Monday, August 31, 2015

A Jewish Perspective on Nabucco and An American Dream

Both the operas Seattle Opera has recently presented concern Jewish characters who undergo displacement based on events pivotal to the history of the Jewish people: in the case of Nabucco, the Babylonian captivity; and in the case of An American Dream, the Holocaust. We are indebted to James Mirel (photo below), Rabbi Emeritus at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, who attended both shows last weekend and who shared his reactions with me the other day. (Rabbi Mirel is no stranger to Seattle Opera. His wife, mezzo soprano Julie Mirel, sang many roles with Seattle Opera in the 1980s. Explore her Seattle Opera career HERE.)

That was quite a weekend! I felt that both librettists, Temistocle Solera, who wrote Nabucco for Verdi, and Jessica Murphy Moo, who wrote An American Dream, did a good job portraying sympathetic Jewish characters. From my perspective as a rabbi and a Jew in Seattle, it’s good to have positive representations of Jews onstage. Because sometimes it’s negative: The Merchant of Venice, for instance. Yes, I know, Shakespeare is a very sophisticated dramatist; but Shylock isn’t so appealing a character.

I give Solera a lot of credit. Smart guy! Sometimes the words of an opera libretto are not really all that important, but in this case they are. Nabucco is based on the Bible, and the words of the most famous passage, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero,” come from Psalm 137. “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept; on the willows there we hung up our lyres.” When the opera was first performed, that piece was understood as being about Italy. But today, when we listen to it, it’s Zionist. They want to return to Zion.

"Va, pensiero" from Seattle Opera's Nabucco

It’s fascinating to me that Solera’s three Babylonian characters, Abigaille, Nabucco, and Fenena, all become Jews by the end of the opera. It’s a redemptive ending. Abigaille is redeemed at her death. Her half-sister, Fenena, is a wonderful character. She’s in love, and she converts so she can join her beloved’s faith; but she’s also authentically convinced that his is the true religion, and she’s going to follow it. It reminded me of the Book of Ruth, which was written about the same time, about this heroic woman who converts to Judaism.

Jamie Barton as Fenena in Nabucco, with the crumbling statue of Baal behind her
Elise Bakketun, photo

As for Nabucco’s own journey, he goes through a major change, a big catharsis. I wouldn’t call the end of this opera a deus ex machina, in terms of a supernatural intervention by God, or a character portraying God. Usually when that happens, God (or Zeus or Apollo or somebody) actually comes onstage and speaks. There’s a miraculous element at the climax of Nabucco, in the disintegration of the false idol, but what really happens is that Nabucco comes to a realization: This is the way of the world. The way it is. The true faith.

I want to share with you a passage from the Book of Daniel (Chapter 4, Verses 34-37), words spoken by the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar:

“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?” At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”

And that’s pretty much what he sings at the end of the opera. For a non-Hebraic person, Nabucco turns out to be a pretty good Jew! And Seattle Opera’s singer, Gordon Hawkins, really captured it. It’s a hard role to pull off, and he really made him into a human being.

Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco in the conversion scene, with Maestro Carlo Montanaro
Elise Bakketun, photo

As for the other Jewish characters, Ismaele doesn’t have that much to do, but Zaccaria is a great role, a very positive figure. There’s a Zechariah in the Bible, one of the prophets, but this character is the High Priest. He’s a very charismatic leader. His people are in exile and he has to give them hope, has to give them a vision.

Christian Van Horn sings Zaccaria's prophecy from Seattle Opera's Nabucco

Is his religion the same as Judaism today? It’s a good question, and one that could be debated and debated. Obviously we don’t have the Temple of Jerusalem, or the Levites, or the sacrificial system, so it’s simpler nowadays. But it is the same religion; the belief in one God is the same.

Following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, in 586 BC, the Israelites were taken to Babylon, where they had to figure out how to be authentically Israelites without Israel. That really was the beginning of modern Judaism—Judaism in the diaspora. Before that event, the Temple in Jerusalem was where you worshipped God, where you sacrificed to God, where you connected to God. But after the Temple was destroyed, they had to figure out: is God still in charge? Can we still be Jews? And they figured it out in Babylon.

