Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

A Symposium in Seattle: Jewish Opera
AUFBAU 62:4 Feb. 16, 1996 p13
[original title: Jewish Opera - in Seattle?]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
February 12, 1996
2271 words [reprinted & embellished in The Opera Journal 29:2 June 1996 pp.56-61]

"Music Librarians, unite! You've nothing to lose but your strings and winds - and brasses - and percussion - and all of your funding!" So began the Battle Cry of the Administration of the Music Library Association, premiered to laughter and applause February 9 at the 65th annual meeting of that organization, held this year for the first time in the beautiful city of Seattle.

For the third straight year, the convention's Jewish Music Roundtable featured a speaker: in 1994 in Kansas City it had been author/editor Irene Heskes (Passport to Jewish Music ); in 1995 in Atlanta, conductor/musicologist Joshua Jacobson (Music of the Holocaust). This year, in the opera & symphony capital of the northwest, it was my turn. I spoke on Jewish Opera.

[The City With Open Arms

The city itself opened its arms to us: conductor Gerard Schwarz gave the keynote address; University of Washington Professor JoAnn Taricani followed with a delightful presentation of "The Selling of Seattle in Song, 1890-1910," with examples sung by soprano Carmen Pelton, accompanied by Robert Morgan.

Earlier in the week, the excellent soprano Elizabeth Hynes had presented a full recital as part of the Belle Arte Concerts series in Lee Theater in Bellevue - an eastern suburb of Seattle that is itself Washington's fourth largest city. Accompanied with surprising timidity by Seattle Opera principal coach/pianist Dean Williamson, Ms. Hynes stuck to a fairly traditional program, ranging from the extraordinary "verlassene Magdelein" (one of four Hugo Wolf Lieder) through Puccini (three songs, an aria, and an encore), Lehar, Heuberger, Copland, Barber, and a rather tame "Ah, perfido" of Beethoven.

Earlier the same day (Sunday, February 4), the Northwest Chamber Orchestra sponsored a chamber music concert at the Seattle Art Museum, featuring slightly underrehearsed Faure, Ravel, and Debussy music for four hands, violin & piano, and piano quartet. Jonathan & Stephanie Leon Shames, pianists, and string players Page Smith, Ilkka Talvi, and Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi made this largely a family affair. Both concerts were well received by nearly sold-out houses.

Tuesday night, the eagerly-awaited opening of Pacific Northwest Ballet's all-Balanchine program was the performance highlight of the week - both the symphony and the opera being dark. The evening lived up to the company's reputation as keeper of the Balanchine. Two stagings by his disciple Francia Russell, "Chaconne" and "The Four Temperaments," featured music by Gluck (mostly from Orpheus and Eurydice ) and Hindemith, with outstanding soloists Jeffrey Stanton and Patricia Barker in the former and piano soloist Allan Dameron in the latter. The free-for-all "Who Cares?" with Hershey Kay's arrangements of 16 different Gershwin tunes was staged by Susan Hendl and Christine Redpath with outstanding Broadway set & costume designs by Tony Walton and Patricia Zipprodt. Particularly stunning was (Long Islander) Louise Nadeau in "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and partnered with Benjamin Houk in "The Man I Love."

Are Gershwin's works Jewish? And are some or any of them operas? This was one of the questions considered in my talk.] [A fuller version of the talk, beginning here, appeared in The Opera Journal 29:2 June 1996 pp56-51.]

What Is Jewish Opera?

The question "What is Jewish Opera?" breaks down into two questions: 1) "What is an opera?" and
2) - which also breaks down into two questions:

  1. "Who is a Jew?" and
  2. "What is a Jewish subject?"

There are many possible answers to the first question. The simplest and most recent was given by Bernard Holland in The New York Times Jan. 28, 1996: "a work containing music and words that one puts on in an opera house."

At the final Central Opera Service convention in 1989, the composer Stanley Silverman described the difference between opera and musical theater in words he had used at the very first meeting of the National Opera Institute in the late 1970s: "Opera is an octave higher." Which is true, to some extent: a soprano in a musical may sing mezzo in an opera, and a soprano in an opera may be considered too "operatic" for a musical. Then a Dawn Upshaw comes along and records "I Wish It So" from Marc Blitzstein's Juno, which ran as a musical but is cataloged as an opera - not to mention his Regina which had better reviews as a musical but more success as an opera - and the whole world goes crossover-crazy.

