Articles & Essays

A Miracle in Munich: The Bavarian State Opera Premieres Zeisls Hiob

By Malcolm S. Cole

Against all odds, in 2014 three multi-generational, Holocaust-related projects came to fruition almost simultaneously: Night Will Fall, an HBO Documentary film; Glenn Kurtz's book, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and the opera Zeisls Hiob [Zeisl's Job], which is the focus of this essay. Commissioned by the Bavarian State Opera for its summer festival, Zeisls Hiob premiered in Munich's venerable Reithalle on July 19, 2014, with repeat performances on the 21st and 23rd. Imaginatively conceived, well performed, and extensively reviewed, Zeisls Hiob is a music drama sui generis. Presented in a markedly different form than its originators could ever have imagined, this miracle in Munich merits an account of its meandering evolutionary course, an assessment of the finished work in theory and practice, and speculation concerning its future.

Joseph Roth's novel Job, The Story of a Simple Man, appeared in 1930.1  Set in Europe and America, it recounts the travails of the devout Torah teacher Mendel Singer, a 20th-century Job. As a memorial to the exiled Roth (1894-1939), who had died in Paris, admirers staged an adaptation of Hiob on July 3, 1939 (Théâtre Pigalle). The young Viennese composer Eric[h] Zeisl (1905-59), himself a recently arrived exile, contributed a prelude, Cossack dance, and “Menuchim's Song.” Profoundly moved by the subject and identifying closely with its protagonist, Zeisl soon determined to transform Roth's modern fable into an opera. He enlisted as librettist his friend Hans Kafka (1902-74) and feverishly composed Act I in 1939-40, despite the trauma attendant on his relocation to New York. The project stalled as pressing circumstances forced Kafka to postpone his completion of the libretto - for seventeen years! In the interim, the now Los Angeles-based Zeisl composed a series of surrogates, several of which incorporated a theme similar to “Menuchim's Song,” as, for example, the Requiem Ebraico (1944-45), the Violin Sonata (1950), the biblical ballet Naboth's Vineyard (1953), and the Concerto Grosso for Cello and Orchestra (1955-56). These scores and others reveal a steady growth in compositional technique and expressive vocabulary. When at last Kafka delivered a typescript in 1957, Zeisl speedily set Act II. With the Europe portion finished and the America portion beckoning, fate intervened. Less than six weeks after completing the orchestration of Act II, Zeisl died, on February 18, 1959, at the age of fifty-three.

For five decades, the Hiob fragment remained in limbo. By 1992, performance prospects appeared so dim that I wrote, “For Zeisl, Hiob . . . ended on a tragic note, unfinished, unsung, and frustratingly unfulfilled. My account must close at this point; the story need not.”2  Fortuitously, the Zeisl commemorative years of 2005 (centenary of his birth) and 2009 (fiftieth anniversary of his death) engendered a heightened awareness of his legacy through an upsurge of concerts, recordings, and publications. Herbert Krill's exquisite documentary film, Eric(h) Zeisl—An Unfinished Life, introduced Zeisl's art to a broad public.3  Curiosity about Hiob led to student performances of excerpts in Rostock (2009) and Vienna (2010). An Austrian company seriously considered commissioning someone to finish the opera. In 2013, the Bavarian State Opera took charge. From Zeisl and Kafka, the torch passed to a new generation: Miron Hakenbeck, dramaturge and librettist; Jan Duszyński, the young composer commissioned to finish the music; and Daniel Grossmann (founder of Munich's Jakobsplatz Orchestra), a conductor celebrated for performing works by neglected Jewish composers – works that address issues that remain relevant today.

Immediately, the triumvirate encountered challenges inherent in Zeisl and Kafka's materials. For the portion set in Europe, transcriber and arranger Regina Gaigl capably converted Zeisl's hastily written manuscripts into a usable score. (I must insert a caveat: had Acts I and II come to rehearsal in his lifetime, surely Zeisl would have revised his draft substantially.) For the portion set in America, Kafka's libretto, for which Zeisl had not written the music, posed knottier problems, among them its introduction of several new characters (following Roth) and its daunting length: forty-four typescript pages, as opposed to a mere fifteen pages for Acts I and II.