What happened is that God was understood, not as a local god of Israel, but as the universal God of the whole world. God is one, for everybody. And that’s exactly what Zaccaria sings, in that solo aria with just the cellos accompanying him. I thought that scene was very authentic. He calls for the Levite, who would be the one serving the priest and carrying the Torah scroll. I’m glad we saw that scroll, in Seattle Opera’s otherwise more abstract production. It’s fitting, because the Torah is the central symbol of Judaism today. In Solomon’s temple, they had scrolls; but in Babylon, that’s all they had. So it became essential.

Christian Van Horn sings Zaccaria's Act Two Prayer from Nabucco while Mark Kerr as the Levite holds the Torah
Philip Newton, photo

In a more representational production, I imagine you’d see Nabucco’s soldiers, in the first act, take the menorah and the sacred vessels as they sack the Temple of Solomon. But the Jews take their Torah with them, because that’s how they keep Judaism alive, the memory, the history. You see it at the end of Fiddler on the Roof, when they’re forced to leave their town; the Rabbi takes the Torah. If you take nothing else, you take that.

That question: “If you suddenly had to leave your home, what would you take?” was the origin behind Seattle Opera’s Belonging(s) project and your other opera this weekend, An American Dream. It’s a great idea, and it was fascinating to see how it was developed. The creative team ended up contrasting the Japanese experience of exile with the Jewish experience; these two soprano characters led parallel lives, and then connected at the end. For me, that opera was really about the Japanese experience. The Jewish experience is there; it’s important, but it’s secondary.

I can imagine a person asking whether you were claiming that the Jewish experience in Nazi concentration camps was parallel to the Japanese experience in internment camps in the United States. But you weren’t saying that. You were saying, “This person had this experience, and that person had that experience.” They have some things in common, but it’s not the same experience.

Eva’s story, as a German Jew who escapes the Nazis and ends up in the Pacific Northwest, was very typical, actually. You could easily have found someone who actually had that experience and asked them to speak before the performance, as you did with people who had first-hand experience of the Japanese internment.

At the climax of An American Dream, Setsuko (Hae Ji Chang) reads a letter from Germany telling what happened to Eva's parents to Eva (D'Ana Lombard), comforted by her husband Jim (Morgan Smith)
Elise Bakketun, photo

There were lots of German and Austrian Jewish refugees who came to America, both before the war, as the Nazis were taking power, and some who came after the war. Anyone who saw what was happening, and could get out, did. Eva must had someone who sponsored her, perhaps her husband. A mixed marriage like that might have been unusual in the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s, but I wouldn’t say it never happened. The anti-semitism here was more social than anything else. People could live wherever they wanted; they might not be able to join elite clubs.

I liked Eva immediately. She was empathic, caring; she understood the pain of other people. Her husband, Jim, who wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t the most sympathetic character, but he also wasn’t a terrible person. Even before Pearl Harbor, there was widespread prejudice against Asians here in the Pacific Northwest. And lots of American soldiers came back from the war having seen terrible things the Japanese had done to their buddies, or to the Filipinos, or to the Chinese. So that may have informed where he was coming from.

Would Eva have been prejudiced against Japanese people? We might hope that as a Jew who had experienced anti-semitism, she’d be less likely to be prejudiced against others. Eva came from Germany, so she probably didn’t know anything about Japanese people before she got to the Pacific Northwest. The librettist was smart to make sure that Eva didn’t understand what her husband had done to get that house. If she had known about it, she would have been complicit. But he left her outside when he went in to negotiate.

The title, An American Dream, is obviously ironic. Both the Jewish and the Japanese characters sing hopefully about ‘the American dream.’ But they also share this traumatic experience of exile and loss. And after the events of the opera, both have to get on with their lives, in America. The difference is that Setsuko has to live in a country that locked her away, whereas Eva doesn’t live in Germany, the country that murdered her parents.

I hope more people will get a chance to hear this opera. I think it has legs.

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