Thursday, May 29, 2003

Opera keeps Jewish folk hero's memory alive

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Its gestation was nearly four years, but Joel Hoffman's opera, The Memory Game, has finally arrived.

"It's an experience that, for all the pain and heartache and tension and anxiety, it's really worth it," says the composer, whose opera will have its world premiere this weekend at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. CCM commissioned the work in honor of its new campus, "CCM Village."

Hoffman, professor of composition at CCM, has been composing related works as a "trial run" for The Memory Game, such as his piece, The Smile, premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra two years ago. The opera is the true story of Yiddish singer/songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig, who was shot dead by a German soldier for smiling as he was being deported from his home in a Krakow ghetto in 1942.

What: The Memory Game, an opera by Joel Hoffman; libretto by Henk Romijn Meijer; Sandra Bernhard, director; Johannes Muller-Stosch, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Studio Theater, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Tickets: Free. For reservations, call 556-4183.
"I wasn't interested in this being a Holocaust opera," Hoffman says. "What I did want to do was write about a man of a kind that really doesn't exist much in our day, somebody who was willing to die for his principles."

Although a poor carpenter, Gebirtig was a celebrated folk hero, whose poems and songs were published all over the world.

"Gebirtig has been lost, partly because after the war, survivors wanted to turn away from their past; Yiddish became a dying language," Hoffman says. But a few years ago, there was renewed interest in Yiddish culture, including Klezmer (Jewish instrumental folk) music. Hoffman got to know Gebirtig's music while playing as part of a Jewish folk trio in the mid-'90s, for a festival in Venice, Italy. While arranging Gebirtig's music for his group, he began to realize it was "something very special."

Fascinated, Hoffman and his trio began to focus on Gebirtig's music. An Italian TV producer wrote a script for a theatrical revue, which they performed on Italian television and on tour in Warsaw.

"Seeing how audiences reacted to the power of this music, and also the beauty and importance and power of his life story, made me think that this was a subject for opera," Hoffman says.

Although Hoffman did not want to write a "Klezmer opera," he is using instruments in this opera that are popular in Klezmer music, such as cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), mandolin and accordion. The opera is sung in English, but includes Yiddish songs by Gebirtig.

As a final stroke, the composer wrote himself into his work, like an artist who paints his own portrait into a canvas. In one scene, Gebirtig's wife asks her husband, if he wrote an opera, who would write it down for him? He could neither read nor write music.

"Gebirtig used a professional to write his songs down, named Julius Hoffman. He tells her, 'Well, maybe some other Hoffman, sometime, someplace, somewhere,' " Hoffman says. "I couldn't resist that."


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