The Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience

Vol. XVI: Heroes and Heroines: Jewish Opera

Reviewed by Jeffrey Shandler

Editor’s Note: This essay represents the first in a series of reviews exploring the recently launched Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience, an online resource that incorporates and expands upon the Archive’s earlier CD series (published on the Naxos label from 2003-2006).

In the annals of Jewish music, is any genre as fraught as opera? In nineteenth-century Europe, this most elaborate of western art forms seduced and dazzled Jewish admirers from Theodor Herzl (whose visions of Zionism were inspired by Tannhäuser) to Emma Goldman (transfixed by a performance of Il Trovatore in Königsberg). The lure of opera for cantors became the stuff of legends (the story of Yoel-Dovid Strashunsky’s fall from grace when he abandoned the synagogue in Vilna for the opera house in Warsaw inspired works of fiction, theater, and film). Jewish opera composers became celebrities (Meyerbeer, Offenbach), and their musicianship the target of anti-Semitic attack (most famously, Wagner’s Das Judenthum in der Musik). Opera production has long been a familiar home for Jews who converted (Mahler), intermarried (Otto Goldschmidt, the husband of Jenny Lind), or obscured their Jewishness (Rudolph Bing). Is it any wonder that the most renowned opera whose central figures are European Jews, Halévy’s La Juive (1835), is named for a character who, it turns out as the final curtain is about to ring down, isn’t, in fact, a Jewess?

Against this turbulent background, the emergence of operas composed by Jews on Jewish subjects in post-World War II America makes for a remarkable chapter in the history of opera as well as of American and Jewish culture. A sampling of these works can be heard in Volume XVI of the online Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience, titled “Heroes and Heroines: Jewish Opera.” This volume consists of four sets of selections, which offer excerpts from ten works by as many composers: David Tamkin’s The Dybbuk (1951), Robert Strassburg’s Chelm (1956), David Amram’s The Final Ingredient (1965), Abraham Ellstein’s The Golem (1965), David Samuel Adler’s The Wrestler (1972), David Schiff’s Gimpel the Fool (1975), Bruce Adolphe’s Mikhoels the Wise (1982), Elie Siegmeister’s Lady of the Lake (1985), Hugo Weisgall’s Esther (1993), and Paul Schoenfield’s The Merchant and the Pauper (1999). The attendant website provides brief musical samples gratis and full downloads for purchase, capsule biographies of the composers and performers, as well as photos and videos, mostly of the recorded performances, which are by musicians from the University of Michigan School of Music, the Seattle Opera, and the Eastman School of Music. The website’s more substantial auxiliary offerings include a lengthy introductory essay by Neil W. Levin, Artistic Director of the Milken Archive, and a half-hour oral history recorded with Amram.

What enabled this spate of operatic production? Levin notes that it is due, in part, to the advent of cultural institutions dedicated to producing new American operas on a small scale, notably the Opera Theatre of Westchester, New York, and the 92nd Street YM/YWHA in Manhattan, as well as the commitment of some major American opera houses to the commissioning of new works. These efforts figured in the robust expansion of opera as a fixture of public “high” culture in the United States during the postwar era, a remarkable development in the longer trajectory of Americans’ complex relationship with an art form long associated with European elitism.

The operas sampled in this collection also reflect signal shifts in Jews’ engagement with this art form.  If, in the nineteenth century, opera figured as a culture frontier for European Jews seeking entry into the modern Western world, the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed the advent of opera as a proving ground for creating works of modern Jewish culture. Jewish composers began writing operas in Yiddish (Yaakov Ter’s Di yidishe melukhe, 1899) and Hebrew (Mikhail Gnesin’s Abraham’s Youth, 1921-1923). Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (left incomplete in 1932) epitomizes prewar German Jewish composers at their most avant-garde. And on the threshold of genocide, Jews composed and performed operas under—and in defiance of—Nazi persecution, most famously, the production of Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister’s children’s opera Brundibár in Terezín in 1942.

