Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 65:13 June 25, 1999 p. 13
Reviving Great Jewish Opera
Seeking the Soul
1520 words [cuttable to 1047]
by Leonard Lehrman
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

Seven years ago, [when] Richard Marshall's Center for Contemporary Opera (CCO) united with Hadassah Markson--formerly the producer of Jewish Opera at the Y (1979-1985)--to present the orchestral premieres of two operas based on stories by Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) [(Idiots First and Karla), the New York Times reviewer erroneously listed the second performance as taking place in the evening rather than the afternoon, and many patrons and operagoers came at the wrong time, missing it altogether]. [(It was the success of those operas in their 1978 New York City premiere that made possible the composition of later Malamud operas, since the author was so delighted by them that he retrieved the musical rights to Angel Levine back from the movies.)]

This year, the Center gave a sumptuous production to one of the final Y efforts of Mrs. Markson (who is now the Center's president), another Malamud opera, commissioned from Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), his final opera: Angel Levine[, and sent out notices listing the wrong month for the performance, thereby losing much of the potential audience].

[Nevertheless,] the two performances at the Kaye Playhouse were well- attended and well-received, and included the world premiere of an additional one-act opera, Sorry, Wrong Number (after Lucille Fletcher's radio play of the same name) by Jack Beeson, who had yet another world premiere at Merkin Hall just two weeks earlier: Practice in the Art of Elocution, an "operina" after Frances Putnam Pogle's 1901 Standard American Speaker and Entertainer [and poems by Rupert Brooke, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley][.

Elocution is a very entertaining piece for soprano and acting pianist, and was] performed with aplomb by Lynne Vardaman with [the comically bibulous though otherwise somewhat reticent] Marc Peloquin at the piano. The work formed the climactic conclusion of a recital that began with Arnold Schoenberg's Four Songs, opus 2[--Mahlerian songs sung with ghostly demeanor but lacking in the necessary voluptuous vocal sound, with pitch wavering as indefinitely as if to remind one of (the much later) Pierrot Lunaire]. Olivier Messiaen's "Poemes pour Mi" were bravely gone through, along with the world premiere of Three Songs of Oscar Wilde [infelicitously set] by Eric Samuelson[--the word "furled," for example, was sung as two syllables, despite its (supposedly) rhyming with "world."]

An Abundance of Talent

Sorry, Wrong Number, on the other hand, though also a world premiere, served as a curtain-raiser to the weightier Angel Levine. [This is actually the play's second operatic treatment: 17 years ago, the After Dinner Opera Company presented Jerome Moross's almost literal setting of it: a dynamic perpetuum mobile which proved a tour de force for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Low (who attended the Beeson premiere) and large orchestra, reduced to two pianos.] Beeson [however] uses a 17-piece chamber orchestra, along with witty quotations from Puccini's Manon Lescaut and his own The Sweet Bye and Bye, and creates a slew of characters swirling around capable soprano Patricia Dell as the old lady who overhears a conversation plotting a murder, which turns out to be her own, and tries without success to stop it.

The most colorful of these side characters, Sargent Duffy, was written to be sung with "a definite [Irish] brogue," which baritone Richard Holmes declined to employ, opting instead for the lyricism of what he called the "pretty" vocal line, producing a rather bland effect. Three telephone operators, a delivery boy, a Western Union man [(beautifully sung by John E. Schumacher)], and two contract killers complete the cast.

In the score, the killers are definitely mafia types. Here, however, with an abundance of black talent from the cast of Angel Levine, they were cast as African Americans. The double-bill thus achieved the odd symmetry of being about two old white women, one killed by a black man, the other saved by a black man.

In any case, the power and grit of the Siegmeister won the day. The musical substance in its opening 13 measures--a quasi-fugue introduced by a plaintive trumpet call--set the scene immediately. Siegmeister was a skilled composer of 8 operas, 3 musicals, a children's opera, and over 100 songs, but frequently he found his most programmatic voice in pure instrumental music [like this--not to mention his 9 symphonies and numerous ballets and instrumental works]. [(When he died, his post on the ASCAP board, representing concert music, was taken by Jack Beeson.)]

