Esther: The Whole (Operatic) Megillah

By | Tagged: culture, texts

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.

Plot Synopsis

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.

Esther opera

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.