We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, March 2, 2024


Curtain Call at Premiere of Emigré
(Photo by Chris Lee)

The project began with a co-commission for an oratorio by The New York Philharmonic and Maestro Long Yu of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Emigré  premiered in Shanghai last November and had its American premiere last night in the Wu Tsai Theater at Lincoln Center. Perhaps an oratorio was requested of composer Aaron Zigman and librettists Mark Campbell and Brock Walsh; but what they got was a music theater piece with one foot in the opera house and the other on Broadway.

We think of an oratorio as a sacred work performed concert style without sets, costumes, or acting. The only sacred moments in Emigré  were the first few when the New York Philharmonic Chorus sang phrases from the Hebrew Kaddish and a Buddhist prayer. That the work is dramatic is all to the good since music theater moves us more than music alone.

For this dramatic success, credit goes to Director Mary Birnbaum who did a fine job of telling the story with nothing more than the strip of stage in front of the massive forces of the New York Philharmonic and a small area in front of the equally massive forces of The New York Philharmonic Chorus on the level above, plus the stairways connecting the two.

The story is well worth telling. In two visits to The People's Republic of China, we never learned that Shanghai played host to Jewish refugees fleeing The Holocaust. That China suffered a holocaust of their own at the hands of the Japanese during WW II was, however, known to us from films such as Spielberg's Empire of the Sun and history books describing the Rape of Nanking.

For us there is great appeal in a work of art that meets our "Three E Requirements". We want to be entertained, educated, and enlightened. Emigré hit the mark. However, our preference would be to see it in a medium-sized opera house in which the excellent opera singers could be heard unamplified, with a small orchestra. The piece could also work on Broadway although we detest amplification.

However, that was not what was intended by the commission; it is just our preference. We are well acquainted with some of the singers, somewhat familiar with the others; all deserve to be heard better which is impossible with orchestral and choral forces of such magnitude.

The story concerns two brothers fleeing Germany for Shanghai after Kristallnacht, understandably devastated by leaving their parents behind. Otto (tenor Matthew White) is religious and bonds with a rabbi (bass-baritone Andrew Dwan) whose daughter Tovah (soprano Diana Newman) welcomes him and sings the lovely "In a Woman's Hands".

Josef (tenor Arnold Livingston Geis) is a young doctor who wanders into a Chinese pharmaceutical shop, eager to learn about Chinese medicine. He experiences an instant and mutual attraction with the doctor's daughter Lina Song (soprano Meigui Zhang). Her father (bass-baritone Shenyang) is rejecting but older sister Li  (mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu) is more sympathetic.

The couple have a lovely courtship in the Yu Garden and an equally lovely song "In a Perfect World". All is well until Shanghai isolates the Jews in a ghetto and, since the couple defied their family's wishes and became man and wife, there is nowhere for them to go.

Here we have a situation just made for opera--political issues driven home and made personal by romantic consequences. Just think of all the situations in the world today in which love is made difficult or impossible by barriers of one sort or another.  Consider the plight of displaced people with nowhere to go.  Think of the heavy cost of cultural insularism and fear of "the other". This work touched so many bases for us and probably had many audience members talking about it afterward.

As far as the music is concerned, there is plenty of variation of styles--what one might call eclecticism. There was nothing excruciatingly "post-modern" about it and we found it accessible. Composer Aaron Zigman has written scores for film and television and has orchestrated for jazz and popular singers.

The libretto by Mark Campbell, whilst not quite as wonderful as the one he wrote for The ( R ) evolution of Steve Jobs,  has avoided the trap of long prosy lines but in keeping the phrases short and rhyming, the effect verged on doggerel at times.  The lyrics contributed by songwriter Brock Walsh were more than usually accessible.

Maestro Long Yu commanded the aforementioned "massive forces" with aplomb and Chorus Master Malcolm J. Merriweather ensured that every word was comprehensible. We consider it rather a miracle to have achieved this degree of clarity  with such a huge chorus.

Projections by Joshua Higgason were notable for being apropos and non- intrusive. There were stills and film clips in black and white of street scenes and battle scenes from China during WW II, as well as colorful Chinese symbols. Titles were projected overhead but rarely needed since everyone's diction was clear.

Our only disappointment was that these excellent singers were not given the opportunity to show their superlative voices. Audience members who had never heard them on the opera stage missed what we cherish in our memories of prior performances.

We walked home deep in thought about all the issues brought up by the work. We had a couple hours of entertainment and quite a bit of education and enlightenment. We enjoy doing the work of seeing something historical and comparing it with what is going on in the world today. So many directors these days deprive us of that participation.

© meche kroop 

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