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Friday, June 02, 2006

A Tale of Three Orientalists—Opera Composers Darwish, Hosni & Lavry

Four or five years ago I devoured an entire series of books by A.T. Olmstead, former professor of Oriental studies at the University of Chicago. Prior to his death in 1945 he published some very scholarly tomes—“History of Assyria,” “History of Babylonia” and “History of the Persian Empire” among them. His archaeological efforts in the ’20s and ’30s in that part of the world—his teams excavated at Ur and Persepolis, among other sites—helped stock a magnificent gem of a museum on campus, located just a few miles west of the Museum of Science & Industry on the south side of Chicago.

As much as these are days of conflict in the Middle East, what we’re seeing today is considerably less violent as compared to the regional wars that took place in ancient times. Even if you take Olmstead’s estimates with the largest possible grain of salt, the number of civilian deaths and people sold into slavery following conflicts among the Assyrians, Hittites, Moabites and other “people of the Bible” are still staggering—affecting tens of thousands of people.

But this is not meant to be an essay on history, so on with the music discussion …

Play the word-association game with anyone even remotely familiar with opera and mention the term “Middle East.” I guarantee that the most likely response will be “Aida,” the Verdi opera commissioned to open the Cairo Opera House. [Note: the composition wasn’t completed in time, so the first opera performed on that stage was actually “Rigoletto.”] Other operas set in that part of the world include Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” (which actually takes place on the Barbary Coast, more than 1000 miles west of the Nile, but that’s close enough for me), Verdi’s “Nabucco” and “I Lombardi,” Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Meyerbeer’s “Il Crociato in Egitto,” “Akhnatan” by Phillip Glass, and a bunch more that don’t come immediately to mind.

With the emphasis on Italian, French and German opera in today’s repertoire—plus the exceptions noted in my final May posting—it’s easy to forget that people have composed operas in dozens of different languages over the last several centuries. While doing research on an unrelated topic, I stumbled across three Oriental composers whose efforts in the first half of the 20th century remain virtually unknown to the opera world at large. These gentlemen are the subject of today’s Opera Blog essay.

Sayed [or Sayyid] Darwish (1892–1923) was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His skills as a singer thrust him into the limelight at an early age, and he was soon composing songs that he performed in the city’s music halls and coffee houses. As Darwish became more serious about composition—receiving formalized training in Alexandria from British expatriates who lived there—he became obsessed with the idea of broadening the appeal of indigenous Egyptian music. He is reportedly the first composer to employ Western musical techniques—harmony, counterpoint, etc.—for scoring Arab music, as well as the first to pair traditional instruments like the oud (lute) with their symphonic counterparts.

It is broadly acknowledged that Darwish greatly admired Giuseppe Verdi, and several accounts of the Egyptian’s life tell the tale that he was planning to travel to Italy for further musical study when he met his untimely demise. Internet research turned up the tidbit that he expired from a cocaine overdose, but I could find no corroborating evidence.

Whatever the cause of his death, the loss of Darwish at age 31 could well be the equivalent in the Arab world to the death of Mozart in ours. He became famous for composing operettas—more than 25 were performed during his lifetime—and widely recognized as “the father of modern Egyptian music.” He penned the words and composed the tune to “Bilady, Bilady” [“My Homeland, My Homeland”], which is now the Egyptian national anthem. The musical theater in Alexandria, originally built to host traveling productions from the Cairo Opera House, was ultimately renamed for him. It was restored to its former glory in 2004 with the help of numerous foreign donations. President Hosni Mubarak presided over its rededication ceremony.

Given his interest in melding Eastern and Western music, Darwish composed the opera “Cleopatra and Marc-Antony” for Alexandria. He completed both the Arabic libretto as well as the musical score a few months before his death, but the piece did not reach the stage until 1927.

Earlier this year in Washington, D.C., a concert of Arabic music was given that included several songs written by Sayed Darwish. None of these involved excerpts from his opera, however. It appears that “Cleopatra” has never been recorded, and I was regrettably unsuccessful in locating even an aria from that work on any singer’s CD.

