Once Suppressed, Composers Enjoy Revival


By David Mermelstein

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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James Conlon, music director of Los Angeles Opera, and Marilyn Ziering, a Beverly Hills philanthropist, met for the first time only a year ago, but they have become fast friends. A common interest unites them: making sure that music suppressed by the Nazis and then largely forgotten — much of it by Jewish composers — gets a fair hearing.

In large part because of that meeting, such music has never been in better hands. Last December, Plácido Domingo, general director of L.A. Opera, announced a gift of $3.25 million from Ziering. Augmented by an additional $750,000 that Ziering helped raise, the money is funding a four-year project titled Recovered Voices, which brings to the stage operas by such once-suppressed composers as Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Viktor Ullmann, Walter Braunfels and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Conlon, who has championed these composers since the mid-1990s, is to conduct all the works, most of which are unfamiliar to local audiences.

Given how recently the project was announced, it’s hard to believe that the first of these initiatives is upon us. But on March 7 and March 10, Conlon leads a program featuring Zemlinsky’s one-act “A Florentine Tragedy,” and excerpts from other works, including Ernst Krenek’s “Jonny Spielt Auf,” Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” Braunfels’s “Die Vögel” (a setting of Aristophanes’s “The Birds”) and Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.”

They follow the company’s much heralded, if tepidly received, production of Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” starring Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone, which closed March 4. That work could also be considered part of Recovered Voices, but Ziering would rather it were not.

“I consider Weill and Schoenberg different from Ullmann and Zemlinsky,” she said last month during an interview at her house.

Though persecuted by the Nazis, Weill and Schoenberg died in America, in 1950 and 1951, respectively, their music and reputations intact. Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and former composition teacher, also died in the United States, in 1942, but his music has largely languished. Ullmann, having been sent first to Theresienstadt, was gassed in Auschwitz in 1944.

Next season, L.A. Opera will stage two one-acts, Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” and Ullmann’s “The Broken Jug,” the latter in its American premiere. No word yet on the following season, but there are rumors it will be an opera by Schreker, perhaps “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound”) or “Die Gezeichneten” (“The Stigmatized”).

Recovered Voices couldn’t exist without either Conlon or Ziering, but the two hail from very different worlds. Conlon, an American of Irish and Italian extraction, made his name in Europe, especially in Cologne and at the Paris Opera, where he served as music director from 1995 to 2004. Ziering, though raised in a musical household, was only nominally committed to opera during her long marriage to Sigi Ziering, a physicist who co-founded and ran a medical diagnostics company.

“Sigi would go to the opera,” Ziering said, “but he really didn’t love it that much.”

Her husband’s death in late 2000 created a void for Ziering, and the sale last year of the public but family-run company to Siemens for $1.86 billion provided her with significant financial resources. “We donated to the opera before,” she said, “but it’s gone up several levels of magnitude recently.”

Ziering called her motives for establishing Recovered Voices “a combination of memorializing my husband and my father.” But she also felt a sense of obligation to the silenced composers. Though there are parallels between her feelings and Conlon’s, there are differences, too.

“James feels obliged because of these works’ place in music history, and also for moral reasons,” she said. “I do it for more spiritual reasons. I really do believe that when this music is played, the souls of these composers come alive.”

Naturally, Conlon has only praise for Ziering. “She’s our heroine,” he said after a recent speaking engagement at the University of Judaism, stumping for Recovered Voices. “You can’t do anything in this world without financial support, and I said that when I met her. Unless you have a fund dedicated to a given purpose, and that purpose alone, you cannot plan properly. You will always be vulnerable. Marilyn understood that and has come in like an angel.”

Prior to assuming the music directorship of L.A. Opera, Conlon had extracted a promise from Domingo to explore this repertory. But without the funds do so, the conductor had little more than good will on his side. What he feared, he said, were token gestures, what he called “tippings of the hat.” Ziering’s substantial gift ensures the absence of such tokenism, at least in the near term.

As for the future, Ziering is understandably cautious. “This is a four-year project,” she said. “And then I really don’t know. I would like to see if there are other foundations whose mission is to get music of this nature staged who would come forward and join me in this endeavor.”

Conlon expects his commitment to be lifelong: “I won’t see the end of it. It will outlive me. It doesn’t kick in until there are musicians who hear this music when they first hear Mozart, Chopin and Stravinsky. It’s done when they take this music for granted. That’s why any chance I get, I work with students on this, because they’re the ones who are going to pass it on.”

David Mermelstein writes about classical music for various print and online publications, including The New York Times and MusicalAmerica.com.

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