Having determined that the opera must be finished, the team devised an ingenious strategy: the generation of Hakenbeck, Duszyński, Grossmann, and the fictional Menuchim (played by a young tenor) would react in its contemporary way to the vital questions raised by the older generation of Roth, Kafka, Zeisl, and the fictional Mendel (played by an older tenor). To realize this strategy, Hakenbeck and Duszyński implemented key decisions concerning text, musical style, length, and title. Beginning in December 2013, they drafted a new text – in German, English, and Hebrew – that extends the narrative arc in a distinctly allusive, dreamlike fashion. Eliminating Kafka's new characters (with the exception of Mike), the collaborators reframe the story. Instead of emphasizing the religious conflict or exile, Hakenbeck notes, “We have concentrated upon the relationship between father and son” (but see below).4  Correspondingly, in response to Zeisl's late Romantic, Hebraic-inflected style, the Juilliard-trained Duszyński projects his own compositional voice and draws upon his extensive experience in today's theater: “It was a great adventure for me . . . wasn't easy, but definitely thrilling” (email, August 30, 2014). The timings of the two “halves” accentuate the contrasting conceptions: Zeisl's Europe segment required two hours, twenty minutes; fifty-eight minutes sufficed for Duszyński's America segment. Daniel Grossmann provides welcome insight into the resulting, multi-generational effort. In essence, the “unfinished” itself becomes the subject of the enterprise. “For that reason,” Grossmann concludes, “the evening is not called Hiob by Eric Zeisl but Zeisls Hiob, because Eric Zeisl as a person is also the theme of the evening” [Dümling, “Macht und Ohnmacht,” p. 64].

On the sweltering night of July 19, a capacity audience filled the Reithalle, a multi-purpose venue ill-suited for opera. Attendees received a printed leaflet that included a roster of the performers, bios of the principals, and an essay by Shoshana Liessmann entitled “Pessach: Die Nacht der Fragen” (“Passover: The Night of Questions”). Parroting Roth's own division – Part I, Europe; Part II, America – programmatic subheadings led many (including me) to assume, wrongly, that an intermission would separate Zeisl's music from Duszyński's. Unfortunately, there was no plot synopsis or explanation of the creative team's strategy.5

Placed at the front of the bare-bones performance area, a low platform supported a table and chairs, a bed, and a cupboard. Synagogue lamps hung overhead. A high, railed platform stood at the rear. A fireplace and benches lined one side, while on the other side the Jakobsplatz Orchestra and the Munich “Project Chorus” (formed specifically for this production) were squeezed in behind the cupboard. In the center, a vacant space stood ready to accommodate a billowing curtain and, at times, a video screen.

A prologue by Duszyński (unmentioned in the leaflet) launched the performance. Representing the younger composer, tenor Matthew Grills chanted individual English words and clusters that ultimately cohered into an eloquent articulation of the challenge: “I / have been asked / to / finish / an unfinished / opera.” Zeisl's uplifting prelude then proclaimed the two themes, “Miracle” and “Menuchim's Song,” that color the Europe segment. The stylistic amalgam of East and West that Zeisl had developed to complement Roth's Hebraic subject matter was immediately projected.6  Prominent, too, were the contrapuntal textures that Zeisl had long equated with the religious spirit, although Zeisl's extended fugue had been shortened.

Acts I and II are set in a shtetl in Eastern Galicia before World War I. Zeisl's music unfolds in a manner reminiscent of Wagnerian music drama. Organized into a series of scenic complexes, the narrative advances through an arioso-like Sprechgesang, with set-pieces embedded to allow ample operatic responses to key events. Orchestral transitions serve, structurally, to link the complexes and to raise or lower the emotional temperature of the drama. In his living room, Mendel attempts to instruct a group of students who would rather mock the sickly Menuchim. Ensuing dialogue between Mendel and his wife, Deborah, yields character portraits of the couple's three healthy children: the strong Jonas, the sly Shemariah, and the graceful Mirjam. To a melody grafted onto “Menuchim's Song,” a visiting Hasidic Wunderrabbi prophesies that Menuchim, the fourth child, will be healed. The voice of the Lord will speak through him. Never must Deborah leave him. At the act's climactic moment, Menuchim cries, “Mama!” This precious word elicits an emotional outpouring from Deborah, followed by the parents' rapturous duet. Alas, their joy is short-lived. The healthy sons face military conscription, and Mirjam finds uniformed Cossacks irresistible. Parents and offspring unite to perform a quintet, cast in the style of a Russian dance. The act closes with Mendel's plaintive rhapsody over Menuchim's crib, “Oh, God, why hast thou punished me so?”

