Politics & Opera 2014-15
(c) 2015 by Leonard J. Lehrman
New Music Connoisseur, Fall 2015, v. 21 #2, pp. 6-9
[bracketed portions & hypertext links omitted from print version]

Sheldon Harnick Festival

"Politics & Poker" from the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello has always been a hit of every show it's performed in. It certainly was at the June 5, 2004 Oceanside Chorale 80th birthday celebration for Sheldon Harnick, and was again at the York Theatre's 5-part Harnick "Muftis" (semi-staged in street clothes) Festival Jan. 17-Mar. 9, 2014, celebrating his 90th birthday Apr. 30, 2014. But the interaction of politics and opera, through history down to the present, has been much rockier.

The York Theatre's Harnick series began with a 4-performer revue put together by director Robert Brink, "A World to Win," much enjoyed at its Jan. 19 matinee. It included gems from the aforementioned Fiorello as well as other successful collaborations with Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds) and brilliant cabaret numbers Harnick wrote himself, from "Boston Beguine" to "Merry Minuet."

The series concluded with the almost-successful Bock-Harnick Tenderloin, restoring the lovely female duet "I Wonder What It's Like [to Be with a Man]" which had been cut in the original. Caught the final performance the evening of Mar. 9. Former Bel Canto Opera tenor ingenu Mark Jacoby made his Muftis debut as the minister, a part originally (mistakenly, Harnick admitted) overwritten for star Maurice Evans, but now scaled back a bit.

In between came (the evening of Feb. 22) the not-so-successful collaboration with Ira Wallach & David Baker, Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, reminding this writer of the contemporaneously initially unsuccessful Candide and the even less successful Reuben Reuben of Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein, respectively; preceded by two works with Harnick's own music: Malpractice Makes Perfect (Feb. 16 matinee), adapted from Molière's Le Médecin Malgré Lui (one of several French-inspired Harnick creations, including translations of Carmen and Chabrier's L'éducation manquée) and starring the incredible mimic Christina Bianco (catch her on YouTube, as millions have!); and the most interesting of all: Dragons, a longtime project that could indeed be called an opera, based on a cryptic 1944 anti-Stalinist play by Soviet writer Evgeny Schwarz.

Harnick had been wrestling with the political implications of this one for decades. The wonderful finale, "Take Care of One Another" [(click here for the June 5, 2004 performance], was originally preceded by 10 pages of didactic dialog, that Harnick reduced to two pages by writing a brand-new song, a title song in fact, for this production, to be sung by the tyrannical Mayor, acknowledging the authoritarian tendencies in everyone. (My piano teacher Olga Heifetz, a refugee from the Nazis, used to say: "To be a conductor, you have to have a little bit of Hitler inside you.") Attended the matinee Feb. 2 when it was sung by William Youmans, and regretted only having missed what was reported to have been an incredible performance the night before, when Harnick substituted for the ailing actor by stepping into the role himself!

I had the great privilege of interviewing Sheldon Harnick Sept. 2, 2014 in the Jewish Opera class I was teaching at Hebrew Union College, where we discussed the question as to whether Fiddler on the Roof may be called an opera. The lyricist initally demurred, but then acknowledged that Joel Mandelbaum, also attending the class, had a point in insisting that a work of such seriousness and weight had every right to be classified that way.

Ukraine Crisis

Compositions by Mandelbaum, and 16 other composers, were featured in my Feb. 25 presentation of musical treatments of S. Ansky's 1920 play The Dybbuk, the second of my five Jewish Opera lectures at Community Church, Jan. 20-May 13, 2015. Here too, politics played a role. Jerrold Morgulas, who was also present, explained how he had a production of his opera The Dybbuk all lined up in Moscow at the Vakhtangov Theater (named for the director of the original Moscow production of the play), but the current crisis in Ukraine had frozen all sources of funding. Anastasiya Roytman and Helene Williams sang beautiful excerpts from Morgulas and Mandelbaum, respectively. The lecture [(viewable here)] featured excerpts as well from operas on the subject by David Tamkin, Ludovico Rocca, and Shulamit Ran--Between Two Worlds, with a very moving libretto by Charles Kondek, whose libretti for operas by Harold Blumenfeld, Hugo Weisgall and Gerald Cohen are some of the best written recently. (In a phone interview, Kondek mentioned he and Ran will have a new opera on Anne Frank produced at Indiana in 2016 and Atlanta in 2017. I tried for years to get him a commission to work on an opera I had interested him in writing with me about Alger Hiss, but politics interfered with that too.)

