This season, New York City Opera brought back on stage the late Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, a contemporary work based on the biblical story of mortal danger and miraculous survival. Set in ancient Persia, the opera engages questions of destiny and assimilation, violence and victory, thus making it relevant to contemporary audiences.
The plot of the opera stays surprisingly close to the ancient text of Megillat Esther. King Ahasuerus, here dubbed as Xerxes (probably because the latter name works better for libretto–try rhyming to the former!) in a drunken rage, banishes his wife Vashti. He searches for a new wife to dispel his solitude, and Esther, a seventeen-year-old Jewish girl, finds herself the chosen one. In the meantime, the king’s minister Haman concocts a plot to destroy Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) along with all of the empire’s Jews. When Mordecai pleads with Esther to intervene, Esther accepts the challenge, subjecting herself to mortal danger, and reveals to the king her Jewish origins and Haman’s plot. Haman and his family are hanged and the Jews are allowed to arm and defend themselves from their enemies, emerging victorious from a bloody battle.
Background and Style
Opera turns out to be a particularly auspicious genre for representation of the megillah, a text that is traditionally chanted in synagogues on Purim. Using the technique of cantillation, the text is read with a complex melody, which, at times, hints at its possible hidden meanings, adding a musical, theatric element. Other Torah readings are also read with special cantillation; however, if the theatric element is all but lost to weekly routine, on Purim the readers of the megillah turn it up a notch, playing up the musical potential of the text, and contributing to the general atmosphere of carnival and hilarity.
In essence, that is how opera works as well, turning the text of the libretto into a musical composition–a stylized, sung speech. This is particularly true for modern composers, such as Esther‘s Hugh Weisgall, who avoids explicit melodies and instead focuses on abrupt, broken-off, and often atonal phrasing that has more in common with day-to-day speech than with catchy ditties that many earlier operas contained. The performance thus becomes more tense, theatrical, and challenging.
The choppiness of Weisgall’s style works well with the theme of Esther: snatches of fear, violence, power, eroticism are all thrown at the audience in a way that is modern and therefore more obtuse, disconnected. Occasionally, a familiar (klezmer-like or popular) melody appears for a split second and then vanishes back into the complex fabric of intonations and sounds.
Lauren Flannigan’s performance as Esther is truly outstanding; a seasoned performer, well into her middle-age, she seamlessly plays a seventeen-year old girl, both awkward and graceful, dreamy yet sharp and sophisticated. Roy Cornelius Smith makes for a memorably vivacious Haman, who is not merely evil as the biblical text makes him out to be, but is also complex, likable, and deeply emotional. The expanded part of Hegai is performed by Gerald Thompson, who, as a counter-tenor, sings in the highest, castrato-like pitches, which is quite fitting for his role of the king’s eunuch.
Questions of Assimilation and Responsibility
In the opera’s narrative, Esther, having become queen, distances herself from Mordecai and his heritage. When Mordecai comes to inform her of Haman’s plan, she at first refuses to react, claiming she does not have much to do with the nation any more. Yet, it slowly begins to dawn on her, she’s responsible for her people: we’re all responsible one for another, reminds Mordecai, echoing the talmudic dictum.
“Who am I?” asks the queen, over and over again, finally responding: “I am Esther.” This apparently simple response actually contains the deeper realization that Jewishness is the defining characteristic of her self, her essence; the opportunity–and obligation–to save her people is why she was destined to become Queen of Persia. Struggling with this idea, and in disbelief, Esther gradually summons her strength, her charm, and sheds the layers of herself, publicly pronouncing her Jewishness and petitioning for her nation’s survival.
The Jewish crowds appearing in the production all wear black, almost burka-like outfits. In a pivotal scene, they fill the stage while Esther, in a colorful blue dress, stands out among them, like a symbolic ray of hope against the dark, fear-ridden background. Even at the opera’s culmination, despite the apparent relief of deliverance, the Jews still wear those same garbs. Dark themes pervade the play until the end, and offer no respite.
On the carnivalesque holiday of Purim, the Book of Esther is usually seen through the lens of hilarity and joy. Weisgall offers a different perspective, focusing his opera on the darker aspects of the text, particularly, the violence.
The show opens with ten shadows on the gallows–belonging to the hanged sons of Haman–and a gravedigger recounts the opening of the tale. This morally problematic image is made even more explicit at the end of the play, when Haman’s whole family is dragged away, including a few boys probably under the age of ten. While traditionally, in synagogue readings, the persecution of Haman and his clan is greeted with joy, Weisgall questions this glee, exposing the disturbing violence surrounding the cruel punishment which included those who were far from being responsible. To a Jewish viewer, the first moment of the opening scene may immediately summon the imagery of the Holocaust; yet, how does this reaction change, when one realizes who is really hung on the gallows?
The theme of violence is further underscored when Xerxes declares he cannot withdraw his order to destroy the Jewish people; yet he is willing to let them fight back. He is locked into the paradigm of his own power, and it backfires against him: once the machinery of war is started, it cannot be stopped–only magnified.
The hilarity and joy of Megillat Esther is shed in the opera, its narrative turning into a suspenseful, thriller-like tale, dark and depressing. Carnivalesque atmosphere, however, remains and carries through the outstanding costumes and fantastically colorful stage arrangements. A contemporary Jew, Weisgall asks his audience: is it possible to really revel over the enemy’s defeat–if it involves so much violence and trauma?
One doesn’t get a private priestly blessingÂ every day, with fingers spread out and all; and when it comes from an elderly poet, in his fifth floor walk-up in Soho, in the dust-filtered sunlight amidst piles of books — well, that is a memory to tell your grandchildren about. Or at least the readers of MJL, as the case may be.
