Jewish Currents October 1986 40:9 (442) pp28-29, 32 A New Jewish Opera
By LEONARD LEHRMAN
On Nov. 2, Jewish Currents will be performing a great service to the cause of new opera on subjects of Jewish (and general) interest by sponsoring, for the first time, a concert performance of The Island of Tomorrow, a one-act Ellis Island opera. It was premiered this past June 19 by Golden Fleece Ltd. Composers Chamber Theatre, which was founded in 1976 to provide a showcase for new American composers who wish to bring chamber operas to the public. The opera is the culmination of a long friendship and successful collaboration between composer Myron Fink and Golden Fleece's co-founder and artistic director Lou Rodgers, here serving as librettist and stage director.
The schematic, melodramatic plot of The Island of Tomorrow is well-served by the lyrical, tonal music, sung by six singers accompanied by violin, viola, cello, bass and piano, and is also quite appropriate to this Liberty Centennial year. Based on real people and historical events, the result is what Backstage reviewer Jennie Schulman called "the most powerful contemporary opera seen in many a day."
In the first scene, set in Oct., 1940, Judge Hoffman stands looking out the window of his office overlooking Ellis Island at dusk. His young clerk, Warren, asks him why. The judge is remembering... We flash back to four immigrants in a waiting room in Ellis Island in 1912. Mefalda Ricci pleads to be allowed to advance in the line. Jamie O'Farrell obliges her, especially since it gives him a chance to make conversation with her pretty daughter, Emmalina Ricci. She speaks no English, he no Italian. Nathan Kaminski, a Polish Jewish immigrant, speaks both, and immediately incurs her interest and his ire.
The scene changes to the Riccis' quarters on the island. Mefalda helps Emmalina to dress, reminding her of her betrothal to the rich (old) Italo-American Perroni. Enter Jamie, bragging about his future on a horse farm in Virginia. When Mefalda exits, Jamie manages to get Emmalina to dance with him. Enter Nathan. The words become heated. Exit Jamie. Re-enter Mefalda. Emmalina promises to meet Nathan later, in (scene 4) the dining room.
Nathan reads Emmalina a letter from Perroni: "'Your duties as my wife will be simple. You will care for my six children and run my household.... There will be no music, no dancing, no parties, no--'" Nathan interrupts: "You must not marry him! ... Marry me instead."
"But we are different, you and I. You speak Polish, I speak Italian."
"Our children will speak English."
"I am Catholic, you are not." This proves to be no stumbling block, however, for a lyrical love duet. Blackout.
A short, misterioso intermezzo introduces a tête-à-tête in (scene 5) a corridor. Overhearing Nathan's confession that his papers were forged so that he could escape having to serve in the Russian Army, Mefalda breaks up the love-tryst.
Before Judge Hoffman in his office, over Emmalina's protests, Mefalda denounces Nathan, demanding he be sent back. Jamie's testimony is required... and available--he would love to have the money to buy his own horses and stables.
In conclusion, we are back with Judge Hoffman in 1940, remembering, "I had a choice... but I was afraid for my job." Warren: "I wonder what I would have done."
The impact of this opera becomes manifest, of course, only when you hear the music.
DR. LEONARD LEHRMAN, who last appeared here in June, 1985, is the composer of the operas Tales of Malamud (with Marc Blitzstein), Sima, Hannah, and The Family Man and the musicals The Comic Tragedy of San Po Jo, Growing Up Woman, Let's Change the Woild and e.g.: Scenes from the Life of Emma Goldman. Founder of the Jewish Music Theater of Berlin, he is now Music Director of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, N.Y.