"While Esther cannot be seen again this season, one hopes it will return in following years," Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times in 1993, shortly after the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall's Esther at New York City Opera.
Such commendation for the world premiere of an American opera is rare; and such praise from both critics and audiences for a serious, and musically challenging, American opera is even rarer. For Weisgall, this was a moment of victory comparable to that achieved by his opera's Biblical heroine.
By the time of Esther's premiere, Weisgall could be considered something of a house composer at City Opera, which had already staged two Weisgall premieres over a span of 34 years. "I must have been aware of City Opera about the time it was founded," said Weisgall of the company initiated in 1943 by New York's legendary mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.
At that point, Weisgall had already established himself as a musician to watch: Before turning 30, he had heard his work performed by the New York Philharmonic. He had also sought tutelage from Béla Bartók. While Weisgall never did study with the Hungarian master, Bartók's "folk-based musical realism" (according to critic Alex Ross) can be heard in many of Weisgall's secular compositions (such as the opera Nine Rivers from Jordan, with its quotations of Passover music).
"Hugo was very proud of his knowledge of Jewish music and of his personal experience of synagogue choral singing," explains Weisgall's longtime colleague and friend, Rabbi Raymond P. Scheindlin, director of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Shalom Spiegel Institute of Medieval Hebrew Poetry. "He was proud of being the heir to several generations of cantors, especially since they represented a westernized European tradition that is not so well known to American Jews."
Following World War II (during which Weisgall was stationed in London alongside colleague Marc Blitzstein), he wrote his first opera, The Tenor (1950). Ernst Lert, one of the opera's librettists, upon hearing an aria from it, told the blossoming composer: "I haven't felt like this since Richard Strauss played me something."
Naturally, Weisgall's operatic talent would eventually attract the attention of Julius Rudel, longtime General Manager of New York City Opera, then the only company where an American opera could find life. The more than three-decade relationship between Weisgall and City Opera began in 1959, with the world premiere of Six Characters in Search of an Author (featuring a young soprano named Beverly Sills).
Much of Six Characters' substantial success may be credited to Weisgall's understanding of contemporary American opera audiences. While many may have viewed him as a lovable curmudgeon ("The libretto's not for the audience, it's for me," he was quick to say), his musical genius, seasoned by his experience as a professor and lecturer, made him the ideal candidate to impress this new music upon an audience wedded to Wagner, Gounod and Puccini. Indeed, Puccini's long shadow can be spotted in various passages of Six Characters.
"It all hung together so well dramatically, and that's probably why it was a real hit in the theater," offers Weisgall's son, Jonathan. "Audiences were engaged and laughed out loud as the Director sang, 'I hate this modern, tuneless stuff myself, but...we must present them for reasons of prestige. Man cannot not live by Faust alone.'"
Following Six Characters, Weisgall became recognized as one of the leading contemporary opera composers in the United States. That Weisgall's career became inextricably linked to the history of City Opera, while seemingly serendipitous, is believed by many to be b'shert (Hebrew for "fate").
Weisgall's next collaboration with NYCO: Nine Rivers from Jordan, premiered in 1968: reflected the composer's mature operatic style of the late 1960s. During this time, theatrical meditations on the socio-political Zeitgeist were not uncommon; in the same year of Nine Rivers' premiere, Hair opened on Broadway. Yet very few people were then composing operas reflecting the world's mercurially-shifting political mores.
That Nine Rivers from Jordan dealt with Big Ideas: war, guilt, genocide, original sin, free will, and religion: ideas ubiquitous in the 21st century, but still a brave new world for opera audiences of 1968, did not help to boost the work's mass appeal. Nine Rivers received some tepid praise ("Despite my reservations, I still think it's one oeuvre considerable!" Aaron Copland scribbled to Weisgall the day after its premiere).
Jonathan Weisgall suggests that his father may have been "too close" to the opera's subject: he, like his opera's main character, was present at the liberation of the Terezin concentration camp. According to his son, Weisgall "fought with his own sense of responsibility for failing to save his European cousins from those concentration camps."
The lack of critical and popular success that greeted Nine Rivers from Jordan turned Weisgall toward toward fostering the next generation of composers, including his students Bright Sheng and Bruce Saylor (whom Weisgall considered a second son: "the musical one," Jonathan quips). Weisgall wrote very few operas during the 1970s and 1980s. However, his next collaboration with New York City Opera would be his grandest: and final: opera. It was also an opera that almost wasn't.
"Hugo didn't want to do it," recalls Esther's librettist Charles Kondek. "If only because of the fact that [playwright Jean] Racine's last two works were Athaliah and Esther. And Hugo had already written an Athaliah."
Ironically, Esther would indeed be both Racine's and Weisgall's final theatrical works. But more than that, Weisgall's Esther is a summation of the composer's entire life and work. His family history and his background as a liturgical composer, chair of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Cantor Institute, and choir director at Baltimore's Chizuk Amuno Synagogue strongly flavored the music of Esther. Here Weisgall fully embraced both his Jewish and theatrical roots, creating a work that speaks not only of the ancient Diaspora and the story of the Jewish freedom festival Purim, but also of the Holocaust and of the quest for a Jewish homeland in the 20th century. Whatever demons Weisgall may have faced in writing Nine Rivers from Jordan, they seem to be dispelled in the triumphant, though no less melancholic, finale of Esther.
In February of 1993, Kondek jokingly wrote to Weisgall: "I know it's only two performances, but I feel Esther will become another Norma or Carmen...and make millions for us all." Kidding aside, Esther received far-reaching critical and popular praise. "At a time when post-modernist taste is dominant and nostalgia and eclecticism rule," Rothstein wrote in his New York Times review, "Mr. Weisgall's uncompromising modernism, his acidic melancholy and muscular dissonances, made a compelling case for difficult music used for difficult purposes."
2009 is a particularly charged year for a revival of Esther: Not only does it herald a new era in the history of City Opera, but it also commemorates the company's past (Weisgall's Six Characters premiered at City Opera fifty years ago this month), as well as the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. In counterpoint to these anniversaries, Esther also reflects the continuous, and disproportionately large, influence of Jewish composers on American classical music. These correlations would not be lost on Weisgall, whose sudden death in 1997 prevented him from seeing Esther enter the 21st-century opera repertory.
"There's no question in my mind that this is a good piece," says librettist Kondek. "Or that Hugo would be just thrilled to see it revived."
Esther runs at the Koch Theater Nov. 7-19. Ticket, priced $12-$145, may be purchased at New York City Opera.
Olivia Giovetti, a columnist for Classical Singer Magazine, has also written for the Washington Post, Time Out New York, and Classic FM Magazine. She is also a supertitle associate at New York City Opera.