What’s Jewish about… Opera?

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is debuting a new work about the Holocaust this season. Titled The Passenger, it has an innovative set. An upper level of the stage is the deck of a 1960s ocean liner on which a woman, formerly a death-camp worker, thinks she recognizes another passenger as one of her victims. The stage itself, below, shows incidents at the camp, in flashback.

The link between the worlds of Jewish music and opera is a strong one. Synagogue cantors like Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, and Joseph Schmidt (their first names are linked with cantorial performances, last names with operatic ones) often graced opera stages, aweing audiences with their sonorous tones.

Many opera composers have been Jewish, too, including: Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), Jacques Offenbach (born Jacob), Anton Rubinstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold,  Fromental Halevy, and Darius Milhaud; even Moses Mendelssohn tried his hand at opera.

American Jewish opera composers include George Gershwin (whose Porgy and Bess is also in the current Lyric season), Leonard Bernstein, Steve Reich… and Phillip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach was inspired by that Jewish physicist.

As to the operas themselves, Jewish stories have long been part of the subject matter. A major source of operatic stories has been the Torah itself. The stories of Adam, Cain and Abel,

Noah (twice- once each by Halevy and Donizetti), The Tower of Babel, Abraham (by Reich), Joseph, Moses (by Rossini), and Aaron (by Schoenberg) have all been made into operas.

Many stories that take place after the Five Books of Moses have been opera-ized as well, and by some of the form's greatest artists: David and Jonathan, King Saul, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (by German-Jewish Hermann Salomon Mosenthal), Jephtha (Meyerbeer's first opera), Samson and Delilah (by Camille Saint-Saëns), The Maccabees (by Rubinstein and Mosenthal), Queen Esther (by American Jewish composer Hugo Weisgall), and stories from the books of Daniel and Jeremiah (Nabucco, by Verdi)

France's Halevy wrote what must be the opera with the most Jewish title: The Jewess. In it, a Jewish woman falls for a non-Jewish prince. It's set in the Middle Ages; no, it doesn't end well.

The Milken Jewish Archive has two volumes with excerpts from Jewish-American operas on Old World themes. The first volume has parts of The Golem (Abraham Ellstein) and The Dybbuk (David Tamkin), as well as tales of Chelm (Robert Strassberg). The second has Gimpel the Fool (David Schiff, based on I.B. Singer's story) and Weisgall's Esther. More recently, Israeli composer Shulamit Ran has composed an opera on the dybbuk tale as well.

The main characters of the famous opera Die Fledermaus are named von Eisenstein, so there is some speculation as to whether those characters are Jewish… and given their negative portrayal, if the opera is therefore anti-Semitic.

A more recent one that has been almost unanimously condemned as such is the 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer. It details the events leading to the 1985 death of wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, thrown overboard off of his cruise ship by hijacking PLO terrorists. It debuted in 1991, and recently made the news when the Met this year cancelled its simulcast of the opera. While the author says his work “accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder,” the victim’s daughters feel it “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.” According to The New Yorker, the opera “sparked outrage in onlookers who felt that it unduly favored the Palestinian point of view.”

Klinghoffer was the work of John Adams (the still-living one), as was the 2005 Dr. Atomic, the tale of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish physicist who oversaw the Manhattan Project, i.e. the making of the atom bomb. (Einstein has an opera and so does Oppenheimer… so where is Feynman's?)

And who knows which other operas will be revealed to have Jewish connections;  a recent Tablet article discussed the Jewish origins of one of the most beloved and acclaimed operas of all: Don Giovanni.

What's Jewish about opera? Maybe we should just ask an expert.

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.