The Ukraine crisis also affected the reception to two impressive productions conducted by Putin supporter (and supportee) Valery Gergiev: Rodion Shchedrin's: The Enchanted Wanderer by the visiting Maryinsky Theater of St. Petersburg at BAM Jan. 14, 2015, and the interestingly paired Iolanta of Peter I. Tchaikovsky with Béla Bartók's only opera: Bluebeard's Castle, seen at the Met Feb. 3, 2015. Pickets inside and outside both houses protested the current Russian government's attitude toward homosexuality (somewhat behind the times, to say the least) and annexation of the Crimea (which had in fact historically been Russian, until Soviet Premier Khrushchëv, originally from Ukraine, ceded it to his homeland in an effort to quell internal political strife).

But the capacity audiences responded warmly to the very dedicated music-making, especially the lively Anna Netrebko in the title role of the Tchaikovsky and the fearless (and in one scene totally nude) Nadja Michael as Judith in the Bartók. The two works were written less than 20 years apart (1892, and 1911), and the idiomatic vocal and rich instrumental writing common to both makes for as much complementarity as contrast.

Shchedrin's work, based on Leskov (known best to opera audiences as the author on whose work Shostakovich's controversial opera Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk was based) had been commissioned and premiered in concert by Lorin Maazel in 2002, and was then staged by the Maryinsky, which brought it to NY for the first time. Like most of his other works based on Russian classics (the ballets The Little Humpbacked Horse and Anna Karenina, the opera Dead Souls--which also engendered political controversy at its 1988 US premiere when Sarah Caldwell announced that she didn't have enough money to pay the visiting Russian performers, and Senator Ted Kennedy had the State Department come to the rescue!), this one is eclectic and full of music lending itself to dance (the composer's wife, after all, was the prima ballerina of our time, Maya Plisetskaya), and Kristina Kapustinskaya as the Gypsy did not disappoint vocally or choreographically. The staging may not have been optimal, the sea of reeds reminding one of the less-than-satisfying recent set of Prince Igor at the Met, and a cast change in the role of the king provided competence rather than confidence. (This was true of the central role of the king in the Met's Iolanta as well.) But overall, it was still good to hear this work, full of soul-searching low-voiced choral sounds, which repays repeated listening on the well-produced recent Naxos CD set of Shchedrin music that includes it. As confirmed by the liner notes, though, the English title is somewhat misleading. The Russian word otcharovannyi certainly does not mean "enchanted" in the sense of "Some Enchanted Evening." "Bewitched" (or even "bothered" or "bewildered") would be a better term to describe the central character, a monk meant to represent the tormented Russian soul.

3 at Santa Fe Opera (2014)

Director Michael Gieleta was the force behind an equally interesting pairing, in Santa Fe Opera's first production of a double bill since 1993: Mozart's Impresario, considerably augmented and embellished, and Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, sung in the original Russian (seen Aug. 7, 2014). The reason for the French title is that the opera was originally produced in Paris, where Stravinsky was in exile, as were the Ballets Russes. Mozart's very short backstage dueling-sopranos sketch was fleshed out to include all the singers who would then take roles in the Stravinsky. The effect was largely positive, with Erin Morley singing a gorgeous titular nightingale, but some of the conceits were a bit strained, including a hilarious Romanian-accented tenor who then somehow loses his accent to sing the Fisherman in the second half, and a soprano-belted Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni(???).

