Toronto’s biennial Ashkenaz Festival (Aug. 30 to Sept. 5) is one of the largest celebrations of Yiddish arts and culture in the world.
Along with 50 other events, the jewel in the crown of this year’s offerings is the North American premiere of Bas-Sheve, the only known pre-Holocaust Yiddish opera in existence. Bas-Sheve runs Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 at the Glenn Gould Studio, and is presented in concert/oratorio style.
The first (and only) performances of Bas-Sheve took place at the Kaminsky Theatre in Warsaw in 1924 with only piano accompaniment. Jump 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 runs only an hour, is based on the biblical story of David and Bathsheba.
The material for this preview was compiled from conversations with Eric Stein, artistic director of Ashkenaz, and Nate Ben-Horin, the opera’s coach, casting director, and administrator.
Apparently, Yale University got possession of the opera’s handwritten manuscript in an auction, but the actual research on the score was done by Dr. Diana Matut, a German ethno-musicologist who specializes in early Jewish music. There was one problem with this recently unearthed opera — 16 pages were missing from the most climactic section of the score, although the actual ending is intact.
Matut has ties with Yiddish Summer Weimar, and got the funding, not only to orchestrate the score, but to re-create those 16 missing pages. The librettist was Toronto-based man of letters, Yiddish scholar and best-selling author Michael Wex, while the music was composed by Berkeley-based klezmer musician, composer, and Jewish music guru, Joshua Horowitz.
It was decided, in consultation with Matut, that the score would mirror the work done in art restoration, when the restored portion is left clearly visible to eye. In this way, Horowitz composed the music in his own modernist style, although he references the works of Kon. He was also guided by the details Kon put in his manuscript indicating certain instruments at given moments of the score.
Ashkenaz has a copy of the archival recordings from Weimar and Lodz, and, Ben-Horin reports, you can hear the audience go wild at the end. Apparently, the audiences in 1924 loved the opera as well, as Matut discovered in her research. Wrote conductor and music critic Yisokher Fater, “The enormous project generated great enthusiasm amongst the Jews of Warsaw.”
Why Bas-Sheve sunk without a trace after this initial 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 Chassidic family in Lodz, and was educated to be 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 became part of the avant-garde, setting poetry to music, as well as composing incidental scores for plays and movies. In fact, he is the composer of some of Yiddish’s most popular songs. Kon’s greatest claim to fame is composing the iconic score for the classic 1937 Yiddish film, Der Dibek (The Dybbuk). He was also instrumental in helping to create the Yiddish cabaret and revue scene with poet Moishe Broderzon. Kon also worked for a time with the Yiddish Art Theatre in Paris.
How Kon survived World War ll is not known, but after the war, he immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, he could not repeat the glittering success he had in Poland, and died a virtual pauper in New York City.
Over many years, esteemed Moscow-born poet and playwright Moishe Broderzon was one of Kon’s closest collaborators. His greatness lies in fusing 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 back 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 drama school of the state Yiddish theatre. Unfortunately, when Stalin began his deliberate attack on Jewish culture, and started purging artists, Broderzon became a victim of this terror. In 1950, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp. In 1955, Broderzon was declared rehabilitated, and released and, in 1956, he was allowed to go to Poland where he joined forces with the tiny literary group in Warsaw that survived the war. His ultimate goal was to emigrate to Israel.
Sadly, weakened by years of hard labour, Broderzon died of a heart attack in Warsaw. It is also said that he died of a broken heart, seeing Poland as a Jewish cemetery, and lamenting the loss of Jewish cultural vibrancy.
How ‘Bas-Sheve’ Came to Ashkenaz
Stein first heard about the opera when he attended the Klez Canada Festival in Montreal in 2019. There, he encountered people who had seen the opera at Yiddish Summer Weimar, and he became intrigued. Knowing that Ashkenaz could not mount a production on its own, Stein applied for a Canada Council international grant, and promptly forgot about it. Much to his surprise, Ashkenaz got the grant and plans were put 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 lots of resources. The orchestra for the performance in Toronto is the 25-member UCLA Philharmonia, part of the Milken Centre, under conductor Neal Stulberg, who is functioning as music director.
To add to the international flavour, Yiddish Summer Weimar is also involved. They have provided the services of multimedia artist Yeva Lapsker, who has created a series of projections inspired by the David and Bathsheba story.
From Toronto comes the four soloists and 12-member chorus, three on a part. In other words, there are going to be a lot 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, who is president of the Ashkenaz board, also happens to be a doctoral candidate in Yiddish. She recorded the libretto of the opera, speaking the text, to guide the singers. It also helps that opera singers have a passing acquaintance with German, as Yiddish is, in reality, a German dialect.
The cast features four uber-talented young singers. Bathsheba is performed by soprano Jaclyn Grossman and King David by baritone Jonah Spungin. Those characters are a given.
As both Stein and Ben-Horin point out, a usual trend in Jewish arts and letters is a philosophical and conversational approach, and Bas-Sheve follows that mode of examining actions and consequences.
The other two character are Nathan the Prophet, and the Messenger, performed by tenor Marcel d’Entremont and baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg, respectively. Incidentally, composer Kon sang the part of the Messenger, as well as playing the piano, for the Warsaw performances in 1924.
The core 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 figures into the mix by trying to keep Nathan away from David. He also brings news of Uriah’s death. David is ultimately consumed with guilt.
The missing 16 pages that had to be reconstructed begin with Nathan’s accusation that David has condemned Uriah to death. This is followed by battle music with the chorus banging 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 child. From there the opera reverts to the Kon/Broderzon version and ends with Bathsheba’s so-called Mad Scene and choral lament.
To expiate David’s sins, and leave his soul with a clean slate, God takes away Bathsheba’s child. In other words, the poor woman is left with nothing. So much for the Old Testament.
The Musical Style of ‘Bas-Sheve’
The men describe Kon’s music as the Nationalist school, following along the lines of Janacek, Borodin and Smetana, where the music incorporates the motifs found in the folk tunes, melodies, rhythms and harmonies of their own country, mixed with Germanic romantic musical language.
From Ben-Horin: “I find the tonal shift between Kon and Horowitz to be really exciting. Horowitz is dissidant and melodic, while Kon exhibits a real Jewish folk inflection. As for the singers, I have to get them to not pronounce Yiddish like you would German, They have to make the words earthier and the consonants crunchier.”
From Stein: “I am forever amazed at the sociological phenomenon that the most dynamic Yiddish and Jewish cultural centres are in places where there are virtually no Jews, like Weimar.”
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