watched over you.

SERGEI
October’s coming. I thought you knew that!


 

Credits

Composer: Bruce Adolphe

Length: 20:49
Genre: Opera

Performers: Erie Mills , Soprano;  Gerard Schwarz, Conductor;  Seattle SymphonyNathaniel Watson, Baritone

Date Recorded: 05/01/2000
Venue: Batsyr University Chapel (B), Seattle, Washington
Engineer: Swanson, Al
Assistant Engineer: Stern, Adam
Project Manager: Lee, Richard

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Norruth Music Inc. (Dist: MMB Music)

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