A Modern Esther Returns

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

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.
KATRINKA WILDER
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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.