The 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians described the American modernist Hugo Weisgall (born 1912) as “perhaps America’s most important composer of operas.” In the 1986 New Grove Dictionary of American Music, a compilation drawn from the 1980 edition and revised, the article on Weisgall calls him merely “one of America’s most important composers of operas. . . .” But as the current New York opera season has amply demonstrated, the Grove editors would have done well to have stuck to their initial formulation.
What has now definitively propelled Weisgall to leadership in American opera is the world premiere by the New York City Opera of his latest work, Esther. Originally commissioned in 1987 by the San Francisco Opera and its then-general director, Terence McEwen (to whom the work is dedicated), Esther was canceled, after much work in preparatory sessions. The cancelation was the achievement, justified on various grounds, of Lotfi Mansouri, McEwen’s replacement. While charges against Weisgall’s work were aired in the opera world—charges of Meyerbeerian excess and impracticability—the underlying reason for the cancelation seems simple enough: Esther was just musically too difficult and theatrically too mainstream for the San Francisco Opera at this moment in its artistic life.
But then, some four years ago, Esther was picked up by the adventuresome New York City Opera and its general director, Christopher Keene. The grandiose plans Keene had for multiple performances of three American operas—Ezra Laderman’s Marilyn and Lukas Foss’s Griffelkin, in addition to Esther—foundered on the rocks of financial reality: in the end, the City Opera went ahead, but did only three performances of Marilyn and only two each of Griffelkin and Esther, the whole flurry of activity crammed into slightly more than a week.
Marilyn and Griffelkin were poorly received, but Esther was a triumph with critics and audience alike. Both performances were quickly sold out. In just one example of the well-nigh universal praise the opera received, including from such respected critics as Edward Rothstein (in the New York Times) and Martin Bernheimer (in the Los Angeles Times), Peter Davis wrote in New York magazine:
The audiences at both performances were rapt and appreciative. I’d like to think they were heartened and possibly surprised with a new American opera of such musical substance, as well as one so richly textured, skillfully made, and so emotionally stirring. . . . The City Opera can congratulate itself . . . most of all, for enriching the repertory with Esther, a work that can now be placed among the very finest American operas we have.
I cannot say that this reaction was a surprise to me. I had been a devoted and grateful student of Weisgall’s at Juilliard in 1959-60, had heard many of his works, had played his 1974 Piano Sonata (which was written for me) several times, and had been a great admirer of his earlier and highly successful opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1956), a brilliant setting (with the librettist Denis Johnston) of Luigi Pirandello’s play.
Six Characters was thoroughly cosmopolitan, summarizing the universal modernist cultural experience of the 20th century. Weisgall’s new work, however, a setting of the biblical Book of Esther, is in a narrow sense about the experience of the Jews under their enemy Haman; in a wider sense, it is about the eternal Jewish paradox of divine chosenness and man-imposed suffering. Only a Jew—and only a conscious, believing Jew like Weisgall—could have written Esther. Its theme, expressed by the union between Weisgall’s music and Charles Kondek’s remarkable libretto, is nothing less than the fate of the Jewish people.
The opera hews closely to the biblical story. King Xerxes (the biblical name Ahasuerus was not used because Weisgall felt that the Hebrew form, with its four syllables, was unsingable) puts away Vashti, his disobedient wife and queen. His search for a new wife falls upon Esther, a beautiful young Jewish girl and the foster-child of Mordecai, the nephew of her father. On Mordecai’s instructions, Esther does not reveal her origins, but when he tells Esther to inform Xerxes of a regicide plot, the king has the perpetrators hanged.
In the meantime, Xerxes has advanced the anti-Semite Haman to the post of prime minister; when Haman proposes that the Jews be exterminated, Xerxes allows him to issue an irrevocable decree to this effect. At Mordecai’s urging, Esther begs for a royal banquet at which she can ask her husband to preserve the Jews. Haman thinks he can forestall this reversal of his edict by hanging Mordecai; but when Xerxes is informed that Mordecai had in effect saved his life, the king orders Haman hanged instead.