[In that context, let me also give admiring mention to the programmatically inspired instrumental music heard last month on an extremely well-performed Composers Concordance concert at NYU, especially the two world premieres: Jim Theobald's Bulgarian- influenced "Mondo Rondo" for clarinet and piano, and Davide Zannoni's "Dowsing," in which affecting part writing was not improved but distorted by mannered glissandi. Eric Ewazen's sweepingly melodic Brahms-inspired Trio for Violin, Trumpet and Piano and William Bolcom's "Lilith" for Saxophone and Piano were also highlights of the program.]

Siegmeister's opera had the benefit of baritone Richard Frisch in the principal role of the tailor Nathan Manischevitz, which he had created, coached by Siegmeister, at the 1985 premiere. In an interview with Aufbau, Frisch amusingly recalled auditioning for the composer with "Just A Song At Twilight," sung with a Jewish accent, which got him hired to do Fluther in the 1979 New York premiere of Siegmeister's The Plough and the Stars as well as the role in Angel. Both of these works owed their dramatic structure and continuity to librettist Edward Mabley, who also collaborated with Siegmeister on his I Have A Dream cantata and the opera The Mermaid in Lock No. 7, the nightclub scene of which was a definite antecedent for the show-stopping bar scene in Angel. [(The only embarrassment, to these ears, was the tailor's plea to God for his wife: "Save my Fanny," which could so easily be changed to "Save Fanny," so as not to be confuseable with an effort to cover one's behind!)]

In 1985, this was performed with life-size puppets--as a cost-saving device, Hadassah Markson recalled. This time, though, there were three full-bodied dancers and blues singer Vivian Reed, who virtually stole the show with Bruce Heath's flashy choreography. Tenor Sam McKelton, in the title role, had the most beautiful, angelic voice of all. Atkin Pace's sets and Charles Maryann's stage direction served the piece well in its blend of fantasy and earthiness, bitonal jazz and cantorial spirituality. [Richard Marshall conducted.]

[In this opera, Siegmeister wrote, "I wrote out all my Yiddishkeit," which did not prevent his Great Neck colleague, the late Jewish Theological Seminary composer/conductor/teacher Hugo Weisgall, from accusing him of being so secular as to be "anti-Semitic," nor the writer Jeremy Eichler in the Forward from calling him "assimilationist."

Such accusers should remember that] Bernard Malamud, lauded by Eichler as "one of our canonical American-Jewish writers," was married to a Catholic. His widow Ann attended and very much enjoyed the performance, much more than either the 1970 film with Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel or the 1995 Phyllis K. Robinson musical, both based on the same story, Malamud wrestled with Jewish- Christian religious-secular Spinozan questions all his life.

The talmudic disputations on the soul in the black synagogue scene are a highlight of the piece, even if the costuming made the charcters look a bit more Muslim than Jewish. The essential ironic humor of the piece rests on Manischevitz's greater difficulty in believing that the black man from Harlem is actually Jewish, than in believing that he is an angel!

On opening night, Hadassah Markson could be heard coaching the pronunciation of the Hebrew blessings over bread and wine, so as, hopefully, to make the suspension of disbelief a little easier on the second night.

[More power to her, and CCO, in the continued appreciation and revival of great Jewish operas. Perhaps next they should consider the Benjamin Fleischmann-Dmitri Shostakovitch Rothschild's Violin, after Chekhov, the centerpiece of a brilliant 1996 film that on June 2 opened the Milton B. Pinck Film Festival at the packed North Shore Towers Cinema in Fresh Meadows. In the film, and in the opera, the innocent Jew and Jewish culture are seen as the salvation of a soulless Russia, just as the sensual Negro of the Depression-era Angel Levine provides the vitality in an America (even a Jewish America) lacking in soul.

Another film in the series of particular interest to Aufbau readers is My Knees Were Jumping, on the Kindertransport from Nazi Germany, showing at the Sid Jacobson Y in Roslyn, Long Island, Monday, July 12. Call 516-484-1545 for tickets. Website:

Aufbau articles by LeonardLehrman may found at the website:]

photo: Susan Lerner Sam McKelton (far right) in the title role of Alexander Levine and Vivian Reed as Bella dance in the bar scene of Angel Levine.

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