Act II, Scene 1, takes place a half-hour later, at the inn. Conceived as a vast ritornello complex, a surging crowd scene unfolds.7  Against the background of a Cossack chorus and dance, Zeisl foregrounds the principals: the drunken Jonas, the subdued Shemariah, the flirtatious Mirjam, the desperate Deborah, the seductive female innkeeper, and Kapturak, a colorless but well-connected middleman in Roth's novel, but a malevolent, anti-Semitic police commissar in Kafka and Zeisl's version of the story – their first major departure from the original plot. To conclude, Mendel and Deborah ecstatically sing a chant-like duet in which the text's bright promise is contradicted by a descending, chromatic ground bass, the centuries-old musical symbol of suffering and death.

During the intermission, viewers wondered whether the break signaled the end of the Europe segment. In fact, Zeisl's Act II, Scene 2, is still firmly rooted in Poland and is laden with potent dramatic situations that elicited five of his greatest scenic complexes. (In my opinion, this crowning scene is Zeisl's musical epitaph, in two senses: as his final testament in his favorite compositional genre, and as his greatest dramatic composition.) It is a Friday evening in late summer, one to two years later, on a street in the village of Zuchnow. A Vesper hymn initiates a solemn prayer scene. A shocking confrontation ensues. In a “hate-filled” (hasserfüllt) song in 7/8 meter, Kapturak spews his venom, to which Mendel serenely counters, “We have a homeland, . . . the Torah.” Plumbing a new emotional depth, Deborah sings an intense, melismatic lullaby, the central European equivalent of a Bach Passion aria. Before rising to yet greater expressive heights, Zeisl inserts an episode for two drunks. Some might find comedy in Kafka's text, but Miron Hakenbeck detected menace. The narrative's main thread resumes with Zeisl's most erotic scene, the Cossack Michael's seduction of Mirjam (or vice versa). A blend of the spiritual and the carnal, this slowly building, masterfully controlled complex culminates with an orchestral “orgiastic love scene.” Recalling the grand concertati of Verdi, Zeisl's final complex juxtaposes the individual and the collective: Mendel chanting the “Schma Yisroel,” the chorus in the synagogue, the debauched Cossacks in the tavern, and Mendel's disgrace following the discovery of the lovers' tryst. Capping the complex is a mighty choral fugue with solo interjections by the principals. Realizing that he must abandon Menuchim (whose handicaps preclude his emigration), yet determined to save Mirjam, Mendel announces, “Deborah, we must go to America!” The derisive populace announces Mendel's fate: “Wander, Jew!” As Mendel and Deborah implore God to help them, the orchestra foretells salvation through a soaring augmentation of “Menuchim's Song.”

Kafka had divided his America half into three large units: (1) a multi-racial, predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, 6 April 1917 - the date of America's entry into World War I; (2) a year later, April 1918; and (3) 1924.8  Closer inspection reveals a series of events distributed along a clear timeline and significant departures from Roth's novel, notably the introduction of an American counterpart to the diabolical Kapturak. I submit that if Zeisl had lived, he would have composed another segment of roughly two hours in length and would have divided a shortened Kafka text into Acts III (Scenes 1 and 2) and IV. The resulting palindromic structure would have counterbalanced Act I's focus on the sickly boy with Act IV's focus on the adult Menuchim.  But this is pure speculation on my part. Zeisl's journey ended; either Hiob would remain incomplete, or others would have to finish it.

Hakenbeck and Duszyński stepped into the breach and delivered their vision of the America segment. On the unaltered set, Mendel and Deborah appear in the foreground. Behind them, Mike (formerly Michael) and Mirjam dress. In a reversal of Act I, the students teach Mendel English: “table,” “chair,” “bed,” and “cupboard.” The younger generation's allusive manner of storytelling obliges the viewer to shift gears precipitously. Blurred timelines, the suggestion (or conflation) of events, abrupt transitions, and unpredictable changes of momentum become the new norm. To reinforce this approach, Duszyński, while retaining his individual voice throughout, unerringly supplies musical responses that spotlight each phase of the ever-shifting narrative. As this first complex continues, the family and Mike express an illusory happiness in their new circumstances, this “good land.” In a sultry torch song, Mirjam declares her love for Mike. (Kafka had envisioned a “biblical love song”.) An intense orchestral passage, a quintet for the principals, and an ominous choral entry signal gathering storm clouds.

With ringing cries of “Feuer,” the adult Menuchim heralds further complications, starting with a conflation of two events: the pre-war fire in Zuchnow that had stimulated Menuchim's recovery and the all-consuming flames of World War I in which, Mendel believes, his son must surely have perished. Calamities mount: the deaths of Shemariah, Mike, and presumably Jonas in combat, and Deborah's death – “they are all dead,” Mirjam declaims flatly – and Mirjam's insanity. As the climax of this twenty-first-century mad scene, she is rolled off on a gurney, accompanied by gleefully singing, waving children and the din of a town band. “I am the only one,” the adult Menuchim intones. Dark, richly scored funeral music for orchestra and chorus punctuates this litany of loss.