A few months ago I wrote an informational article about Samuel Menashe, a great Jewish poet whose work has been coming into prominence over the past decade. In the year 2000, he was awarded the Neglected Masters Award; his book was published by the prestigious Library of America. Now, the second edition of the book is coming out, and an analogous publication is hitting the bookshelves in London, as well.
Having been away from New York for a year, I decided to pay Menashe a visit, congratulate him on the new publication,Â and finally see his apartment.
For an 84-year-old, the poet is exceptionally vibrant and lucid. His sense of humor, which has always been on the noir side, is still there: “Iâ€™m still alive, can you believe that?” he asked. As we were conversing, the phone rang; an editor was calling to inform him that a neo-classical musician set one of Menasheâ€™s poems to music, and he is now invited to fly to North Carolina for the debut performance. â€œNorth Carolina? Thatâ€™s it, next time weâ€™re going to Paris!â€ he joyfully shouted into the phone.
Our conversation soon turned to metaphysics. â€œYou know, when Jews began talking about their invisible God of oneness, the whole world thought they were insane. The idol-worshipers made their gods, bowed to the ‘work of their hands,’ but Jews bowed to something invisibleâ€¦ They didnâ€™t believe the idols had any power. Pagans were stunned at their propensity for disbelief; in a sense Jews were the first atheists.â€
I asked Samuel if he thought poets bow down to the work of their own hands–poetry. He answered by quoting his own poem:
Scribe out of work
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with
Stands at the window
Biding his time
I stood up at his window, and thought about how he certainly bid his time here, having stayed in the same apartment for more than 50 years. On the windowsill, six peaches were ripening. â€œThey are awfully good now, you must have at least two!â€ he told me. I dutifully obeyed.
â€œI want to give you a blessing. You know Iâ€™m a kohen, right?â€ Samuel spread his hands in the ritualistic manner, just as Israelite priests did in the Temple more than 2000 years ago, just as their descendants still do on special occasions in synagogues today. Word by word, he piled all sorts of blessings over my head. I tried to put on what I thought to be a blessing-appropriate face, being at once immensely moved but also quite tickled.
Walking down the stairs of his building, I felt ready to levitate; was it the sugar rush from two giant peaches — I asked myself — or Menasheâ€™s priestly blessing starting to work?
When I first became obsessed with books, at the age of 9 or so, my Russian parents proudly told me: â€œIntellegentsia of second generation, you are!â€ Intellegentsia is a Russian equivalent of pseudo-intellectual; second generation, because my parents were the first ones, in our family, to attend college and plunge into the blissful world of intellectual snobbery. Neither of my grandfathers was a literati: far from it. Each born in his shtetl, each with his blue-color job. In the evenings, they read their newspapers slowly and dutifully, and in the morning, folded up these newspapers as a wrapper for their lunch. Things were very utilitarian like that.
So one day, when my paternal grandfather told me he was fond of Isaac Babel, I was rather surprised. I knew Babel was highbrow Russian Jewish literature; that despite the catchiness of his tales about Odessaâ€™s underworld, gangster stories and the like, ultimately, he was an exquisite, decadent poet, revered, and constantly quoted in my parentsâ€™ circles.
â€œWell,â€ said my grandfather, â€œyou know, we have a bit of a familial connection to Babel. Do you know that Babelâ€™s greatest character, gangster Benya Krik is modeled after a real-time Jewish bandit, Mishka Yaponchik?â€ Like every other self-respecting Russian Jewish kid, I knew.
â€œSo, your great-grandfatherâ€™s brother was good friends with him,â€ my grandfather replied. Apparently, one of my ancestors was a bit of a shtetl terror; business associate of aforementioned Yaponchik, he drove into the shtetl in his horse and buggy, showed off his guns, shot in the air (and elsewhere sometimes), then stopped at my great-grandmotherâ€™s house for a drink. â€œHe drank a full glass of vodka in a single go,â€ said my grandfather.
Being a sheltered, near-sighted kid, with little propensity for exercise, let alone horseriding and robbery, I was doubtful. To which my grandfather reasoned: â€œYour cousin Misha is getting into big trouble in school. His father told me Mishaâ€™s involved in a gang. Street scum is looking up to him. Iâ€™m telling you, we have it in our gene pool.â€
Throughout my childhood, I heard stories of my troublemaking cousin–he was slightly older than me, and lived in a different town. We had briefly met, but for the most part, hyped on all the stories, I felt queasy encountering him. Today heâ€™s the owner of a number of stores and a small factory; when we finally reconnected, years later as adults, he had already become a well-respected Ukrainian businessman. One of the founding members of the Jewish community in Krivoy Rog, he recently donated a sizable sum to build a Jewish orphanage there. Sounds suspicious doesn’t it? My imagination goes wild, but I donâ€™t dare to ask.
Isaac Babel, recounting his stories of Odessaâ€™s gangster-life, always did so wistfully, longingly looking out into the exciting dangerous world, from behind his thick, nerdy glasses. He romanticized that world a great deal; and that, I guess, is the fate of intellegentsia, pseudo-intellectual writers: we stare at the world from the outside and partake in our imaginationâ€™s angsty turmoil, rather than real-time action. As Benya Krik said: â€œThereâ€™re those who know how to drink vodka; and thereâ€™re those who donâ€™t know how, but still drink it. The first ones get pleasure — from both joy and disaster; the latter suffer for those first ones.â€
Thinking about my future kids, I am a little worried about the promises and surprises of the gene pool; but in the meantime, I wrote a brief introduction to Isaac Babel for MJL â€“ take a look, and if you donâ€™t already own a copy of his stories, find yourself a copy at a used bookstore near you. And Iâ€™m not just saying that because I have a familial connection to him!
Guest blogger Jake Marmer wrote MyJewishLearning’s article on Isaac Babel.