Gaining popularity in the 18th century, opera developed as its venue changed from productions staged in private for the wealthy, to a public venue, the opera house, where it gained popularity, as legions of devotees, attended performances in theaters throughout Europe. In the United States, and in South America, opera companies toured through large cities, and even in far way away outposts like mining and logging camps. During the 19th century, the Jewish opera and operetta composers were often household names, celebrated throughout the world.
Today, those who are still drawn into this world by Giuseppe Verdi’s dramatic and robust music and poignant narratives will quickly recognize the similarities between his works and those of the now largely forgotten, but thrilling and beautiful operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), the most famous composer of his time, whose tremendously difficult music can only be sung by performers at the top of their game. While his operas, including “Les Huguenots,” “Le Prophète” and “L’Africaine,” are no longer part of the standard repertory, Meyerbeer’s reputation is enjoying a revival, in part due to a new CD of scenes and arias in French, German and Italian recorded by the internationally known soprano, Diana Damrau.
While others converted to achieve success, Meyerbeer, born Jacob Beer near Berlin to a wealthy banking family, remained true to his faith, despite the anti-Semitism he encountered throughout his career. Influenced by Gioachino Rossini and other early 19th century masters, he went on to write the scores to dozens of works, whose libretti, created by important playwrights of the era, often draw on historical incident. In most of his operas, Meyerbeer’s protagonists are tragically affected by prejudice and persecution. Αs the conductor Leon Botstein has commented “he keeps the audience on edge…by not releasing them from the fact that they are half on stage and half in their seats,” meaning that the dramatic events they are viewing mirror the conditions of our own century. This observation aside, Meyerbeer’s lush, beautifully orchestrated instrumentals and thrilling and dramatic arias will be the main attractions for new devotees.
A genre which is continually evolving, operas about recent history are being created by a new generation of men and women who are attracted by what it can convey, and impart relevance to those who connect with it. Scheduled for its world premiere by Denver’s Opera Colorado, in Jan. 2018, Gerald Cohen’s “Steal a Pencil for Me,” inspired by the real life love story of Dutch Holocaust survivors, is set in the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Cohen, whose previous vocal and instrumental output has been honored with the Cantors Assembly’s Max Wohlberg Award for distinguished achievement in the field of Jewish composition, is also a celebrated cantor. “Steal a Pencil for Me” will be staged in New York, at both the Morgan Library on April 23, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary on April 26, where Cohen will take part in a discussion with composer Laura Kaminsky, whose opera “As One,” deals with transgender issues.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here