There are boundaries between genres that different composers seek to delineate or to blur, or both. Some composers specify which of their works are to be called operas, which operettas, which musicals, and so on. Others don't. I used to. But then two of my five "musicals" were produced by opera organizations - Superspy!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical and E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman by, respectively, the Center for Contemporary Opera and the National Opera Association - so I give up. Inclusion is generally better than exclusion, I think. And since some of the most dramatically theatrical pieces I have ever seen were originally cantatas or oratorios, like the Judas Maccabeus staged as though being performed i n a concentration camp (in a 1980 production of the Bayerischer Staatsoper in Munich), I decided to include stageworthy works on Jewish themes on those genres too. My list [still in progress] thus runs to over 1600 items.

Two organizations which co-existed in the early 1980s each took on the task of determining what constituted Jewish repertory: Jewish Opera at the Y (1980-85), founded by Hadassah Binder Markson, and the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin (1983-86), founded by me. The former decided that works on Jewish subjects like Jonah by Jack Beeson could be included, even if the composer was not Jewish. The latter decided that works by Jewish composers, even if not on Jewish subjects, could be included. Thus, the politics of inclusion.

An ironically valuable source in terms of Jewish identity is the Nazis' 1941 Deutsche Lexikon der Juden in der Musik . Numerous Jewish composers of hundreds of German operettas disappeared from the stage during the Third Reich, only to reappear with a vengeance after the war. Many of the works of Paul Abraham, Ralph Benatzky, Leo Fall, Leon Jessel, Emmerich Kalman, Oscar Straus, and others retain their place in the repertory of provincial German theaters, even though we may never have heard of most of them over here.

There's also John Barnett, a cousin of Meyerbeer, who in 1834 first introduced recitative into English opera; and Isaac Nathan, the collaborator with Byron on his Hebrew Melodies, who became known as the father of Australian opera.

Most Prolific: Offenbach, Halevy

The most prolific Jewish composer for the stage, Jacques Offenbach, never wrote on a Jewish subject. The most prolific Jewish composer of opera, Fromenthal Halevy, did. Actually, in sheer numbers he has been surpassed in our own time by Seymour Barab and Martin Kalmanoff. But his La Juive may be called the first Jewish grand opera. Vincent La Selva conducted it in Central Park a few years ago - I'll never forget that shaking scenery which prompted an audience member to summarize the persecution that ends Act I: "The wind blew the church down, and they blamed the Jews!" Halvy also wrote Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew) which the Nazis mistranslated as Der ewige Jude, and a lovely little opera called Noe which was completed after his death by his student and son-in-law, who was not Jewish: Georges Bizet.
(Nor were Saint-Saens or Ravel, by the way, other sources to the contrary notwithstanding.)

Some of the Nazi identifications are wrong, though. Max Bruch is identified with "Kol Nidre," but was in fact not Jewish. Neither was Mendelssohn, except in the Nazis' racial sense: his father had converted to Christianity before Felix was born. And some of the mistakes are really funny:
the musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt is identified as a professor at "Havard" University in "New York"(!). But as has been pointed out by Eero Richmond of the American Music Center, many composers who are Jewish do not wish to be so identified - any more than do Hispanics, gays, etc., etc. So that goes along with the delineation and blurring of boundaries.

I generally favor inclusion, both of people and of subjects. The only cases where I would favor exclusion (and even this was disputed by some [non-Jewish] members of the Roundtable) would be works where Jews are treated in a consciously anti-Semitic or non-Jewish way. For example, there are several operatic treatments of Salome, which is a New Testament, not an Old Testament, story. Richard Strauss's Salome opera depicts five Jews in a very caricatured, some would say anti-Semitic way. Thus, just because Jews are characters in an opera doesn't, to my way of thinking, mean the work is a Jewish opera.

