A Shabbat at the Opera

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With Thanksgiving over and the Christmas season in official full swing (though we all know those garlands came out October 31), holiday-themed programs are once again busting out all over.

Offering a twist on the traditional carols, Messiahs and Bach chorales is the New York Festival of Song, presenting “A Goyishe Christmas to You!” next Tuesday at the Merkin Concert Hall. With intrepid pianist Steven Blier and clarinetist Alan Kay, a cadre of vocalists from Judy Kaye to Stephanie Blythe offer Klezemer twitsts on secular tunes. The catch: While each work holds an iconic place in the Yuletide rep, each was also penned by a Jewish songwriter (Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” anyone?).

It’s cheeky, coy and utterly New York, but the NYFOS program also serves as a reminder of the exponential influence held by Jewish composers over the musical canon—and opera is of no exception. Both as a religion and a culture, Judaism is laced inextricably with music, from reading the Torah at a bar mitzvah to reciting the weekly Shabbat prayers to Passover seders where families pride their service melodies with the ferocity that goyim guard their holiday stuffing recipes. Even Genesis includes mentions of musicians as valuable professions, which probably explains the steady influx of Semitic Orpheuses sailing the sound waves. There are enough Jewish classical composers and performers to make up for another sequel to Adam Sandler’s name-dropping Hanukkah Song.

Yet the history is more complicated than the logic behind it. Felix Mendelssohn was born into a Jewish family who quickly renounced their religion, ultimately baptizing their children into the Lutheran faith. It was then that they added the surname Bartholdy, with Mendelssohn’s father writing, "There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius.” One wonders if it would be too deep a read into Mendelssohn’s singspiel, Die beiden Neffen (The Two Nephews), to argue that the 15-year-old composer’s plot of mistaken identity had something to do with his own shifting selfdom. However, as added credence, further Jewish identities would come into play in the composer’s two Biblically based oratorios, Paulus and Elijah.

More clear cut is Jacques Offenbach, who converted of his own volition to Roman Catholicism in order to marry Hérminie d'Alcain. The son of a cantor, Offenbach’s deluge of operettas contain little to no hints of his sacred musical upbringing, though director Bartlett Sher interpolated the composer’s sense of being an outsider in the world of high art with an alleged sense of being an outsider as a Jew in his recent direction of Les Contes d’Hoffmann for the Met. How a more crassly literal take on this notion hasn’t resulted in a highly publicized regietheater version of the same operetta is beyond me. (But to be fair, Berlin’s Komische Oper has produced a Le Nozze di Figaro in which the couples are wed under chuppas—a possible tip of the yarmulke to the Jewish roots of librettist Lorenzo da Ponte—so we must be getting close.)

Setting the obvious choice of Verdi’s Nabucco aside, the most concrete examples of Jewish identity playing into 19th-century opera come from two Hebrew composers in Giacamo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halévy. The former crafted an extravaganza in Les Huguenots, a setting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre that explored the tensions between French Catholics and Protestants in a way that was eerily prescient of the horrors of the mid-20th Century. It’s no great surprise that Meyerbeer was a target of the notoriously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner’s wrath, culminating in the composer’s infamous essay Judaism in Music after the success of Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. The cruel irony is that Wagner owed much of his developing musical style to this forbear.

Halévy’s La Juive has begun to reinstate its importance among contemporary works—it premiered in 1835, the same year as Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and I Puritani—thanks to recent productions in Europe and at the Met, and featuring such champions as soprano Marina Poplavskaya. Funnily, this is another opera from which Wagner seems to have cribbed (the Jewish Halévy’s fingerprints are all over Die Meistersinger), but you cannot beat the original for its horrifying death scene (boiling water mixed with a Trovatore–like twist and a chilling chorus of vengeance), Passover music and showstopping aria, “Rachel! Quand du seigneur.” Performed below by Richard Tucker, who like Offenbach’s father was also a cantor, it’s an undeniable masterwork, especially with Tucker’s haunting delivery (listen for the stirring whisper towards the end). Pity, however, that Halévy’s title Jewess turns out to ultimately be a gentile.

In some ways, it was the Anschluss and rise of Hitler that turned out to be an incredible boon for Jewish composers and explicit Hebraic themes in their works. Many perished in camps, an unforgivable loss to be sure, but others like Schoenberg and Korngold hightailed it to the States and flourished in both operatic and film media. Hugo Weisgall, whose opera Esther kicked off the New York City Opera’s era under general manager George Steel, sets the story of Purim in a way that’s a far cry from Hebrew school but speaks to the composer’s own experiences stationed overseas during World War II.  

The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has been instrumental in bringing to light works of Jewish composers, notably for opera in a two-disc series that features excerpts from Esther along with Abraham Ellstein’s The Golem, Robert Strassburg’s Chelm, David Tamkin’s The Dybbuk, David Schiff’s Gimpel the Fool and Elie Siegmeister’s Lady of the Lake, all of which beg for complete recordings. There’s also the curious case of the Genesis Suite, a collaborative setting of Genesis by seven composers—including Schoenberg, Milhaud, Ernst Toch and Stravinsky (the lone goy in the group)—for chorus, orchestra and narrator. In a sense, it is its own musical Tower of Babel, but one that at the end remains in tact rather than in shambles. Perhaps the same can be said for the course of Jewish music on the whole. Stemming from one people and branching out like the tree of aural life, it's at turns polarizingly varied, knotty, lush, verdant and continually adding rings to its trunk. And it casts a considerable shadow.