Goldfaden's "Sulamith" Adapted by Ede Donath

Opera Review: Florida Inaugurates January as Jewish History Month
With Goldfaden's "Sulamith" Adapted by Ede Donath

Goldfaden's Shulamith in Florida

by Leonard Lehrman

Thanks to a 2003 bill co-sponsored by Florida State Senator Gwen Margolis, who in 1990 became the first woman president of any state senate in the U.S., January has been designated Jewish History Month in Florida. Margolis was at the Florida Jewish Museum one January 14th, 2004 for the official unveiling of the gubernatorial proclamation (along with 52 other proclamations from municipalities across the state) and for a truly fascinating lecture on the history of Jews in Florida by the museum's director, Marcia Zerivitz.

Margolis was also part of a full house that night at Miami-Dade County Auditorium for the U.S. premiere of Szulamit, an opera by the Hungarian Jewish composer Ede Donath (1865-1945), based on the Yiddish musical Shulamit by Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908). The production, underwritten in part by Donath's daughter, Mimi Mautner, was conducted by Stewart Robertson, who was also credited with the English translation, (based on a literal translation by Andrew Farkas) from the Hungarian libretto by Albert Kövessy. This "dramatic fantasy" involves a young girl in "Biblical times" who falls in love with her rescuer in the desert and invokes the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs), getting him to swear with her an oath of fidelity, with several witnesses, including a cat.

How much of the music was Goldfaden's and how much Donath's? A visit to the wonderfully hospitable Jewish music collection at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton ( refreshed this writer's memory of the thirty-three melodies collected or composed by Goldfaden for this 1880 work. Composer of numerous musical theater works, Goldfaden was generally known as the father of the Yiddish theater. Between 1897 and 1935, there were at least 16 editions of excerpts from Goldfaden's Shulamith or Sulamitha registered with the U.S. copyright office (according to Irene Heskes' 1992 Yiddish American Popular Songs, 1895 to 1950).

What about Donath?

To my ears, the music heard January 14th was nearly all based on Goldfaden's melodies, except for one quasi-Verdian number in Act I and an Act II finale reminiscent of the Turkish music (minus most of the percussion, alas) of Mozart's Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail. This hardly seems terribly surprising, since Donath's name is almost entirely unknown except as a Jewish liturgical composer and arranger Š and, ironically enough, as the prize-winning creator of the national anthem of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire, "Islam in Arms"!

Further, as the program notes revealed, although Donath claimed to have had his Szulamit performed more than 1,000 times from 1899 to 1936, after which the Nazis banned productions on Jewish subjects, he was listed by the publisher Sandor Marton in December 1935 as the "transcriber and part composer" of the work, which seems to be an accurate description.

In these days of revival of Jewish operatic classics (like La Juive at the Met), the work and performance, unfortunately, did not fare too well. The great Viennese cabarettist Gerhard Bronner, a part-time Florida resident who has rescued numerous operetta books and translated of a dozen American musicals into German, termed the whole thing "trash" and wanted us to leave at intermission. But the orchestra and chorus followed well and in tune, and the soloists ranged from good to excellent. Honduran mezzo Melina Pineda seemed slightly miscast in the title role, but North Carolinian bass Kristopher Irmiter was solid as Manaoh, her father, and her beloved Absalon was movingly portrayed by British Columbian baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholas. It was he who got to sing the most famous melody of the work, the lullaby "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" ("Raisins and Almonds"), transformed here into a plaintive cry of loneliness in the desert. Chad A. Johnson, David Giulano and Timothy Kahn were hysterically funny as her suitors, as was Douglas Perry in the role of Cingitang, leader of a group of Gentiles whom the program called "the Saracens," somewhat anachronistically for pre-Muslim times.

Here we come to the most serious dramaturgical problem to be faced in this work. It was Nazi racism that banned the piece after 1936, but it would seem to be the piece's own racism that has kept it out of the repertoire since then, except for a Budapest concert performance in 1948 and a small stage production there two years ago. These "Saracens" were portrayed in Florida as East Asians speaking a kind of gibberish "dead language." How did they learn it? "We ate the people who spoke it." In the original Hungarian version, Donath's now 81-year-old disciple Tibor Dov Feldmar told us, the Saracens were black Africans. How do you think that would go over today? Probably about as well as a production that caricatured Chinoiserie would in California.

Goldfaden's piece is not likely to return to the repertoire in Donath's version, But perhaps some other version, somewhere, sometime. Meanwhile, there's lots more Jewish musical literature to be rediscovered - especially each January in Florida.