Likewise, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat quotes frequently, at least in the production I saw by a British school group in Berlin, from the music of the same composer's Jesus Christ Superstar, clearly communicating, I think, that the figure of Joseph is seen as a precursor to that of Jesus. It's thus not included in my list. And yet this work is staged by n umerous Jewish Community Centers. Maybe they exorcise or circumvent or circum-cise [sic] the Christology, thereby rendering it Jewish? (I remember when I told Lazar Weiner in 1982 that Elie Siegmeister was writing two new Jewish operas, he said, "You mean he's been circumcised? I hope they didn't cut off too much!" And yet neither Weiner's son, the composer Yehudi Wyner, nor anyone else on the Brandeis faculty, for example, seems to have much interest in Jewish music these days.)

Anton Rubinstein, the Russian composer of Jewish origin who composed numerous Biblical operas, also wrote one called Christus. It's not in my list. A borderline case is the Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice, which has been called anti-Semitic, and has been made into an opera at least three times. Is Ed Dixon's Shylock anti-Semitic?

I don't know. [Stravinsky's Abraham and Isaac is, in my opinion. I've put it in brackets. And I have not included John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer, which was condemned by the Klinghoffer family.]

I've chosen to concentrate on the composers, but one could also focus on librettists. Lorenzo da Ponte was Jewish; does that make Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni Jewish operas? (Not unless the operas Richard Strauss wrote with Stefan Zweig are also considered.) There's also an interesting intersection with African American culture: America's leading "Negro" poet, as he was known at his death in 1967, Langston Hughes, collaborated with numerous Jewish composers including Kurt Weill, Jan Meyerowitz, Elie Siegmeister, and David Amram. As related in Amram's autobiography, Vibrations (1968, p. 443), Hughes confided why he felt so comfortable in those collaborations: "You see, my grandfather was Jewish."

How much of Broadway is Jewish, and how much of it belongs in a list of Jewish operas? Cole Porter, the most prominent Gentile Broadway composer of his day, once confided that he had discovered the secret of success in writing for Broadway: "I write Jewish music." Incidentally, while in Seattle I discovered in a private collection and brought back to New York the long-lost manuscript of Marc Blitzstein's Cole Porter-Noel Coward parody, "Fraught," first performed by Carol Channing in her debut in 1941.

The ties between the Yiddish Theater of Abraham Goldfaden, Second Avenue, and Broadway, have been explored extensively, especially by Jack Gottlieb, current president of the American Society for Jewish Music. A complete catalog of Yiddish operatic holdings by YIVO is not available, but an excellent representative collection is that of the Esther Rachel Kaminsky Museum, established in Vilna in 1926, and just shipped to New York last November. Chana Mlotek's catalog contains 532 items (including 198 operettas and musical plays) in that collection, including many arrangements. Yiddish parodies of Verdi, Gilbert & Sullivan, and so on deserve a separate list.

Jewish operas and works for the musical stage that are on my list often draw on folk and cantorial themes. Sometimes the Jewish element is one of exoticism. Sometimes the Gentile is the exotic in the Jewish context. Sometimes the enemy is antisemitism. Sometimes a kind of philosemitism can be just as unpleasant. Playing for audiences who find "you Jews are so musical" helps one feel what it is to be black and to be expected to "have rhythm." Performing Jewish music in Germany, as I have done regularly now for 16 years, since the premiere in Heidelberg of my anti-war feminist Chanukah opera, Hannah, makes one recall what is known as the 614th commandment: Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory in a judenfrei Germany!

Assimilation as a tragic element is the essence of many Jewish works, including my opera Sima, and what has been called the Jewish national opera, Fiddler on the Roof! But I think the most important characteristic of many Jewish works is the emblematic use of the Jew as a representative of the human condition. Thus the particular is related to the universal, and the experience multi- and cross-cultural.

Librarians in the audience asked, "How can we get more of these works performed?" "Maybe someone should ask Gerard Schwarz, 'How come you never conduct any Jewish operas - in Seattle, or elsewhere, for that matter?'" Maybe someone should.

The roundtable concluded with the communal singing of the "Shir La-Shalom" in my English translation, which had inspired Gerhard Bronner's German translation that appeared in this paper in memory of Itzak Rabin. [Hebrew University music librarian Atara Kotliar, visiting the U.S. from Jerusalem, promised to bring a copy to the author of the original Hebrew lyrics, Ya'akov Rotblitt, whose daughter attends her school.]

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