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The most effective parts of the score are those that are most stripped-down, where the composer takes a chance and the singers get an opportunity to breathe. This happens when bare pizzicato strings accompany the beginning of the aria of the rabbi’s wife, “Doesn’t the Torah teach” (which Teresa Eickel sang attractively until she began to push her voice too hard, as she and several other members of the otherwise talented cast did all too often), or when the spare string bass accompanies the mostly spoken scene of Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg (the capable tenor Christopher Lorge) telephoning people to make racist threats.
Most embarrassing — though charismatically acted and performed by rich-voiced baritone Roland Burks — was the over-the-top “Kumbaya” forced-joy moment when the audience, company and orchestra is led in a jazzy shout-out gospel-like version of the psalm verse “Hinay ma tov.” In contrast, Burks’s early scene of fear, “My home’s no longer safe,” was particularly moving, with the singer pushing the meaning beyond the limits of the score.
The young bass Paul Corujo is definitely a singer to watch out for. As the talk show host and grand magus of the KKK, he appropriately insinuated himself in smarmy fashion into the focus of all his scenes. Bass Jason Switzer, possessed of a voice equally rich, seemed uncomfortably cramped by his part as the rabbi, even in the climactic sermon on King. Mezzo Jody Kidwell, as the concentration camp survivor, made the most of her aria, but director Leland Kimball’s decision to have her display to everyone onstage the camp tattoo on her arm in silent anger, undercut the show’s momentum.
If the composer had provided music for this moment, or at least set up Kidwell’s scene to support the sudden silence, it would make more sense as opera. As it is, showing the tattoo with no support in the score may show proper respect for the Holocaust but not for the opera.
Another problematic artistic choice was the conflation of the singers’ racial identities with those of their characters: the Asian-American singer (David Koh) played the Asian immigrant, the African-American singer (Burks) played the black preacher, while all the neo-Nazis were white. The Juilliard School’s production of “Kommilitonen,” in contrast, dispensed with such identity politics by sticking small pieces of colored tape on the singers’ faces, whatever their personal racial identity, with colors changed as needed. This emphasized roles rather than identities and gave more power to the underlying drama.
Puzzling, too, was the musical symbolism, like having the KKK characters’ oath of hate musically “rhyme” with the opposing paean to love and understanding. Although the juxtaposition is theatrical, it also makes them spiritually equivalent, thus contradicting the essential message of the opera. Similarly, the KKK rally scene ends with hoods removed, revealing an everyday “normal” woman (Sarah Beckham) who also works for the rabbi, a revelation that seems to undercut the central proposition that hatred grows from abuse.
Probably this confusion is a historical elision made necessary by the opera’s demand for brevity. Unlike opera’s more straightforward dramatic needs, truthful history is almost always complex and contradictory. King’s principles of nonviolence, for example, which furnish the climax of the opera, come from the man who had learned them personally while working with Mohandas Gandhi in India: Bayard Rustin — a man who, in addition to being one of the prime movers of the civil rights movement, incidentally happened to be an accomplished professional tenor.
But when push came to shove and the fact that Rustin was gay (and a Socialist and former Communist) threatened to disrupt the movement, King didn’t hesitate to throw Rustin under the bus, so to speak. Even though Rustin himself recommended this for the good of the movement, he still has not received the credit he deserves as the prime mover of nonviolence in America. Combating hate with love is a complicated endeavor.
Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to the Forward and other publications.