THE New York City Opera, ornery and independent as ever, opens its abbreviated fall season on Saturday evening in the newly renovated David H. Koch Theater with a revival of Hugo Weisgall’s last opera, “Esther.” “Inexplicable,” a recent editorial in the influential British periodical Opera grumbled. Several American commentators seem equally baffled by the choice, an opera by a composer whose name is no longer familiar and whose music has long since fallen from fashion. The work was respectfully received when the City Opera gave its premiere in 1993, but Weisgall’s edgy, dissonant style, angular lyricism and free adaptation of classical atonal methods may pose problems for audiences accustomed to today’s new American operas, which are more eager to please.
On the other hand, the opera’s subject matter could not be more appealing. Esther, having married Xerxes of Persia, saves her people from mass extermination at the hands of the king’s evil prime minister, Haman: this is among the most inspirational and upbeat of biblical stories. Even at that, Weisgall’s elevated treatment of the material hardly promises the sort of festive opening-night opera one might expect from a troubled company under new management, still struggling for survival and lacking the flashy media savvy that energizes the Metropolitan Opera these days.
Yet viewed from a different perspective, the whole spirit of the project reflects one of the important reasons the City Opera was founded in 1943: to search out, perform and nurture recent American operas of quality, especially those that have fallen into neglect. Weisgall, who died in 1997 at 84, wrote 12 stage pieces of varying shapes and sizes, a sufficient body of work for the 1986 New Grove Dictionary of American Music to proclaim him “one of America’s most important composers of opera.”
“I gratefully read that compliment,” Weisgall once told me, “and promptly had a nightmare. I dreamed that despite such a generous assessment, no company in the country was performing my operas any longer and had no intention of doing so. Then I woke up with a start and realized my dream was true.”
That was an exaggeration perhaps. I’ve never spoken to a living American composer who felt sufficiently recognized, however much he or she was performed, discussed and argued about. Weisgall’s operas may not have become repertory pieces, but I have seen most of them produced over the last 50 years. Beyond that, Weisgall was an active presence as an administrator and a teacher as well as a conductor; even, on rare occasions, as a singer. The many institutions he served included the Juilliard School, Johns Hopkins University, the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Queens College and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he was director of the composer-in-residence program from 1988 until his death. He also received many prestigious honors and lifetime achievement awards.
Some never took to Weisgall’s special voice, which always presupposed an active listener. Although his music avoided strictly doctrinaire 12-tone techniques, there was always that provocatively spiky sound to negotiate, albeit one that over time became increasingly expansive and lyrically expressive as it explored the dramatic life of each opera’s special theatrical world. And what a variety of subjects attracted him. Weisgall drew inspiration from classic sources of every stripe — Wedekind, Strindberg, Pirandello, Yeats, Shakespeare, Racine, Mishima and the Bible — and he never flinched from the thorny moral and philosophical issues they examined.
I first encountered a Weisgall opera in the spring of 1960, “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” based on the famous Pirandello play. The City Opera had given the premiere a year earlier. The power of the opera, the performance and the production knocked me flat. The play’s tense conflict arises when the blasé members of a professional theater troupe (changed here to an opera company) actually confront the six emotionally scarred characters of the dysfunctional family they are impersonating.
Weisgall’s score, an astonishingly original manipulation of traditional opera techniques, seizes on this explosive situation in a carefully structured linear music-theater piece that takes full advantage of a composer’s right to interpret and reimagine the drama through purely musical means. The City Opera was putting on a festival of new American opera during that 1959-60 season, but compared with the theatrically sophisticated “Six Characters,” the pleasantly tuneful offerings of Douglas Moore, Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd, Robert Ward and Norman Dello Joio seemed cozy and flat.
A budding opera composer myself at the time, I immediately presented myself to Weisgall in hopes of individual instruction, but his busy schedule did not allow private pupils. We did, however, become friends, and I was flattered when he solicited my opinions. I seldom saw his prickly side, which could be sharp indeed, but mostly benefited from his astute musical insights, immense culture and generosity. No composer of his generation wrote music with more passion and sincerity, and he used the voice he felt to be right and true for him.
Yet he was receptive to an amazing range of musical idioms and could recognize genius when he heard it. One contemporary opera that always moved him deeply was Virgil Thomson’s “Mother of Us All,” with its crazy-quilt score of Protestant hymns, country marches and Americana ballads.
“I can think of nothing farther removed from my own style, musical identity and ethnic background,” Weisgall once said to me. “But the piece is a miracle of sorts. The marbleized apotheosis of Susan B. Anthony at the end always leaves me in tears.”
He was also greatly impressed by the ease and naturalness of Thomson’s ability to set the English language to music, the more so since Weisgall himself was a master of the craft. After his success with the conversational intricacies of “Six Characters,” Weisgall turned to a more epic style in “Athaliah” (1964), a grandly scaled choral opera based on Racine’s play. His most ambitious stage work was produced by the City Opera in 1968: “Nine Rivers From Jordan,” another complex blend of reality and fantasy, but this time a huge panorama that deals unflinchingly the moral dilemmas of World War II.
That is perhaps the Weisgall opera most urgently in need of revival and reassessment, but my personal favorite is its successor, “Jenny, or the Hundred Nights” (1976), after Mishima. Its orchestral score is exquisitely diaphanous, and its arching vocal lines subtly reflect the stylized shapes of the librettist John Hollander’s poetic language.
After getting to know Weisgall, I gradually began to suspect that his gentle refusal to take me on as a pupil, after perusing a few of my student scores, stemmed from politeness toward a young composer with no talent rather than a lack of time on his part. And the more of his music I got to know, not to mention his unsparing critiques of composer colleagues, the more that suspicion grew. While at work on “Esther,” Weisgall dropped a few hints that this probably would be his last opera. He put everything into it: not just the compositional skill and canny dramatic instincts that came from a lifetime of writing music for the theater but also his deep love and knowledge of the Jewish liturgical traditions that were so firmly rooted in the fabric of his style.
As I recall it, the City Opera production of “Esther” modestly but effectively caters to the opera’s cinematic organization. The action flows back and forth in time and space against a series of projected films on sliding flats that reflect both the subject’s archaeological grandeur and private drama. This heartwarming story gave Weisgall precisely what he needed to sum up his achievement, employing a fastidious, finely worked out operatic technique that could combine the intimate detail of “Six Characters” with the grand epic scale of “Nine Rivers From Jordan.”
All the traditional elements you look for in a major operatic experience are present: large choral scenes, tender love exchanges, hot moments of jealousy and political intrigue, subtle suggestions of local coloring, even a brief ballet. The whole score represents Weisgall at the peak of his powers. His orchestra never sounded more sumptuous, and his vocal writing was never more fluent and expressive. Best of all, each character is a fully drawn personality, particularly Esther herself, whose development from a lively teenager to a loving, courageous woman places her in the grand line of operatic heroines from Dido to Aida. Fortunately, the soprano Lauren Flanigan returns to repeat her radiant portrayal of the role and to remind us of the City Opera’s long tradition of creating its own opera stars.
By bringing back “Esther” on such an important occasion, the City Opera may yet confound its critics. More important, the revival allows the company to reaffirm its mission and offers a second opportunity to savor the last work of a great American opera composer.
New York Times, November 1, 2009