Premiere of the Yiddish opera “Bas-Sheve” at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto

From left to right (clockwise): Jonah Spungin Jaclyn Grossman; Screening by German multimedia artist Yeva Lapsker (All photos courtesy of the artist)

Toronto Biennial Ashkenazi Festival (August 30 to September 5) is one of the largest celebrations of Yiddish arts and culture in the world.

Along with 50 other events, the crown jewel of this year’s offering is the North American premiere of Lower Shevethe only known pre-Holocaust Yiddish opera in existence. Lower Sheve runs from August 31 to September 2 at Glenn Gould Studio and is presented as a concert/oratorio.

The first (and only) performances of Lower Sheve took place at the Kaminsky Theater in Warsaw in 1924 with only piano accompaniment. Fast forward 95 years to 2019, when a fully orchestrated score is presented at the Yiddish Summer Weimar Festival in Germany, with a subsequent performance in Lodz, Poland. The one-act opera, which lasts just one hour, is based on the biblical story of David and Bathsheba.

The material for this overview was compiled from conversations with Eric Steinartistic director of Ashkenaz, and Nate Ben Horincoach, casting director and opera administrator.

Background

Apparently Yale University took possession of the handwritten manuscript of the opera at an auction, but the actual research on the score was done by Dr. Diana Matut, a German ethnomusicologist specializing in early Jewish music. There was a problem with this recently unearthed opera – 16 pages were missing from the score’s highest section, although the actual ending was intact.

Matut has ties to Yiddish Summer Weimar and secured the funding, not just to orchestrate the score, but to recreate those 16 missing pages. The librettist was a Toronto-based man of letters, Yiddish scholar and bestselling author Michael Wexwhile the music was composed by a Berkeley-based Jewish klezmer musician, composer and music guru, Joshua Horowitz.

It was decided, in consultation with Matut, that the score would reflect the work done in art restoration, when the restored part is left clearly visible to the eye. In this way, Horowitz composed the music in his own modernist style, although he made reference to the works of Kon. He was also guided by the details Kon put in his manuscript indicating certain instruments at given points in the score.

Ashkenaz has a copy of the archive recordings from Weimar and Lodz, and, Ben-Horin reports, you can hear the audience going wild at the end. Apparently audiences in 1924 also loved opera, as Matut discovered in his research. Conductor and music critic Yisokher Fater wrote: “The enormous project has aroused great enthusiasm among the Jews of Warsaw.

Why Lower Sheve sunk without a trace after this first success remains a mystery.

The original composer and librettist

Composer Henekh Kon (1894-1972) was an important musical force in Poland. He was born into a Hasidic family in Lodz and studied to become a rabbi. When his family saw that his interests lay in Jewish klezmer and folk music, they sent him to music school in Berlin.

Back in Warsaw, he was part of the avant-garde, putting poetry to music, as well as composing incidental music for plays and films. In fact, he is the composer of some of Yiddish’s most popular songs. Kon’s greatest fame is composing the iconic music for the classic 1937 Yiddish film, The Dibek (The Dybbuk). He was also instrumental in creating the Yiddish cabaret and revue scene with the poet Moishe Broderzon. Kon also worked for a time with the Yiddish Art Theater in Paris.

It is unknown how Kon survived World War II, but after the war he immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, he could not repeat the sparkling success he had in Poland and died virtually destitute in New York.

For many years esteemed Moscow-born poet and playwright Moishe Broderzon was one of Kon’s closest associates. Its greatness lies in the fusion of Jewish literature with new forms. Although Broderzon was born in Russia, he came to Lodz to be part of a vibrant Jewish cultural scene. He fled to Russia after a stay in Bialystok when the Nazis invaded Lodz. Back in his native country, he was evacuated to a small town in Central Asia.