“Come here, Deborah!” With this pathetic entreaty, Mendel begins a soul-wrenching aria (Duszyński's version of the ritual song that Kafka had envisioned). Reading from his sacred book, in a musical equivalent of davening (praying), he chants ecstatically in a punishingly high tessitura. The moment passes. Disillusioned, he removes his prayer paraphernalia. As the adult Menuchim enters, a crushed Mendel appears poised to renounce his faith. A Grand Pause, silence, and darkness combine to heighten the suspense.

Prefacing the final complex, the Menuchim/Duszyński figure restates his challenge: “I have been asked . . . .” To a brooding lament colored by the historic descending “sigh” figure, the ghosts of Deborah, Mirjam, Jonas, Shemariah, and Michael enter. An orchestral interlude redirects attention to Mendel, who is clad in a white robe and is sitting on the bed. Called to the Passover Seder, he covers his ears. To shattering orchestral-choral music, the ghosts surround Mendel before proceeding to the table. With a magical instrumental passage, Duszyński seemingly suspends time. Singing in Hebrew, the children reestablish momentum. Although remaining apart, Mendel begins to chant. As the ghosts glide backward, Menuchim steps forward. Gradually slowing music prepares his portentous knock. After searching the cupboard, the father sees his son at the Seder table. Satisfied, Mendel returns to the bed. Menuchim/Duszyński then constructs the English word, “Finished.” Reconciled at last, Mendel falls asleep.

In considering the “America” segment, I noted two discrepancies between theory and practical stage reality. First, although Hakenbeck and Duszyński intended to emphasize Mendel's feelings of guilt, in performance the overwhelming impression was spiritual: the Seder as agent of reconciliation. Second, while acknowledging their indebtedness to Kafka, the collaborators quietly memorialized the unwitting instigator of this multi-generational effort. Bypassing Kafka's synoptic prayer of thanksgiving, they staged Roth's ending in utter silence: “Mendel fell asleep. And he rested from the weight of happiness and the greatness of miracles.” (Benjamin translation, p. 204)

Zeisls Hiob attracted considerable media coverage. With the exceptions cited in Note 4, pre-concert publicity typically conveyed light fare, for example, “There Are No Mountains in California,” David Mermelstein's delightful account of a visit with Barbara Zeisl Schoenberg, the composer's daughter.9  Opinions expressed in post-performance reviews ran the gamut from generally favorable to curtly dismissive.10  Critics agreed on two points: the excellence of the six-person Kinderchor (directed by Stellario Fagone) and Peter Lobert's magisterial turn as Kapturak. To supplement the published reviews, I offer herewith my capsule assessment, beginning with the work's individual components. Drawn partly from the main company and partly from its opera studio, the soloists – all of whom acted convincingly – ranged, vocally, from capable to outstanding. Besides Peter Lobert, Mária Celeng (Mirjam), Matthew Grills (Menuchim/Duszyński), Chris Merritt (Mendel), Christa Ratzenböck (Deborah), Joshua Stewart (Michael/Mike), and Rachel Wilson (Inkeeper) also distinguished themselves. Daniel Grossmann elicited clean, intense, focused playing from the thirty-member Jakobsplatz Orchestra. Prepared by Elisabeth Löffler, the twenty-voice “Project Chorus” contributed significantly, its distance from the action notwithstanding. Taking into consideration the Reithalle's physical limitations, I found the staging imaginative, especially the singing actors' exploitation of the performance space. Their advances, retreats, lateral movements, couplings, and partings underscored the unfolding narrative more effectively than did the manipulations of the billowing curtain and the sporadic video projections. To this specifically Ostjüdisch story, Philine Rinnert's generic costumes imparted a sense of universality and timelessness. I heartily commend Miron Hakenbeck, Jan Duszyński, and Daniel Grossmann for their vision. I applaud the Bavarian State Opera for investing the thought, time, effort, resources, and creative energy required to mount Zeisls Hiob.

