Monday, December 1, 2008

Music feature: FAU scholar revives important Jewish operetta

(Left to right: Justin Rust and Aaron Kula of the Florida Atlantic University Libraries have created a new performing version of Avrom Goldfadn's Shulamis.)


By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- Nine days into the bright new year of 1908, Avrom Goldfadn, "the Yiddish Shakespeare," died in New York City.

A vast crowd on the Lower East Side turned out for his funeral two days later, but Goldfadn's achievements were already being superseded by a new generation of thespians. It was a downbeat postscript to a pioneering life in which he had mounted, back in 1876, the first-ever professional Yiddish-language play, earning posterity's recognition as the father of Yiddish theater.

Goldfadn's work is drawing more attention in this centenary year of his death, and Aaron Kula is helping to mark that milestone with a new realization of one of the playwright's most celebrated works.

Kula, head of music collections and performance at the Florida Atlantic University Libraries, has unearthed Goldfadn's 1880s operetta, Shulamis, from a primitive piano-vocal score in the library collections, and will present a concert version of the work, complete with new orchestrations, on Sunday at the Friedberg Auditorium on the FAU campus in Boca Raton.

Bringing the operetta (pronounced Shu-LOM-is) back to life has been a labor of several years for Kula, 49, who initially put the score aside after coming across it in one of the many boxes of material he examines daily during the course of his work.

"Because I came to it not knowing anything about it, I played it exactly as it's written on the printed page, and the first year I said, 'I guess some of the melodies are pretty,' but I didn't realize what had to happen, so I shelved it because it seemed rather uninteresting," he said. "Then it took me two years to come back to it and say, ' I get it.'"

What Kula realized in the interim was that the sound-world that Goldfadn inhabited was a mix of what he was hearing in the 1880s: Italian opera, Jewish folksong, the cantorial music of the synagogue. And that meant that the music on the printed page could only hint at what Shulamis must have really sounded like, especially as played by a band of Jewish musicians conversant with high-art classical and street-art klezmer.

"The audience will absolutely adore it. They'll get it immediately," he said. "The operagoers will get it, the Yiddishists will get it, the klezmer people will get it, people that like cantorial music will get it. And the story is very sweet ... It's a love story that starts beautiful, goes wrong, and ends idealistically, like all good love stories, where they live happily ever after."

Shulamis is about a beautiful shepherdess from Bethlehem who gets stuck in a desert well and is rescued by a handsome Israeli prince named Absalom. He is immediately taken with her, and she with him, but she is worried that when he returns to Jerusalem, his head will be turned. So the two pledge vows of fidelity to each other in the desert, with just two witnesses: the well and a wildcat.

Absalom returns to Jerusalem, where he soon forgets about Shulamis and marries the beautiful Abigail, daughter of the high priest. But tragedy strikes as their first child is killed in its cradle by a wildcat, and the second falls into a well and drowns. An angel visits Absalom with a vision of Shulamis, and he realizes he must leave Abigail and return to the woman to whom he had already pledged eternal fidelity.

Reconstructing the operetta for a performance required taking a leap of scholarly faith from the printed score, which is written in a very basic style so it could be played at home by non-professionals.

"A lot of the more popular Jewish songs, whether they come from Yiddish theater or operetta, or just general sheet music from the turn of the century, was put together for the masses, for the moms and daughters to play on their upright pianos in the projects," Kula said.

So Kula began fleshing out the music, taking 14 of the score's 25 songs and rethinking them, adding introductions in some cases, and endings for others. He then set about orchestrating them for his Klezmer Company Orchestra, which Kula founded in 1997 and which is now the ensemble in residence at the FAU libraries.

Four of the orchestrations were handled by Kula's library colleague, Justin Rust, coordinator of music and outreach. Rust, 32, said the piano-vocal score had numerous defects that had to be worked through, and sometimes those problems didn't crop up until after work on a specific song had begun.

"Each one was different," Rust said. "Sometimes we'd get halfway into it, and realize, 'Wait a minute, we have to change this.'"

Among the problems in the score were mismatches of melodies and harmonies, sections in which harmonies were unchanged for a whole page, and perhaps trickiest of all, no tempo markings of any kind, Rust and Kula said.

During an interview at his office, Kula used his notation software to play numbers from Shulamis on his computer. One of them, Marching to Jerusalem, is a peppy number with a big swinging tune very much in the style of early Verdi. Another, In der Wiste, is an aria for Shulamis with the same kind of Donizetti-like Italianate sound.

But a third number, Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), which was the "hit song" of Shulamis, sounds like a Jewish folk melody (Kula's orchestration can be seen at right). Goldfadn, who wrote the score and libretto for Shulamis, was reputed to have a good musical memory, but he was a man of letters, Kula said, and "was not musically trained in any way, shape or form. We know that he relied on professional musicians that he worked with to transcribe his melodies."

Sunday's performance will be a 90-minute concert version of the work, with the KCO, soprano Elena Corriea, tenor Philip Alongi, and narrator Charles Schneider. The narration will be in English, but the songs will be sung in their original Yiddish.

Kula considers Shulamis to be a multi-year project, and hopes to get funding to mount a full English-language production of the operetta, complete with a chorus standing in for the band of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem in the work's opening scene.

Goldfadn was born in Russia and spent most of his career in Europe, in particular in Romania, where he produced the first Yiddish play. By the time he moved to the United States for a second time at the end of his career, his work already had begun to be considered old-fashioned, Kula said.

But his achievement was considerable, said Seth Wolitz, a professor of comparative literature and Jewish studies at the University of Texas.

"He was like Moliere. He created the shape of modern Jewish theater," Wolitz said, adding that Goldfadn took care of everything in his productions: words, music, costumes, sets and the training and choosing of the actors.

"He was a universal genius who came out of nowhere," Wolitz said, and his work was designed to create a new, more assimilated, sophisticated Jewish audience.

Kula said an important aspect of Goldfadn's work was its moral and didactic content.

"His operettas were used not just to entertain but to educate. That's a very important piece of what he was shooting for. Entertain and educate the masses, because the masses were generally uneducated, not like today," Kula said. "He felt it was his responsibility to educate through the entertainments, and the theater was his soapbox."

Yet he was still trying to show his fellow Jews a good time, and in that he was successful, Kula said.

"He was creating a parallel universe for the Jewish community that didn't have the finances to dress up in white tie and tails to go to the European opera houses," he said. "So this was kind of the Jewish common man's entertainment with a point to educate. And they loved it."

Shulamis will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, in the Barry and Florence Friedberg Auditorium on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Tickets are $25 for the general public, and $20 for members of FAU's Lifelong Learning Society, which is sponsoring the concert. Call the society at 297-3185 for tickets or more information.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

FAU Libraries are a great source for this type of music.