Aaron Zigman's 'Émigré' oratorio, about Jews who fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai, has US premiere

This image released by the New York Philharmonic shows Long Yu conducting a performance of Aaron Zigman’s "Émigré," at David Geffen Hall in New York on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic via AP)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Aaron Zigman goes back to the 1940s in composing “Émigré,” an oratorio portraying Jews who fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai.

His 90-minute, two-act work, given its U.S. premiere by the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night, evokes a World War II-era sound reminiscent of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

While the oratorio’s story is fictional, it is based on the true story of 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who reached the Shanghai International Settlement. Following the Japanese occupation, most Jews who emigrated from Nazi-controlled areas were forced in 1943 into a ghetto known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees.

“I thought this was a really, really exciting opportunity to think bigger than the Holocaust stories we usually hear, and think about the cross-cultural implications and also the implications of migrancy in our world today,” director Mary Birnbaum said.

Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai music director Long Yu, “Émigré” was given its world premiere at Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Hall on Nov. 17 in an unstaged performance.

Costumes, props, projection and lighting were added for this week’s two-show run at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.

Additional performances are planned for Beijing in October, Berlin in November, Hong Kong in April 2025 and London in June 2025. Deutsche Grammophon made a recording in Shanghai that was released digitally on Feb. 2, with CDs to follow on June 28.

A 61-year-old Californian, Zigman is known for his movie scores and work with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Christina Aguilera to Phil Collins.

“Film scoring and writing for voice is very, very similar. Dialogue is key. Voice is key,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with editing myself and I’m always very sensitive and very attentive to if something feels long winded.”

Zigman met Long in 2016 and they worked together on “Tango Manos,” a 2019 piano concerto for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. That same year, Long asked Zigman to join the “Émigré” project. Zigman was impressed by “Silent Night,” the 2011 opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, and added Campbell, a veteran of roughly 40 libretti. Campbell brought in Birnbaum, who worked with him on Laura Kaminsky’s “As One” in 2014 and Rene Orth’s “Empty the House” in 2016.

Campbell’s text mostly is English with some Chinese, Hebrew and Latin. Brock Walsh, who has worked with Céline Dion and the Pointer Sisters, contributed lyrics for five of the 17 songs, including the especially impactful “In a Perfect World” and “Once Upon a Night.” The closing “Through A Window” quotes “You'll Never Walk Alone” from "Carousel."

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis (Josef Bader) falls in love with soprano Meigui Zhang (Lina Song), whose mother was killed in the Nanjing Massacre and whose father Wei (bass-baritone Shenyang) disapproved of the relationship. Tenor Matthew White is Josef’s brother Otto, a rabbinical student. Lina and Otto secretly marry, each walking down the auditorium’s parallel aisles to start a moving, choral-backed song “Forever.”

Three Chinese musicians joined the orchestra, just as a handful of New York Philharmonic players performed at the Shanghai premiere.

“There are bad things happening in our relationship, the relationship between China and the U.S., and maybe art can lead the way into how we can get along and understand each other a little bit,” Campbell said.

Choristers filled the area behind and to the side of the stage, entering slowly at the start of the the second act.

Zhang and mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu as her sister Li are given an uplifting waltz, “Dreaming Must Wait,” backed by the chorus in the first act.

Principal cello Carter Brey concluded the second act’s opening entr’acte with what Campbell composed as a melody from “Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King),” a solemn Hebrew prayer chanted each year from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.

“Originally Long and I talked about doing this as an opera. Certain extraneous issues, it just turned into an oratorio,” Zigman said, referring to the cost of a full staging.

“Doing things at the New York Philharmonic,” Birnbaum interjected, “that’s not cheap.”