Esther then asks Xerxes to allow the Jews to defend themselves, and he agrees. The biblical account ends with the Jews killing 75,000 of their enemies; in the opera’s major diversion from the Bible, Esther regrets the slaughter.
The accusation in San Francisco had been that Esther was “Meyerbeerian”: that is, that it required huge performing resources both musically and scenically. Yet it is scored for a moderately sized grand-opera orchestra of—in addition to the usual strings—double woodwinds (save for three flutes), normal brass with three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, and two percussion players. At the City Opera, Esther was performed with a total orchestral complement of 65 (for perspective, it should be noted that a normal Richard Strauss opera can call for over 100 players); since the number of winds and brass prescribed by Weisgall was obligatory (in that they play individual, not doubled, parts), the strings bore the brunt of both the City Opera’s small orchestra pit and its need to save money.
As for scenic requirements, a quick perusal of the stage directions contained in the score makes it clear that little more is called for than can be achieved by inventive slide projections; and, indeed, the City Opera production was both spare and by all accounts highly dramatic1 Esther does call for a chorus and a tiny ballet—but what grand opera, after all, does not?
There can be little doubt that the music of Esther, like everything written by Weisgall, is difficult to perform. It is highly chromatic and only rarely tonal; put another way, this means that singers are always being called upon to sing sharps and flats that have little apparent relation to the consonant harmonies and intervals with which they spend their artistic lives. The same problem applies to the choral parts. Though they are often sung in unison, they demand a kind of agility and exactitude not often required from opera choruses.
But in fact the City Opera, at a difficult moment in its financial life, did surmount the problems that had just a very few years ago forced San Francisco, putatively one of our “true” grand-opera companies, to cut and run. The winds and brass played marvelously, and only in the thinness of the string tone was an important element of the work less than fully presented.
The singers, led by the extraordinary Esther of Lauren Flanigan and the remarkable Vashti of Robynne Redmon, sparkled. As heard on the tape, all the singers’ diction was splendid. Indeed, so scrupulous is Weisgall’s scoring never to obscure the voices, that one wonders just why super titles—all the rage with today’s nonmusical administrators, critics, and audiences—were felt to be necessary. Not only did everyone in the cast sing accurately, and with beautiful tone; the always sonorous chorus was also magnificently trained by Esther’s sensitive conductor, Joseph Colaneri.
Weisgall’s writing has always been full of interest, with an original style reminiscent but never imitative of Alban Berg. I once called him “the thinking man’s Menotti,” by which I meant that he has managed for sophisticated listeners to do dramatically in opera what Menotti has done for a general public. But there was always, even in the melodious Six Characters, something of an austere surface to his music; and as his operas, because of the poor taste of operatic decision-makers, failed to receive many repeated performances, audiences, even willing ones, had no opportunity to penetrate the surface to the riches of the music.
Now Weisgall has reached a creative peak at the age of eighty-one—a chronological phenomenon matched in musical history only by Verdi in the 19th century and Richard Strauss in our own. In Esther there is, as has always been the case with Weisgall, brilliant craftsmanship: Act I, for example, seems to me largely built out of a motive consisting of two notes separated by a half- or whole step and then followed by the leap of either a diminished or a perfect fifth. There are long and beautiful melodies, even for the unsympathetic characters, of which Esther certainly has its share. Even the many dissonances that reflect the dramatic content of the story are profoundly musical, with each note audible against its companions.
Another remarkable feature of Esther is the nature of the transitions between scenes. Each act is composed of as many as thirteen short scenes; instead of melding one into another by means of linking material—as became the prevailing practice in operatic writing after arias with their definitive stops and new beginnings were no longer in fashion—Weisgall simply proceeds from one scene to another by abrupt contrast. It is a measure of the complete integration of music with story that these sharp contrasts are self-explanatory; and thus, I might add, they make possible scene changes through simple lighting and shifting of the action to another part of the stage.