Daoud Hosni (1870–1937) was a Karaite Jew born in Cairo. The descriptive term refers not to an ethnic designation but rather a religious one. It means “Hebrew Scripturalist,” denoting a person “who lives by the Hebrew scriptures without addition or subtraction,” that is, someone who believes only in the teachings of the Old Testament and ignores subsequent material found in the Talmud or Mishnah. At the end of the 19th century, this Egyptian enclave of Jews—primary lower-middle class and engaged in jewelry making, among other similar ventures—was well integrated into the Arab world that surrounded it, identifying much more closely with their Semitic brethren than with their British overseers. As a result, there was a great deal of cultural cross-pollination that included the world of music.

Whereas Darwish’s musical fame came from singing, Hosni’s occurred due to his skill in playing the oud. But as with Darwish, Hosni became best known for his Arabic popular songs, composing more than 500 of them. He too found acclaim on the stage; his operettas were performed in cities throughout the extant Arab world during his lifetime, including Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. As is generally the case with Westerners, Hosni took the poetic works of other writers and set them to music, rather than creating librettos on his own. His material combined sounds from the Arab souk, the call of the muezzin, and tunes from the Karaitic synagogue that he attended throughout his life.

Unlike other pretenders to the throne, Hosni is recognized as the first person to compose music for an entire opera in Arabic. This was “Samson and Dalila” (libretto by poet Bishara Wakim), first performed at the Egyptian Singing Theater in Cairo at some point between 1910 and the mid-1920s. [Note: Despite extensive research I’ve been unable to discover the exact year in which this debut took place.] According to commentary cited on the Web site “Historical Society of Jews from Egypt”—from which much of this information was borrowed—“critics considered it ‘a unique event in the history of Arabic music.’” He went on to compose other operas as well, including his own version of “Cleopatra,” with a libretto by Dr. Hussein Fawzi. He also collaborated on a three-act opera with two Muslims (Mohamed Kholi and Mohamed el Sonbati), each of whom composed the music for a single act of “Semiramis.”

An interesting circumstance that ties our first two composers together involves the fact that Hosni adapted the Darwish operetta “Hoda” into a full-scale opera, managing to capture Darwish’s musical essence so completely that critics believed the finished product was entirely the work of the Alexandrian.

Although Arabic singers over the past few decades have recorded some of Hosni’s more popular tunes—and several have even been turned into best-selling cell phone ring tones—no recordings apparently exist of either his operas or arias from them. That’s a shame, especially since Fawzi, his librettist for “Cleopatra,” described the Soldier’s Chorus as a “blend of mysticism with the sense of liturgical music.”

Marc Lavry (1903–1967) is recognized as the first composer to have created an opera in Hebrew. Unlike the two composers mentioned above, he enjoyed a successful musical career in Europe before his emigration to the Middle East in 1935. Lavry was born in Riga, Latvia. He studied music at the conservatory there as well as at the more famous one in Leipzig, Germany. From his earliest professional days he was interested in opera, working in the Saarbrücken Opera House in the 1920s as an assistant director and conductor. He moved to Berlin in the late ’20s, advancing to the role of principal conductor for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in 1929.

When the Nazis gained power in Germany, Lavry returned briefly to Latvia but had the foresight to abandon his homeland prior to World War II, using a tourist visa to gain entry to what was then British Palestine. He started writing music in earnest upon settling permanently in Eretz Yisroel, beginning with the symphonic poem, “Emek” (“Valley”). This piece was the cornerstone of the first world tour taken by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra following statehood in 1948.

Prior to the late 1960s, when widespread industrialization started to exert a much greater economic impact on the country, the kibbutz was Israel’s cultural center. Communal living begat communal child-rearing, and descendants of the original settlers gathered together for more than simply financial reasons. Many places fielded their own acting troupes, chamber ensembles and dance corps. The kibbutz also reinforced the feeling of belonging, particularly for immigrants from dozens of different countries where they were always considered outsiders, no matter how many generations they’d lived there.

While Lavry was not himself a kibbutznik, patriotic feelings for his adopted country certainly predisposed him to an interest in that lifestyle. At some point during the 1940s he decided to create an entire opera in Hebrew and began casting about for a libretto that would exemplify his ideal Israeli setting.

Hebrew theater in British Palestine was generally a function of works translated from other languages. With the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe in the years prior to and during WWII, Yiddish theater was actually much more popular. Interestingly enough, Habimah (The Stage) was begun by Zionists in Russia, moving to Palestine in 1931 to become what is known today as the National Theater. Most of the plays written for this house, all of them in Hebrew, occupied two basic themes—Jewish (generally Biblical) history, and pioneering. One of those plays, “Life in a Kibbutz” by Sh. Shalom (who appears to not have had a true first name, since he is mentioned only this way in all of his Internet citations) attracted Lavry’s attention in a rather roundabout manner.

Max Brod was born in Prague in 1884. He became a music and theater critic there at the beginning of the 20th century, and his close friendship with Franz Kafka motivated him in 1937 to publish a highly regarded biography of the author. He moved to Palestine in 1939 and was named manager of Habima. Brod directed the production of Shalom’s play and, through a mutual friend, eventually learned of Lavry’s interest in finding an appropriate literary vehicle for his first operatic composition. With the playwright’s permission Brod created a two-act libretto, renaming the piece “Dan Ha’Shomer” (“Dan the Guard”) in deference to the main protagonist.

The play itself, as well as the libretto, is best described as a psychological drama. The action takes place exclusively on a (fictional) kibbutz in northern Israel, and two stories are interwoven to form the basic plot. The first is a love triangle involving Dan (baritone) and his new wife Efrat (mezzo), plus her lover and former boyfriend Nachman (tenor). The second is the struggle to keep the kibbutz viable in the face of adversity, from internal conflicts between idealism and realism to external influences such as attacks by robbers. The other main character in the opera, Rabbi Wellwelle (bass), is described as the “conscience of the kibbutz.” Although he is killed in one of those attacks, the opera is said to have a happy ending.

“Dan Ha’Shomer” was commissioned by the KKL, the national organization overseeing agricultural land development. One presumes that they saw the production of this opera as a terrific promotional opportunity for life on a kibbutz, despite the tragedies it portrayed. The opera had its premiere in Tel Aviv in 1945 and was reportedly performed in more than 30 other places over the next year or so before disappearing entirely from the stage.

Marc Lavry went on to compose a number of other classical pieces including an oratorio titled “Song of Songs,” plus other choral works. His “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1” (Op. 201) is available on CD on Doremi, featuring pianist P’nina Salzman and the Israel Philharmonic. Lavry also wrote “Four Wedding Dances” for violin and orchestra that can be found on any number of recording labels, some of which have transcribed the music for piano and orchestra.

His last major project, in 1965, involved composing the musical score for the hour-long U.S. television documentary, “Let My People Go (The Story of Israel).” This was a David L. Wolper production sponsored by Xerox and narrated by none other than stage-and-screen actor Richard Basehart. Lavry died in Haifa in March 1967.

While doing research on Marc Lavry earlier this year, I came across details of this opera in conjunction with Israeli conductor Benny Kedem. After writing to his agent in New York City—Novo Artists—I received a cordial reply from Maestro Kedem as well as a synopsis of the opera, which I’ve drawn on extensively for material in this essay. Kedem apparently rediscovered the work after it had lain dormant for more than 50 years, coming across the hand-written score in the musical archives of the national library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his e-mail to me he describes how this happened.

“My personal contact [with] the piece started when I studied at the Jerusalem
music academy. Professor Y. Hirshberg spoke often about the forgotten
piece and initiated my interest in it. A computer-printed piano reduction
and orchestral score of the overture and dance suite is ready for use. A
reproduction of the full score may take [up to] nine months. The manager
of the Israeli Music Institute in Tel Aviv is willing to print the score free of
charge, under condition that there will be [a] full production of the opera.”

An important historical work such as this deserves a chance to be heard. Here’s hoping that Maestro Kedem succeeds in convincing some person or entity to underwrite the project and help him realize his vision. For that matter, the same could be wished for Darwish’s “Cleopatra” and Hosni’s “Samson.” Am I the only person who thinks that a three-opera U.S. premiere—one by a Muslim in Arabic, one by a Jew in Arabic, and one by a Jew in Hebrew—could go a long way to bridging the cultural gap in the Middle East?

Ah, well—at least one can dream.

very enjoyable - thank you!
Hi Nice Blog. In Egypt also boasts a broad multi-cultural community including Aboriginal and Torres Strait, descendants with cultures spanning 40,000 years. So next I will be one visitor of Queensland .any one let me know about Egypt visa .
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