Also interesting, but only partially successful, was director Stephen Wadsworth's production of Beethoven's Fidelio set in an unspecified concentration camp (though probably Flossenburg rather than Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen). Diminutive-sized but big-voiced Alex Penda was triumphant as Leonore (she was to return in 2015 as Salome--something to see, and hear, judging from preview trailers on "Unveiling Salome"), with a very sympathetic prisoner's chorus and Paul Groves as Florestan. But while throwing the jailor's family (Rocco, Jacquino and Marzelline) into chains at the end may have been consistent with the director's vision, it hardly seemed true to Beethoven's sympathetic musical treatment of them. I interviewed Wadsworth briefly after the performance Aug. 12, and subsequently on the phone [after mentioning his work in my Holocaust Operas lecture].

He admitted he'd been carrying around the "baggage" of wanting to do a stage piece on the Holocaust for over 25 years, having started one with Leonard Bernstein shortly after their collaboration on A Quiet Place. Joan Peyser (not always the most reliable of sources) quoted him as saying: "Lenny said it was to be about the tragic nature of history, as it relates to this century, like war as a fact of life, and how dangerous it is that man needs to express himself and socialize himself in this way." But the project was abandoned. No music for it was ever written, and the librettist is now unsure of what shape the material will take, if any - opera, play, or something else that remains to be seen.

Most interesting at Santa Fe 2014, though also somewhat frustrating, was the US premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen, sung in Mandarin and Cantonese (seen Aug. 8, 2014). The 38-year-old Chinese-American composer, who granted me a very friendly telephone interview Feb. 27, 2015, is no stranger to politics in his four operas to date, especially An American Soldier, written in 2011 with libretto by David Henry Hwang for the National Opera in Washington, about a Chinese American who enlisted and then committed suicide after being hazed and mistreated by fellow troops in Afghanistan, all of whom were convicted but given "a slap on the wrist." His Dr. Sun Yat-sen was written for Warren Mok, Director of the Hong Kong Opera, who performed the title role in a production there, some clips of which are viewable on YouTube, and was scheduled to do so again at Santa Fe, but withdrew suddenly "for business reasons." I told the composer that no one believed that and, applauding the power of his anti-tyrannical choruses, reminded him of how Belgium got its independence from Spain when a revolution started after a performance there in 1830 of Auber's opera La Muette de Portici. Insisting that his choruses were actually directed against the ruling Chinese dynasty of the early 20th century and not against the Communists, he nevertheless had to concede that in the minds of some bureaucrats rebellion is rebellion, and the Beijing government's motivation for cancelling the production scheduled there and putting pressure on Mr. Mok to withdraw could clearly have been the fear of a revival of Tiananmen Square-type tensions and demonstrations. "But what am I? Just a composer!" he said smilingly. and a "grateful" one too, as Joseph Dennis, a second-year apprentice, learned the role and sang it about as well as any non-Chinese singer could. The rest of the cast was racially mixed, with soprano Nancy Allen Lundy a standout. One looks forward to his new opera in progress, Paradise Interrupted, excerpts from which were previewed at the Temple of Dendur March 21. A full production was to premiere at Spoleto in 2015, and the Lincoln Center Festival in 2016.

[More Politics vs Opera

In dealing with the subject of opera and politics today, one would be remiss in not mentioning the outrage and protest engendered by the Met's production of John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer, with its allegedly anti-Semitic libretto by the (formerly Jewish) Anglican priest Alice Goodman. I will not comment on the work, as I have not seen it. But its reception recalls that of two works which did affect me, very strongly: The Opera Company of Boston's 1964 production of Luigi Nono's Intolleranza, initially suppressed by pressure from the John Birch Society because the composer was a Communist, was my first exposure both to words by Mayakovsky and Brecht (whose poems I later set to music), and to photographs and footage of the death camps. And while the Met now decries denigrating a work one has not experienced, that did not stop Opera News from publishing in their Nov. 2001 issue a diatribe by the late Joel Honig, based on his attendance at a symposium, against an opera he had not bothered to attend: my completion of Marc Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti. The result was what the editors themselves called "a storm of protest" letters, some of which they printed, others of which appeared in this magazine, NMC, in print and online.

When asked whether Klinghoffer should have been done or not, I side with the ACLU in maintaining that the best cure for "bad speech" is "more speech." And having studied (and written) numerous Jewish operas, I can think of a number of them the Met really should consider mounting, as more than one audience member December 23rd was heard to say, "to make up for Klinghoffer!"]

Other Recent Operas

Other operas seen recently worthy of praise, or at least mention, without political connotations, include the marvelous production attended Dec. 14, 2014 at Manhattan School of Music (performed by students and alumni) of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth (a through-composed work comparable in quality to Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and significantly superior to Roussel's and Dukas's works of the same period), with impressive alum Robert Mellon in the title role, directed by Dona Vaughn in French (the libretto's original language) for the first time in the US; and seven mini-operas by six women presented Dec. 22 at Opera America by The Aviva Players in memory of their late co-founder, Dorothy Indenbaum. These included Lou Rodgers' Manhattan Mother Goose; Patricia Leonard's My Dearest Friend based on the correspondence of Abigail & John Adams; Anne Phillips' Plots on a delightful libretto by Robert F. Benjamin, with the composer at the piano; Julie Mandel's The Pious Cat after I.L. Peretz; a scene from Alla Borzova's The Wedding Gift of Pirate Granny sung by the composer, among others; and two works by Mira J. Spektor (Ruth Whitman): The Passion of Lizzie Borden and Ladies of Romance, collaborations with Ruth Whitman and June Siegel, respectively. Outstanding performers included feline mezzo Darcy Dunn, deadpan baritone Charles Coleman, solid soprano Karen Jolicoeur (sportingly singing mezzo), amusing tenor Brian Hunter reprising the final Spektor piece he had sung the previous April 4th on a Musicians Club concert at Liederkranz Hall, and steadfast piano accompanist Mimi Stern-Wolfe.

Marion Cotillard as Joan of Arc

Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher is more of an oratorio than an opera, but its staging at Avery Fisher Hall June 10-13, 2015 by Côme de Bellescize with today's leading French actress in the title role and the New York Philharmonic and New York Choral Artists conducted by Alan Gilbert was a major musical-dramatic event, worthy of coverage in this article. In a symposium at the David Rubenstein Atrium June 1, the director responded to a question (from me) regarding the political controversiality of the work, both at its 1938 Basel premiere and today. Initially commissioned and performed by the Russian Jewish actress Ida Rubinstein, the very Catholic text by Paul Claudel directly addressed anti-Semitism, especially in one passage: "The Jewish people await the Messiah, as we await the King, our Lord." Today, however, Joan has become a symbolic rallying point for the anti-immigrant Radical Right in France. A production like this, with its satirical depiction of Joan's judges as animals, and her steadfast assertion that her greatest weapon is love, stands up to those false claims. In 1966 I asked Darius Milhaud (Honegger's fellow member of the French "Six") how he felt, as a Jew, setting to music so many of Claudel's texts. He said it never occurred to him to be bothered by that. Watching this magnificent performance of this work, and studying its history, one can see that Claudel was among those French Catholics who saw themselves as protectors of French tradition, and that included both dissidents and Jews.

Leonard Lehrman's opera Hannah, called by Joel Mandelbaum "the quintessential Jewish opera," received a glowing review in its US premiere Dec. 23, 2014, from [former NMC contributor] Jonathan Dzik, posted at http://soundwordsight.com/?p=1384. In memory of Leonard's mother Emily R. Lehrman (Mar. 1, 1923-Jan. 13, 2015), his Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus will perform concerts Oct. 18 & Nov. 1 in Freeport & Roslyn, and the US premiere of the English translation she co-wrote with him of Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka at Queens College Nov. 22.