Back in Los Angeles, I pondered two larger, interconnected questions – one speculative, the other aesthetic – concerning the opera as a whole. The speculative question is: might the July performances inaugurate a new chapter for the now finished opera? As an advocate, I wish it a long, fruitful stage life. Accordingly, I submit this wish list for future productions: presentation in an opera house, an orchestra of at least sixty players (for ample string tone), a costumed opera chorus circulating on stage, and an animated corps de ballet (several critics judged the production overly static). Admittedly, costs would soar. On the other hand, at very little additional expense an expanded leaflet could profitably incorporate a synopsis, a compelling argument for the viability of the multi-generational strategy, and some tantalizing hints of the singular experience to come.

Although I found the entire production enthralling, on first view the America segment puzzled me, despite its beauty, intensity, and sense of urgency. This mixed reaction prompted the second, aesthetic question: do the asymmetrical segments – Europe (1940-59) and America (2013-14) – connect sufficiently to form a compelling, integrated, and reasonably coherent whole? Although I was initially skeptical, through subsequent viewings I have come to embrace Zeisls Hiob as an entity, an effective conjunction of two dramatically different manners of storytelling and musical composition that serve a single overarching narrative.  The forebears raised fundamental questions in their way; the descendants respond in theirs. As powerfully demonstrated by the very structure of Zeisls Hiob's, tensions inevitably arise. In the end, however, the generations reconcile; the story is finished. As repeated viewings continue to reveal new facets, I fervently hope that the production history of this miracle in Munich has only just begun.

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Endnotes
  • 1. Joseph Roth, Hiob, Roman eines einfachen Mannes (Berlin: G. Kiepenheuer, 1930); Job, The Story of a Simple Man, trans. Ross Benjamin (Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2010). When citing characters' names, I follow the spellings adopted for the Bavarian State Opera production.
  • 2. Malcolm S. Cole, “Eric Zeisl's Hiob: The Story of an Unsung Opera,” The Opera Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 52-75. The quoted matter appears on p. 73.
  • 3. Eric(h) Zeisl—An Unfinished Life, written and directed by Herbert Krill (Austria, 2012 [TV version]; 2013 [Festival version]).
  • 4. dpa/lby [initials], “Staatsoper erzählt Vorkriegs-Oper ‘Zeisls Hiob’ zu Ende,” http://www.welt.de/newsticker/dpa_nt/regiolinegeo/bayern/ article130219165/Staatsoper-erzaehlt-Vorkriegs-Oper-Zeisls-Hiob-zu-Ende.html. See also Albrecht Dümling, “Macht und Ohnmacht der Musik,” Max Joseph [the magazine of the Bavarian State Opera] 4 (2013-14), pp. 60-64.
  • 5. Full disclosure: Miron Hakenbeck graciously invited me to contribute a piece, re: Zeisl's stylistic evolution, 1940-57. Regrettably, I had to decline, owing to illness.
  • 6. An examination of this amalgam appears in Malcolm S. Cole and Barbara Barclay, Armseelchen: The Life and Music of Eric Zeisl (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 87-96.
  • 7. Zeisl expressed his desiderata for effective operatic scenes in letters to Lion Feuchtwanger (July 19, 1955) and Victor Clement (November 30, 1956). See Cole, “Eric Zeisl's Hiob,” pp. 55-56.
  • 8. Zeisl and Kafka's original materials are housed in the Eric Zeisl Papers (Collection no. 29-M), Department of Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles [chiefly in Boxes 15 and 20]. I have been unable to obtain a libretto or score of Hakenbeck and Duszyński's America segment.
  • 9. David Mermelstein, “Es gibt keine Berge in Kalifornien,” Max Joseph 4 (2013-14), pp. 30-38 [German], 228-29 [English Excerpt].
  • 10. Klaus Kalchschmid, “Unerlöstes Fragment,” is generally pro: http://www.bayerische.staatsoper.de Wolf-.Dieter Peter, “Grosses Thema vertan—Ein komplettiertes Bühnenfragment als ‘Zeisls Hiob’ in der Münchner Reithalle,” is generally con: http://www.nmz.de/online/grosses-thema-vertan-ein-komplettiertes-buehnenfragment-als-zeisls-hiob-in-der-muenchner-reithalle.html Sever.al additional reviews are readily available on the Internet.

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A Professor Emeritus of Musicology (UCLA), Malcolm Cole began investigating Eric Zeisl's legacy in 1970. For forty-five years, he has disseminated his findings through performances, papers, articles, an oral history with the composer's widow, Dr. Gertrud Susan Zeisl, and a biography (with Barbara Barclay). Ably assisted by Steve Rothstein and Gábor Lukin, in retirement he has prepared performing editions of several little known Zeisl works, among them the Concerto Grosso for Cello and Orchestra. For Professor Cole, hearing Zeisls Hiob truly was a miracle in Munich.