In 1944, Broderzon was summoned to Moscow to teach at the State Yiddish Theater School of Drama. Unfortunately, when Stalin began his deliberate attack on Jewish culture and began to purge artists, Broderzon fell victim to this terror. In 1950, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. In 1955 Broderzon was declared rehabilitated and released, and in 1956 he was allowed to travel to Poland where he joined the small Warsaw literary group which survived the war. His ultimate goal was to emigrate to Israel.

Unfortunately, weakened by years of hard work, Broderzon died of a heart attack in Warsaw. He is also said to have died of a broken heart, seeing Poland as a Jewish graveyard and lamenting the loss of Jewish cultural vibrancy.

How ‘Bas-Sheve’ came to Ashkenaz

Stein first heard of the opera when he attended Festival Klez Canada in Montreal in 2019. There he met people who had seen the opera at Yiddish Summer Weimar, and he became intrigued. Knowing that Ashkenaz couldn’t put together a production on his own, Stein applied for an international grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and quickly forgot about it. To his surprise, Ashkenaz won the grant and plans were in place for an international consortium.

First, Stein contacted the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at UCLA. Being attached to a university means a lot of resources. The orchestra for the Toronto performance is made up of 25 members from the UCLA Philharmonia, part of the Milken Centre, under the direction of Neal Stulbergwho holds the position of music director.

To add to the international flavor, Yiddish Summer Weimar is also involved. They provided the multimedia artist services Yeva Lapskerwho created a series of projections inspired by the story of David and Bathsheba.

From Toronto come the four soloists and the 12-member choir, three to one part. In other words, there will be plenty of artists on the Glenn Gould Studio stage.

Characters & Soloists

There are four characters in the opera, and of course the singers have to learn Yiddish. To that end, Miriam Borden, chair of the board of directors of Ashkenaz, is also a doctoral candidate in Yiddish. She recorded the opera’s libretto, speaking the text, to guide the singers. It also helps opera singers to have a passing knowledge of German, as Yiddish is, in fact, a German dialect.

The cast includes four very talented young singers. Bathsheba is interpreted by the soprano Jaclyn Grossman and King David by the baritone Jonas Spungin. These characters are a given.

As both Stein and Ben-Horin point out, a common tendency in Jewish arts and letters is a philosophical and conversational approach, and Lower Sheve follows this mode of examination of actions and consequences.

The other two characters are Nathan the Prophet and the Messenger, interpreted by the tenor Marcel d’Entremont and baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg, respectively. Incidentally, the composer Kon sang the role of the Messenger, as well as played the piano, for the performances in Warsaw in 1924.

The heart of the opera revolves around Nathan telling David that God is angry with him for raping Bathsheba and sending her husband Uriah to die in battle. The Messenger is part of the mix trying to get Nathan away from David. He also brings news of Uriah’s death. David is finally consumed by guilt.

The missing 16 pages that had to be pieced together begin with Nathan’s accusation that David sentenced Urie to death. This is followed by battle music with the choir hitting rocks together (rocks that Ben-Horin found along the Don River). David then has a long scene of guilt and prayer, and Bathsheba sings a lullaby to her newborn baby. From here the opera reverts to the Kon/Broderzon version and ends with the so-called mad scene and the choral lament of Bathsheba.

To atone for David’s sins and leave his soul on a clean slate, God takes the child from Bathsheba. In other words, the poor woman has nothing left. So much for the Old Testament.

The musical style of ‘Bas-Sheve’

The men describe Kon’s music as the nationalist school, following the lines of Janacek, Borodin and Smetana, where the music incorporates motifs found in folk tunes, melodies, rhythms and harmonies from their own country, mixed with the Germanic romantic musical language.

Last words

From Ben-Horin: “I find the change in tone between Kon and Horowitz really exciting. Horowitz is dissenting and melodic, while Kon features a genuine Jewish folksy inflection. As for the singers, I have to make them say they don’t pronounce Yiddish like you would in German, they have to make the words earthier and the consonants crisper.

De Stein: “I am always amazed at the sociological phenomenon that the most vibrant Yiddish and Jewish cultural centers are in places where there are hardly any Jews, like Weimar.”

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