Review by Barry L. Cohen in magazine then called The Connoisseur's Rack (v.2 #1, unpaginated)
Leonard LEHRMAN: New World, An Opera About What Columbus Did to the "Indians". Libretto by Joel Shatzky [& composer], with Mark Wolff, Ronald Edwards, Ivan Thomas, Robert Rose, Benjamin Spierman (also stage[directo]r), Peter Ludwig, Shirley Perkins, Helene Williams, Ellen Davidson, Barbara Barnes, Erika Lee, John Johnson. Performed at the Donnell Library Center Auditorium, New York City, February 9, 1993.
Leonard Lehrman is an amazingly prolific composer of music in many forms and with a variety of forces, though the human voice appears to be his favorite instrument. He is credited with no less than 108 works of which seven are operas, five are musicals and four are cantatas. Many of the remaining opuses are song settings to poems and other texts. Among his many accomplishments is the completion of Marc Blitzstein's Tales of Malamud for which he received the very first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season." In New York he serves as Director of the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus. And his activities are by no means limited to the Big Apple, as he has earned the title of Laureate Conductor of the Jewish Music Theatre of Berlin, where he was the first Jew to conduct a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, as well as having had his works performed in 12 U.S. states, nine European countries, the Bahamas, the USSR and Israel. The list goes on.
So it was with understandable curiosity that we sought out a performance of his opera about Columbus when it was put on at the Donnell Library here in Manhattan. The somewhat vague impression we had that Lehrman writes neat little chamber operas was quickly dispelled, as New World turns out to be quite an ambitious project with well-rounded and geuninely human characters, musical leitmotivs for each (a la Wagner), big choruses and a full orchestral setting (at least on paper). In this case, Lehrman's grand scheme had to be minimalized by rather sparing conditions, to wit, no set to speak of and, except for certain primitive instruments being sounded by cast members as part of the action, he alone playing the bulk of the instrumental parts on a synthesizer with the assistance of a percussionist.
Having said that, let's report that there actually were blessings to these conditions. For one thing, despite the occasional overmiking that rendered instrumental climaxes ear-shattering, every sung and spoken word could be clearly heard in this rather comfortable, acoustically balanced and intimate auditorium that we were visiting for the first time. The lighting, by Scott Genzer, was adequate if not particularly atmospheric and the costumes (no credit given) appropriately suggested the vast cultural differences between the Indians and the Spaniards. In a word, we had little opportunity to miss anything.
Joel Shatzky's libretto conforms to the current notion that the history most of us learned in school is all wrong. Columbus is seen as a pompous emissary of the Old World while the Taino Indians are viewed as honorable, gentle, trusting and gullible people who are, in the end, tricked into slavery. The discovery of gold on their island precipitates the greed of the Spaniards. Whether this fact is historically accurate or not, it serves here as the familiar raison d'etre of Spanish conquest. In tune with the drama, Lehrman avoids anything like a parade of pretty arias; his musical structure is well thought out and he quite convincingly develops contrapuntal ideas which increase in density as the piece reaches its tragic denouement.
Among the outstanding Donnell performers was Helene Williams, who sang the quite different roles of Queen Isabella (castanets and all) and a Taino woman. Ivan Thomas, as Rodrigo, a black sailor, who[m] we have seen elsewhere, continues to impress us as a sincere performer with a rich baritone voice. Mark Wolff, as Kaytawari, a Taino shaman, delivered both a meaty dramatic performance as well as some excellent basso [sic: tenor] singing. Also good were Shirley Perkins, asYuisa, Peter Ludwig as Guarionex and Robert Ross as Luiz de Torres, a converted Jew who thinks the Indians may be the lost tribe of Israel.
Unfortunately, we have some reservations about the crucial role. Ronald Edwards' tenor was a bit on the thin side and his characterization of Columbus struck us as too much the mean little twerp rather than what was really needed here--the portrayal of a self-righteous, egocentric and cruel soldier of fortune. It was all there in the lines and in the music, no holds barred. And there were also times when it seemed the Indians were played too wisely to render it believeable they would ever capitulate to a band of such small men. Perhaps this was the effect produced by intimate staging, and perhaps this opera would have a different look to it if [it] were produced on a large stage with bold costumes (e.g., Columbus' men carrying formidable weapons) and a real set.
Although no credits are given for "research," the information included in the programs that Lehrman and his staff produced suggests that, indeed, much effort had gone into the collection of new information and historical reconstruction. For example, we became acquainted with the Taino Indians who occupied the Island of Guanahani, now one of the Bahamas, upon which Columbus landed. The programs which were distributed were informative and more than adequate substitutes for formal librettos. However, there was one peculiar omission; nowhere does the name of the librettist appear. Why not? It appears on the programs printed up for other stages. [N.B.: The librettist had requested the excision of a rap number, on grounds of political correctness, which would have destroyed the musical structure; when it was not excised, he requested removal of his name from the program.]
Earlier, for example, Lehrman had put on the opera at Heckscher Park in Huntington, L.I. We received a tape of that performance. The purpose may have been that of self-documentation and nothing more, for our copy only suggests the depth of the piece with much of the textual and musical subtlely lost in this poorly miked recording. Whether the Donnell performance or some other was ever recorded is unknown to us. Anyone interested may write Dr. Leonard Lehrman at 10 Nob Hill Gate, Roslyn, NY 11576 or phone him at 516-626-0238.