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Based on a symposium from 2015 by the European Academy of Music Theatre in cooperation with Opera Vlaanderen, this book attempts to revive interest in forgotten operas by Jewish composers, including Maschinist Hopkins (1928) by Max Brand. The Australian director Barrie Kosky debates the essence of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron with conductor Vladimir Jurowski, noting that Schoenberg ‘saw himself as a kind of Moses – both in art and in the art of politics.’ Jurowski semi-mischievously observes that as total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk), Moses und Aron serves as ‘proof that there is a deeper connection between Wagner and Schoenberg.’ Kosky concurs, observing that in Schoenberg’s opera, concerns about ‘right and wrong norms within one community’ are rather Wagnerian.

The directors Jossi Wieler, born in Switzerland, and Moshe Leiser, from Antwerp, exchange ideas with the British musicologist John Deathridge. Leiser immediately scotches the notion that Jewish opera directors are required for dealing with Jewish themes in opera, suggesting that this would be akin to hiring ‘some elves to direct Midsummer Night’s Dream … You don’t have to be Jewish to direct [Verdi’s] Nabucco.’ Wieler reminds the reader that opera is fiction, and in Act II of Halévy’s La Juive, a scene purportedly showing Jewish ritual celebration of Passover has ‘nothing to do with what really happens’.

Nevertheless, Wieler’s allowances for fiction have their limits, such as when Peter Konwitschny, another director interviewed in Judaism in Opera, presents what Wieler calls ‘definitely…not a Jewish view’ of La Juive by making the heroine Rachel don an explosive belt like a suicide bomber in Act III, rationalising this odd choice for a 2015 production at Opera Vlaanderen by declaring: ‘In our operas, women are always represented as victims. But I want women to defend themselves.’ This confirms that in opera, directorial willfulness knows no ethnic origin.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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