Articles written for The Opera Journal by Leonard J. Lehrman

3 THE OPERA JOURNAL 29:2 June 1996 pp.56-51 Composer's Notebook
by Leonard J. Lehrman

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 numerous 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.

[The AUFBAU version of this article concluded: 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.]]

[The OPERA JOURNAL version of the article continued:] No writer I know embodies this aspect so much as Bernard Malamud. In the title story of his collection, Idiots First, the protagonist demands of the Angel of Death: "Don't you understand what it means-- human!?' The story of how that work became an award-winning opera, and the whole question of Jewish opera in general, is intimately related to the history of both Jewish Opera at the Y and the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin.

But the story begins even earlier: In 1962, inspired by a trip to Israel, the composer Marc Blitzstein first discovered the works of Malamud, with whom he served for a year on the faculty at Bennington College. He determined to create a trilogy of one-act operas to be called Tales of Malamud, all based on Malamud short stories: Idiots First, Angel Levine, and The Magic Barrel. Elie Siegmeister had also expressed interest in Angel Levine, but Blitzstein got there first. Then Malamud sold the rights to that work to the movies, so neither of them could do it. But Blitzstein decided that Idiots First and The Magic Barrel would be long enough for a complete evening, so he continued working on both of them.

He finished only a song and a scene from Magic Barrel. But Idiots First was much further along, when he died in January, 1964. At a memorial concert in Philharmonic Hall, Leonard Bernstein announced that he was going to finish and orchestrate Idiots First. He also presented one excerpt from the work, sung by Jose Ferrer with what Harold Schoenberg in the New York Times called "a Yiddish accent that would have made a row of blintzes stand up and salute." Ferrer later told me he had at first been offended by that, but eventually realized it had been meant as a compliment!

In a December, 1964 tribute to Blitzstein, written for the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Bernstein announced that he had given up on completing Idiots First: "It could be done, they tell me. Done? With what notes?" Three other composers were approached. One was William Bolcom, who was very interested. A great admirer of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, he also felt indebted to the older composer for his advice to him and his collaborator Arnold Weinstein on their Dynamite Tonight. But Bolcom felt stymied by the idiom of the new work. He didn't say so, but I think the problem was Blitzstein's consciously using Jewish modes and turns of phrase; Bolcom is not Jewish. David Diamond was also interested. But he took a look at what he thought was the score and concluded there was not enough there to complete. Later it came out that he had been mistakenly shown The Magic Barrel instead of Idiots First! The third composer was Elie Siegmeister, who was doing an article on Blitzstein for The Dictionary of American Music. He loved the piece, but, reluctant to take time away from his own composition, he recommended his student, Leonard Lehrman, who had just produced The Cradle Will Rock in Boston for the first time since Bernstein's production of it at Harvard 30 years earlier. With the encouragement of Bernstein, Siegmeister, and Nadia Boulanger (who had been Blitzstein's and Siegmeister's teacher), I completed the work in December 1973, wrote a companion piece for it, Karla, based on another Malamud story, "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party," and produced them both at Cornell, Indiana, and with the Bel Canto Opera in New York City,. where it won the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season." In 1992 Tales of Malamud received an NEA grant and an orchestral premiere with the Center for Contemporary Opera at NYU. Leonard Bernstein told After Dinner Opera Company director Richard Flusser: "Leonard Lehrman is Marc Blitzstein's dybbuk."

In 1983 I became the first Jew to conduct Fiddler on the Roof in Berlin, at Theater des Westens, and, on the encouragement of Heinz Galinski and the Juedische Gemeinde, founded the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin with the express intent of producing Tales of Malamud in Berlin. That never happened, as the Berlin Senat did not come through with the promised funding. But the Verein did produce 36 events, including the European premiere of Mira Spektor's Holocaust opera The Lady of the Castle and two operas of mine: Sima, and The Family Man, which will be performed again in Dresden this coming July 2. We also presented excerpts from two of Bruce Adolphe's operas that had premiered at the 92 Street Y. And Jacobo Kaufmann gave a lecture on Opera in Israel, including the three-act opera to which he wrote the libretto (in Hebrew) for music by Raymond Goldstein based on Malamud's short story "The Jewbird." In it they took off on all kinds of racial overtones relating specifically to Israel, a problem which does not seem to have lessened over time!

Jewish Opera at the Y was founded by Hadassah Markson in the hope of producing A Goat from Chelm, the opera by her father A.W. Binder. The committee she formed, including musical director Amy Keiser, was never particularly interested in that work, however. Enough scores to fill 6-8 large boxes were assembled, and works by David Schiff, Lazar Weiner, Bruce Adolphe, and Elie Siegmeister were produced. (These boxes now reside at Jewish Theological Seminary and a list of their contents was not available for inclusion in my list. Hopefully they will be cataloged or at least inventoried this coming summer.)

Siegmeister's two Jewish operas, written for the Y, were based on Malamud stories: The Lady of the Lake and... Angel Levine. Malamud, who attended the final Tales of Malamud performance by the Bel Canto Opera in January 1978, told me that he had been so pleased by the way his stories became operas that he had bought the rights back from the movies and given them to Siegmeister!

The Lady of the Lake is a vivid musical watercolor tone painting. I think of it as Siegmeister's Il Tabarro. In the final scene, the heroine rips off her blouse to reveal a concentration camp tattoo showing that she is Jewish, rejecting the man who has been wooing her and denying his Jewishness in hopes of winning her. Unfortunately at the performance the soprano refused to follow the stage directions, so the ending was less dramatic than it should have been. Angel Levine, which was later also turned into a musical for the Jewish Repertory Theatre by Phyllis K. Robinson, who had collaborated with Mitch Leigh on Cry For Us All, was more successful as an opera. The funniest and best-received scene took place in a black synagogue in Harlem.

As part of my preparation for the work of completing Idiots First, in 1973 I staged Malamud's only published dramatic work, Suppose A Wedding, which he called a "Scene From a Play," and published as part of the Idiots First collection. This past year I obtained the rights to turn the work into another opera, which is to be produced September 2, 1996 by The Long Island Composers Alliance at the Jewish Arts Festival of Long Island, and published by Theodore Presser along with Idiots First and Karla. A performance is also planned at Hebrew Union College in New York this coming year.

Composer Leonard J. Lehrman is on the faculty of the Performing Arts Institute of Long Island and President of the Long Island Composers Alliance, and has just been appointed Composer-in-Residence for next year at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y. He has composed 8 operas (one in progress), 5 musicals, 5 cantatas, 13 song cycles, and 96 other works that have been performed throughout North America and Europe. He was formerly Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and Associate Editor of Opera Monthly His symposium on Marc Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti appeared in the last issue of The Opera Journal. Material in this article appeared in shorter form in the German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau, for which Dr. Lehrman is Music Critic. It is based on a presentation he gave before the Jewish Music Roundtable of the Music Library Association Convention February 8, 1996 in Seattle.

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 5/13/04