Schubert’s Cantor Comes to Brooklyn

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Part of my mission in writing this blog is to seek out the new, or the lesser-known, in opera and the vocal arts. No place has more of that than New York City. There is something particular about the worlds within worlds in this town that produce the kind of art more monocultural places, or metropolises where people blend less (such as London), cannot achieve. For example, this weekend will see a preview of parts of an opera now being composed by Judith Berkson about Salomon Sulzer, a composer known to Schubert and Liszt who was Vienna’s chief cantor during the 19th Century. 

This will be but one offering of the Vital Vox Festival. Founded in 2009, its stated mission is to “celebrate composer-performers in the vocal arts who stretch and expand the voice in new and original ways, continuing a strong contemporary tradition developed in the United States.” The third edition of the festival will take place on November 5-6 at the New Roulette (details below) in Brooklyn. 

Berkson, who is a soprano in addition to being a composer and pianist, will be part of a mixed bill on November 5. I contacted her to learn something about her project:

Why is your piece called Vor an Sicht?

“Voransicht” is the German word for preview. My opera is yet untitled so I decided to use that for the preview performance.

In what language is the opera?

The opera so far is in English, Hebrew and German.

Did you write the libretto?

The libretto is a mix. Several pieces are settings of Hebrew prayers. Others are Psalms I set in German reflecting the nature of the Stadttempel (Vienna’s City Temple) service, which had a sermon in German and prayers sung in Hebrew. The libretto also contains dialogue written by myself, either paraphrasing source material or directly quoting it, including Salomon Sulzer's memoir and quotations by Rabbi Mannheimer, Schubert and other characters.

Did you write the libretto first or draft the music? If you wrote the libretto first, did you do it to accommodate musical ideas you already had?

Music generally comes first to me but sometimes I'm inspired by a piece of text and immediately hear it in melodic form. The piece grows out of that. Sometimes, I'm thinking about how to drive the narrative in a certain direction so a piece will grow out of a scene I want to create. In that case, the ideas come before the music.

When did you first hear about Salomon Sulzer?

I heard about him from David Harrington of Kronos Quartet, who had heard about a piece Schubert had written for a cantor. He found the piece and asked me to arrange and perform it with Kronos. I started investigating more about Sulzer and learning about his enormous influence and contribution.

What did you find appealing about Sulzer?

I thought his work at synthesizing Western European music with "Eastern" chant was compelling. Bringing in choirs and harmony...people take that for granted now as standard synagogue tradition but it wasn't done before him.

What was his relationship with Schubert?

There isn't much describing how they met but at some point when Sulzer arrived in Vienna to become the Stadttempel's first cantor he approached Schubert as well as a couple of other composers to write pieces for the new temple. I think Beethoven was asked previously but he already was too sick. Schubert died less than two years later, after he wrote Psalm 92 in 1826 for Sulzer, so there wasn't a real chance for their relationship to grow. Just the fact that Schubert agreed to do it and did it with such care - it was said that he wanted to get all of the Hebrew word accents completely correct - suggests that he must have had an affinity for either Sulzer or the nature of the collaboration.

When did you start working on this opera?

I've been doing research since January 2011 and started writing this past summer when I was in Berlin. I also went to Vienna over the summer to see the Stadttempel, Schubert's death house, the Jewish museum and other sites. I heard the wonderful cantor Shlomo Barzilai, chief cantor at Stadtempel. It was amazing. My brother lives in Vienna too, so that's a plus.

How will your opera be structured?

The instrumentation is voices, drum core, analog and acoustic organs and a scene for children's choir. I will be working up scenes individually to express different story lines and will piece them together in a way that musically makes sense with attention to narrative flow. I am more interested in the audience having an experience through sound and visuals, with words and story kind of enhancing that experience. That is how I listen to and enjoy opera. I get lost in the music's power and singing. I feel I am waiting for that beautiful aria or overture or vocal quintet. But if a compelling part of the story coincides with it, that only adds to it.

What voice category will the role of Sulzer be in?

Sulzer was a baritone and the role will be sung by a baritone...mostly because I worked with a wonderful baritone in a production with City Opera last spring who I am hoping will be able to do it.

What are the other roles and in what voice categories will they be represented?

There will be a chorus of women (dressed as boys) who will be essential to many of the scenes and perhaps used in interesting ways throughout the opera. Sulzer's mother makes an appearance, as does Rabbi Mannheimer and perhaps Schubert.

In composing the music, did you incorporate keys or melodies that would be suggestive of Jewish religious music?

That is a good question. I do write and sing cantorial music and I love that tradition. I debated over whether to include it in the opera and how I would do that. I didn't necessarily want to just put in a cantorial piece out of context. I think I am coming up with some interesting solutions. So, yes, there are definitely moments with cantorial influence and I am very excited about it.

Might you include in your score music written by Sulzer or inspired by his music?

It would be great to somehow reference some of his music. There is already a part written in 16th-Century modal counterpoint and there are cantorial elements, so there’s already a mix of styles. But I feel they all work together to create something on its own.

You say that Liszt admired Sulzer's music. We just passed the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth. He had very strong Catholic beliefs and was also the father-in-law of Wagner, a famous anti-Semite. Do you know anything about Liszt's beliefs about and relationship with Judaism and Jews?

I really don't know about Liszt's beliefs, but you should read what he wrote about Sulzer and Jewish music - it's quite complimentary. This is an excerpt.

Vital Vox at the New Roulette: 509 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn (2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, G, D, M, N, R, B & Q trains and the LIRR to Atlantic Avenue). Tickets can be purchased on Roulette's Web site or by calling 917/267-0363.

Photo: Judith Berkson by Jacob Garchik