A Modern Esther Returns

Revival: Lauren Flanigan, Esther in the opera’s 1993 pre- miere, will reprise her role.
Revival: Lauren Flanigan, Esther in the opera’s 1993 pre- miere, will reprise her role.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published October 27, 2009, issue of November 06, 2009.
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After a year spent dark while renovating what is now the David H. Koch Theater, the New York City Opera has chosen to revive one of the most powerful American Jewish operas for its first full production of the season. On November 7, Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther,” which premiered in 1993 to nearly universal acclaim, will once again address questions of Jewish identity and assimilation.

Eight years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the opera’s refusal to exult over the massacre of an enemy has a new resonance. After Haman’s defeat, bringing with it thousands of casualties, Esther laments in an aria that this loss of life “must not be forgotten. It must not be repeated. So much blood, so many, many dead.”

Few modern composers are better equipped to create a sensitive but powerful opera about the biblical queen of the Persian Empire than Weisgall, who founded the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music, where he worked until his retirement in 1996.

Earlier in his career, Weisgall earned a Ph.D. in literature from Johns Hopkins University, writing on 17th-century German poets like Andreas Gryphius, whose poetic responses to historical massacres seem to prophesize 20th-century tragedies. During World War II, Weisgall served as an aide-de-camp to General George Patton, whose piercing tenor voice and unruly behavior surely influenced Weisgall’s later decision to write the role of Haman in “Esther” for a strident tenor similar to Patton’s shrill voice, but unlike the resonant voice of George C. Scott, the actor who won an Oscar playing him.

Faced by the worst inhumanities of World War II, Weisgall turned to British writers, perhaps seeking their reputed stiff-upper-lip. After the Battle of the Bulge, he composed “The Dying Airman” to an anonymous poem Weisgall was convinced W.H. Auden had written and included in Auden’s “Oxford Book of Light Verse” (1938). After inspecting the hospital at Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Weisgall set to music the poem “Futility,” by another British poet, Wilfred Owen.

Weisgall was born in Ivančice (Eibenschütz), a town in the South Moravian region of today’s Czech Republic, which gained fame in the 18th century as home of the controversial Talmudist Jonathan Eybeschutz.

Weisgall’s family was deeply involved with liturgical music, his father and grandfather both active cantors and composers. By age 4, Weisgall was singing in the synagogue choir of his father, Abba Yosef Weisgall.

Music Wherever Hugo: Music from Ivancˇice to Baltimore to New York.
Music Wherever Hugo: Music from Ivancˇice to Baltimore to New York.

The family moved to America in 1920, settling in Baltimore, where Abba Yosef Weisgall served for more than four decades at the Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

Abba Yosef looked and behaved like Kaiser Wilhelm II, according to his brother, the testy Zionist impresario and mover-and-shaker Meyer Weisgal.

In his sarcastic memoirs, “Meyer Weisgal… So Far: An Autobiography” (Random House, 1971), long overdue for reprint, Weisgal also criticizes his brother for admiring and imitating Germanic cantors, especially the 19th-century Austrian hazzan and composer Salomon Sulzer, rather than the East European school. Hugo Weisgall would pay tribute to Sulzer, in turn, by conducting the Chizuk Amuno Congregation choir and cantor Jacob Barkin on an LP, “Salomon Sulzer: Mah Tovu” (Westminster Records).

As we hear on two outstanding CDs from Naxos, Weisgall’s liturgical, choral and operatic music, including snippets from “Esther,” is highly theatrical, with an uncompromisingly stern swagger, even in the liturgical works.

Weisgall’s “Esther” is an authentically substantial modern opera with real dynamism and lyrical impulse. This is especially clear in an Act III dance, which as biblical music outdoes Strauss’s kitschy “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome” in sheer dissonant verve.

Often compared to the Second Vienna School (Berg, Schoenberg, et al.), Weisgall’s music retains its own solid, angularly innovative identity. Of Weisgall’s other works from Naxos, his “Four Choral Etudes,” led by Israeli conductor Avner Itai, are especially mellifluous, in the Vaughan Williams tradition, revealing Weisgall’s recurrent anglophilia (Britten is another influence), whether he is setting English or Hebrew texts.

After the war, Weisgall used the music sections of the Jewish Theological Seminary to promote other noted modern Jewish liturgical composers like Herman Berlinski and Miriam Gideon. This even meant hiring Gideon in 1955 after she was hounded out of a City College teaching job by McCarthyism.

A prolific composer in his own right, Weisgall produced an opera, “Athaliah” (1964), to a libretto adapted from Racine’s biblical tragedy, which interpolates texts from the Book of Psalms. “The Golden Peacock” (1980), a setting of seven Yiddish folksongs, was recorded by the American soprano Judith Raskin, whose definitive interpretation needs to be liberated onto CD or iTunes.

In the 1980s, Weisgall was commissioned to write “Evening Liturgies,” a Reform service following the Union Prayer Book, for baritone cantor, mixed chorus and organ. He also set poems by Yehuda Halevi in “Love’s Wounded,” for baritone and orchestra.

As modern-day, and, indeed, modernist interpretations of traditional lore, these and other works made Weisgall ideally poised for “Esther,” his ultimate operatic accomplishment, although it was not intended to be his last one. Weisgall died in 1997 from the results of a fall. Tantalizingly incomplete projects include an opera about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, based on John Hersey’s novel “The Wall,” as well as more settings of Yiddish folk songs and liturgical settings for Conservative synagogues.

As an opera, “Esther” is notably less triumphant than the City Opera’s new publicity campaign, which presents a photo of a young Israeli female soldier by the noted Israeli photographer Rachel Papo. Playing around with weighty political and historical metaphors is risky for any opera house. Is the female soldier really meant to be Esther, and, if so, who is Haman?

One Haman-like gesture about this particular revival came from a surprising source, Bloomberg News, which in April ran a gratuitous slating of Weisgall’s work as a “somber clunk” in an intemperate attack on the City Opera’s new general manager, George Steel. The article did not mention that opera director Francesca Zambello, who protested Steel’s hiring to the New York Times, is the longtime companion of the current editor of Bloomberg’s arts section, nor that she claims to have been promised the job of general manager (a claim City Opera denies).

However sad it is to see Hugo Weisgall posthumously caught in the crossfire of an operatic spitting match, his magnificently strong “Esther” surely will survive any potential contemporary Hamans.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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