Michael Lewanski is the conductor of The Property, a new klezmer opera with music by Wlad Marhulets, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, and directed by Eric Einhorn (who adapted the original graphic novel by Rutu Modan with Fleischmann). The ensemble features members of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and stars Jill Grove, Anne Slovin, James Maddalena, Nathaniel Olson, Sam Handley, and Julianne Park.
Don't miss the world-premiere performances Feb. 25-27 at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park and March 4-5 at Skokie's North Shore Center for the Arts.
Among so many other things, art is always about itself. Literature is always somehow about language, its uses, the act of writing ("words, words, words" replies Hamlet—in the midst of a scene full of wordplay - when asked what he's reading). Visual art always thinks about possibilities of seeing and representation—the Mona Lisa stares at you just as cryptically as you stare at her. Music is no less this way. Beethoven's Eroica symphony is equally about the eventual achievement of a stable E-flat major sonority (after its notable falterings) and as much as it is about various sorts of heroisms. Opera, though, seems to thematize music itself in particularly striking, point-forcing ways. To take two examples particularly relevant to Lyric Opera-goers at the moment: Tosca's main character is an opera singer, and this very choice itself makes us hear her music in a peculiarly self-aware way. Moment after moment of Tannhäuser is filled with diagetic music—music heard not only by the audience but by the characters in the work as well. The ubiquitous Pilgrim's Chorus is, indeed, emblematic not only the possibilities of penance, but also of the ability music to express that emotion.
The Property, a so-called "klezmer opera" commissioned by Lyric Unlimited from composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann (pictured right), presents a particularly interesting case, fraught to its very edges with questions and assertions about the potential of music to be expressive. (Somehow, works involving the memory of World War II always seem to be that way. Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" precisely because the horrors of World War II were brought upon the world by the same cultural impulses that brought us the great art works of the last 200 hundred years.)
Imbedded in the very concept of a klezmer opera is already something unusual: a striking thing about klezmer as a genre is its highly suggestive mode of expression—as an instrumental form, its conventional gestures are obviously imitative of emotional charged singing, and its obligatory ornamentation similarly invites a mode of listening that is straightforwardly communicative. The term "klezmer" itself initially referred to the musical instruments, to the musicians, and not merely the genre. (The word is derived from the Yiddish for "vessel" and "song.") Thus, to make this the musical language for an opera is already a way of telling us that the opera is "about" the possibility of expression via singing.
Though of course the historical circumstances of a klezmer opera whose plot revolves around a post-World War II world do this work for us even more. Among so many horrifying things about Nazi politics—going hand-in-hand with its more commonly discussed genocidal racism—was its hegemonic cultural attitudes. One way of supposedly showing the superiority of the Aryan race was not only to valorize echt Deutsch works, but to suppress other cultural forms of expression. Indeed, they even had a term for it—the so-called entartete [degenerate] music was pretty much whatever the Nazis found unsuitable to their ideological ends and was officially and ruthless suppressed. Thus, we find ourselves with a uniquely poignant contradiction, in which a genre of music—klezmer—that has precisely as one of its self-conscious characteristics a highly emotional, uninhibited character as, ironically, being the one of those that is most viciously muffled.
This tension finds its way into the music of the opera itself. We often find ourselves confronted with contrasting singing styles juxtaposed in striking ways. On the one hand, there is conversational music. It is parlando ("speaking") in style, reminiscent of recitative from earlier operatic forms. "Half-spoken," the score often indicates (and indeed, often follows with fully spoken dialogue). Thus, when melodic passages, using characteristic klezmer intervals (the augmented second and the tritone, notably non-Western European in their sound) ensue, the effect is striking.
Following the work's prologue, just such an occurrence happens in the first scene as the main character, Regina (a Jew who escaped Poland just before the war, played by Jill Grove) arrives in her hotel room with her granddaughter Mica (Anne Slovin). (Grove and Slovin pictured left.) It is the present time, and it is Regina's first return to Warsaw since the war ended. After bantering in the aforementioned parlando manner about the shoddiness of the hotel room, the first fully sung moments of the scene occur to the following text: "I don't know. I forget. I don't want to remember." It can be no coincidence that at precisely the moment when Regina begins to think about herself, her subjectivity, her identity, her memory (even if it is couched in terms of a denial), a clearly normative singing creeps in.
(I have no idea whether Wlad did this intentionally or not. But of course it doesn't matter, because he did set it like this. Let us not forget that music is a fundamentally cultural phenomenon—it is ultimately eludes reducibility, even to those who write it. This perpetual sense of discovery is one of the great joys of art.)
This dialectic, this back-and-forth, between what we might call the "fully sung" and the "sung in place of speech" continues throughout the opera. It also cannot be coincidental that it is only in the final scene of the work that all six cast members sing together, almost like a chorus. I won't tell you what happens with the characters or spoil any plot details; I will simply assert that, on a theoretical level, it seems that underlying the opera is a process of becoming truly sung, all going towards the final word of the libretto: "song."
Since it is an opera that deals at least in part with the legacy of Germany, I cannot help but offer a general comment on the work's form. I was struck immediately, upon receiving the score of the work, by how skillfully Wlad had constructed the melodic fragments associated with certain people and ideas. (Anyone who has seen Star Wars, which is to say pretty much all of us Americans, can get a sense of what I mean by this.) The motifs are memorable, short, but also clear in affect, unmistakable. This made complete sense to me when I thought for a moment about it—Wlad has such depth of experience as a film composer, even for someone so young. He has absorbed the techniques so thoroughly that it only makes sense that this would be apparent even in works for the stage. Upon further reflection, I realized that there was an irony to Wlad's transference of film-scoring formal techniques to an opera, namely this: these techniques, so associated with the American film industry that we forget their origins, are of course a re-working of compositional techniques pioneered by Richard Wagner.
Let's not be reductive though. Wagner, while notoriously anti-semitic, lived generations before the Nazis did. It is hard to blame him, as such, for the ways in which Hitler co-opted his music for politically and ideologically propagandistic purposes. At the same time, it is impossible not to acknowledge that there is something about Wagner's music that is just asking to be co-opted; it is as terrifying precisely because of its overwhelming characteristics. It is huge in scale, its orchestration out-sized, and its rhetoric grossly exaggerated. Even Wagner's technical language—the language of leitmotif—exerts complete control over his music-dramas' forms. That makes the employment of such techniques as a third-generation copies in The Property all the more meaningful. The very worst of Wagnerian excess is turned on its head, co-opted for purposes that are the opposite of what he may have meant. Whereas Wagnerian compositional techniques, at their worst, have an ethos behind them that that is simpatico to totalitarianism, in The Property they are used in service of a story about the survival of individuals in the wake the political manifestation of this totalitarianism. The thing characteristic of the totalitarian has been reversed and become the means of the resistance thereto.
In the end, the project of The Property is just that—resistance. Seemingly humble, small-scale, and unpretentious, that is precisely why it succeeds grandly. Totalitarianism cannot find those corners; it does not win as long as art somewhere continues its attempts at communication.
Michael Lewanski is a Chicago-based conductor. He seeks to reinvigorate the experiences that musicians and audiences alike have with standard repertoire and with new music. In addition to guest conducting activities, he conducts the Chicago-based new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente and ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music.
- Michael Lewanski portrait credit Chelsea Ross
- Wlad Marhulets portrait credit Arthur Moeller
- Stephanie Fleischmann portrait credit Jessica Fleischmann
- Jill Grove portrait credit Dario Acosta
- Anne Slovin portrait credit Jordana Wright