Yet another feature of Esther deserves notice. The solo voices, whether singing alone or in traditional operatic duets and trios, are varied so as to bring out their different and conflicting dramatic perspectives. By contrast, the chorus, representing the Jewish people, is a monolithic block of sound and sentiment; in this it seems to be performing, and developing, the role of the choir in the synagogue service which Weisgall, as the scion of a whole family of cantors, has known from his earliest years.2
How does Esther stack up with the new American operas of recent years? I have seen a whole covey of them, including Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, and The Voyage; John Adams’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer; John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles; Dominick Argento’s Casanova; Jay Reise’s Rasputin; and Anthony Davis’s Malcolm X. Einstein was partially saved, it seems to me, by the hieratic production of Robert Wilson and the choreography of Lucinda Childs. Otherwise, all these works—even the Corigliano, which received an unparalleled flood of media coverage on its 1991 debut—seem already to have receded into the ever-hopeful, and equally ever-bitter, history of American opera. This is not because they were treated shabbily in the allocation of production resources: Corigliano’s Ghosts, it is said, took over $2 million to produce, at least 25 times more than Esther.
The case can be put simply: the widely-trumpeted American operas I have seen have been all hype; Esther, hardly covered in the press prior to its production, is all music and drama—the very definition of what opera came to mean after Richard Wagner.
What, then, will be its fate? There is already talk of reviving Esther at the City Opera; for this to happen, one must pray for that company’s financial survival under the embattled Christopher Keene. But will other companies pick up Esther? I wish I could be more optimistic.
These days, the performance of contemporary American opera suffers from an endemic disease that might be called “premiereitis.” The symptoms of this usually fatal disease are first the mad search for a composer to commission, in which the lucky winner might (as with Corigliano) never have written a real opera before, or might himself never have been heard of before (as with Reise); second, the emphasis on “workshopping,” that is, endless rewriting in the hope that what the original composer and librettist have failed to contribute can now be supplied by brainstorming directors, producers, and assorted hangers-on; and third, the endless harping in the advance publicity on how the work is being seen For the First Time Anywhere!
Viewed from this standpoint, Esther’s greatest handicap now is simply that it has already been done. Furthermore, there is the sad but undoubted fact that music matters less today in the opera house than “production values.” The rulers of today’s operatic roost are not the composers but rather the directors and the set designers; and the more mechanical contrivances and the more lighting splashes, the better. This does not bode well for a work like Esther.
But I do not want to leave the subject of Esther on such a dour note. If the Jews have survived, I am tempted to say, so can Hugo Weisgall’s opera. For in addition to all the beautiful music, and to all the epic drama, Esther makes a statement for our time about the Jewish predicament. Esther is not about Jewish triumph, for at the end its heroine derives no happiness from the victory of her people. The words Kondek’s libretto gives her are explicit and profound:
At last, there is a quiet, the hor-
ror long past.
Yet, that that day could not have
Fills me with grief, with regret.
Yet I cannot forget, no one
It must not be forgotten. It must
not be repeated.
So much blood, so many, so
But if Esther is not about Jewish triumph, it is about the mystery of Jewish survival, which it places before our ears, our eyes, and our hearts. With the great help of Charles Kondek, Hugo Weisgall, indeed our leading composer of opera, has written a masterpiece that will last.
1 I was unable to attend these performances because of illness, but I heard a tape of one of them.
2 It should be mentioned that Weisgall each year conducts High Holy Day services in a small traditional synagogue in Maine, chanting the entire ritual himself. He has also written parts of a Synagogue Service. Commissioned in the mid-1980's by Temple Emanu-El in New York, this work-in-progress was canceled when half-completed, perhaps because of a possibly justified fear that Weisgall's modernist idiom might not be accepted by the temple's members. But surely there is a Jewish congregation somewhere in the United States that might wish the honor of completing the commission and in the process adding to the liturgy a work sure to rank with the now-classic Sacred Services of Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud.