Friday, November 01, 2013

Jews in Opera

On Weds night Rob Coopman and Andre Boers presented a program of recordings and videos at the Emunah meeting at the New Synagogue (MacDonalds) in Netanya on the topic "Jewish aspects in opera." This was a very entertaining program that was both enjoyable and informative.

They started with the famous "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from the Opera "Nabucco" (Italian for Nebuchadnezer) by Guiseppe Verdi (1848). This chorus is based on psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." The explanation for Verdi's focus on Jewish subjects was that at that time censorship prevented open performance of political subjects, such as the unification of Italy, and the yearning of the Hebrew slaves for their freedom from exile was a convenient parallel. There is another unsubstantiated story that Verdi himself was not the natural child of his parents, but was adopted from an itinerant Jewish musician.

They then went back in time to Antonio Vivaldi, a Venetian violin virtuoso, whose baroque compositions were widely influential. Particularly his opera "Judith triumphant" (1716) that tells the biblical story of Judith who murdered the General Holofernes, which was composed to celebrate the victory of the Venetian Republic against the Turks and the recapture of the island of Corfu. The parallel of contemporary events to biblical stories was often used in opera.

They then introduced a trio of French Jewish operatic composers, Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) and Jacques Offenbach (1819-80). Meyerbeer was born in Germany as Jakob Liebmann Beer, but changed his name to honor his (rich) uncle. His best known opera is "The Huguenots, " but Meyerbeer suffered greatly from anti-Semitism, particularly from his contemporary Richard Wagner, and tended to avoid overtly Jewish subjects. By contrast, Halevy tackled Jewish subjects head-on, particularly in his famous opera "La Juivre" in which his heroine and her father end up being tortured to death for being Jewish. Offenbach wrote many operas including the famous "Tales of Hoffman," from which they played the "doll song."

The Jewish opera singers they featured included Jacob Schmidt, who was an Austrian singer with an amazing voice, but unfortunately he was only 5' 2" and was too short to be an operatic hero, although he made many recordings. Also, a trio of Jewish New Yorkers, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce and Beverly Sills. Tucker and Peerce (born Perlman) were brothers-in-law and perhaps because of that they never got along. Beverly Sills not only had a magnificent soprano voice, but eventually became the Director of the Metropolitan Opera Company, quite a feat for a poor Jewish girl born Shayna (Belle) Silverman.

They ended with George Gershwin (originally Gershowitz) whose opera "Porgy and Bess" is probably the best known American opera, and they played Sammy Davis Jr., also Jewish, singing "It ain't necessarily so."


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