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!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • 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.