Postcard from Germany: Heidelberg

Opera no. 3 this week was Mieczysław Weinberg’s Mazel Tov, based on the play by Shalom Aleichem. While the original play was originally a snapshot of the life of a Jewish family in Odessa, the production managed to evoke both the spirit of all of Aleichem’s works and a peek into the composer’s own life. Projections of Chagall and Soviet propaganda provided the backdrop for much of the opera, a biographic commentary on Weinberg’s struggle to reconcile his identity with the artistic boundaries set by Stalinism. Indeed, at highly dramatic moments in the opera, a bloodied fiddler on the room would appear silently on stage, unclear as to whether he was a victim of a Russian pogrom, a Nazi camp or a Soviet purge. The ambiguity turned to dark irony at the end of the opera, when two children appeared on stage in Stalin and Hitler bobble heads, shaking hands and surveying the characters on stage.  

After the Weinberg, a small opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Ring of Polycrates. Though originally a love story about two sets of lovers overcoming their frustrations with each other, the production provided another venture into biographical dramaturgy. Set in Hollywood rather than Vienna, the story stopped dead three times to interpolate the opening of Korngold’s Concerto for Left Hand. Each time, a one-armed soldier sent to the fetch the ring appears on stage, as well as members of the Shalom Aleichem’s fictitious family in Odessa – all a reminder of the Europe that Korngold left behind upon his escape from Vienna and resettlement in Hollywood. 

Overall, both opera productions seemed to express what the composers were not able to throughout their careers. The Hollywood that Korngold worked in was long reticent to explicitly produce movies criticizing the Nazi regime (a problem noted in stories such as Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon) as the largest international market for Hollywood films was in Germany. Though Weinberg’s own operas were rarely performed in his lifetime, they still conformed to official narratives and histories as dictated by the Soviet regime. His one opera concerning the Holocaust, The Passenger, tells the story of a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, but without mention of the specific targeting of Jews in Hitler’s “Final Solution” – a remarkably ideologically determined opera, considering the loss of Weinberg’s entire family at the hand of the Germans. 

Both operas raised interesting ideas about what it means to amplify the voice of the composer, questioning the relationship between the artists’ experience and their work. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the magnanimity of the Holocaust is such that its use as a metaphor in opera is unambiguous, morally straightforward, perhaps even easy. While I could see these productions being performed in NYC, I can’t think of events on US soil so unambiguous as to render such deep meaning with polemic augmentation. At the same time I have a feeling that I’m certainly wrong in that observation, as Americans are particularly bad about criticizing the past, much less the present. Perhaps the common saying that the “sense of history” is stronger on this side of the ocean isn’t so much about longevity as it is about integrity. 

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