In American Jewish operas of the postwar era several impulses converge: a new American commitment to the virtues of public culture, expanded academic support for the training of opera performers and composers in the United States, and a shared interest among American Jewish artists in exploring Jewish texts and lore in dramatic form—and doing so with a general American audience in mind, as part of the nation’s mainstream high culture. This last impulse was not confined to opera.  At the same time that the earliest of these operas were composed, Jewish religious institutions began to produce original radio and television dramas for ecumenical series broadcast on national networks. In fact, Amram’s The Final Ingredient is based on one of these dramas, an original script by Reginald Rose about Jewish inmates in a Nazi concentration camp.[1]

This opera deals explicitly with the Holocaust, but its impact can be felt in the creation of these operas more generally. They exemplify a new awareness among American Jews of their postwar role as the world’s largest, most stable diaspora Jewish community, a status earned by tragic default. As part of an array of efforts to demonstrate new possibilities for Jewish culture in the wake of the Holocaust, these operas turn for inspiration to diverse Jewish source texts, from the Bible to events of recent history (not only the Holocaust but also the Stalinist suppression of Soviet Yiddish culture, in Adolphe’s Mikhoels the Wise), and are especially indebted to works of modern Yiddish literature: H. Leivik’s The Golem, Sh. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The scores of these operas likewise demonstrate a range of musical strategies, with some composers deliberately drawing on folk melodies or liturgy, others seeking a sound that is modernist and universal.

If these works have not become fixtures of contemporary opera repertoires or of American Jewish culture, they have garnered attention in the academy. This development can be key to inspiring new interest in these works not only for their artistic value but also as revealing artifacts of American and specifically American Jewish culture of the second half of the twentieth century. They are telling examples of the postwar search for America’s role in the realm of opera and of American Jews’ exploration of the possibilities of creating a Jewish “high” culture in the American context.

Uniting these works is a seriousness of purpose, as they address subjects of weighty moral significance and strive to make music drama that is respectable artistically. As a result, Weisgal’s atonal Esther has a cerebral earnestness that is far from the carnivalesque nature of traditional Ashkenazic Purim plays or the droll modern take on the Book of Esther in the Megile-lider (1967) by Yiddish poet Itzik Manger and composer Dov Seltzer. And the efforts at comedy in Strassburg’s Chelm feel somewhat ponderous—especially when compared to American Jewish composers’ and lyricists’ concomitant success in creating musical comedies for Broadway.

Placing these recordings online with auxiliary materials is a noteworthy development in the history of these operas its own right. To some extent, the online version of these recordings are comparable to boxed sets of recorded operas, which accompany the discs with booklets providing background on the opera’s creators, performers, and the work itself, including libretto, synopsis, and illustrations from productions. The first two sets of selections (from the operas by Ellstein, Strassburg, Tamkin, Schiff, Siegmeister, and Weisgall) are available as downloadable files or on compact discs; the latter come with booklets providing informative background by Levin on the composers and operas, including plot summaries. The online versions of these operas (and the works in the third and fourth sets, which are only available online—the operas by Schoenfeld, Amram, Adler, and Adolphe) offer this information as well, but it is difficult to find; it entails a fair amount of clicking on different categories, rather than making it all readily available in one place. The flexibility that may be gained by atomizing this information and presenting it though a network of hyperlinks is, to my mind, offset by the loss of offering all material relevant to each opera as a unit.

Given that opera is a musical genre realized on the stage, I found the visual materials limited.  For the most part, the photos and videos on the website do more to vaunt the Milken recordings than to provide substantive background on the inception of these works, their performance history, or scholarly analysis. More documentation of how these operas have been staged (e.g., photographs or drawings of sets and costumes or interviews with directors, designers, and performers who realized these operas in the theater) would be especially welcome.

Levin’s introductory essay seeks to situate these ten individual operas within a larger context, and demonstrates the potential that the online presentation of this material has as an advantage over individual boxed recordings.  While the essay spends rather too much time on the impossible question, “What’s a Jewish opera?” which revisits shopworn debates on what’s Jewish and what’s opera, the background that Levin provides on the works at hand and the context of their creation is much more helpful. Given how little scholarship has been done on these operas, individually or as a group, this essay is an important start that, at the same time, begs for more information and analysis.

Placing these recordings online can make these operas more readily accessible not only to the dedicated scholar or enthusiast but also to the curious browser, who might come across them in the course of pursuing an interest in the composers, performers, source works, history of American music, or modern Jewish culture, among other possibilities. Posting these recordings together with auxiliary materials can further enrich these interests. Moreover, by providing these supporting images, videos, and texts on a website, there is the potential to expand these offerings, especially artistic responses and scholarly analyses, over time. These recordings provide a compelling point of entry into a largely unfamiliar chapter of American Jewish music. The works sampled in this volume are among the most elaborately conceived performance works in which American Jewish artists have sought to position Jewish culture—literature from the Hebrew Bible to the work of modern American writers, sacred and folk music, people, events, and ideas of the Jewish past—forthrightly as a source of creative inspiration for a general public. The recordings in Heroes and Heroines should inspire more interest in these compositions and more reflection on their place in history.


[1] See Jeffrey Shandler, While America Watches:  Televising the Holocaust (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999), 64-69.

Jeffrey Shandler, Rutgers University