Review: ‘Emigré,’ an Oratorio, Is Pure Schlock


Performers stand on a stage with musicians behind them
The ensemble of ‘Émigré.’ Chris Lee

In the late 1930s, thousands of European Jewish refugees migrated to Shanghai. As other countries closed their borders to Jewish refugees, China allowed refugees to enter without visas. This came to a halt in 1941, when the occupying forces of Japan halted all immigration of Jews to China and forced the nearly 23,000 Jewish refugees into a ghetto, formally titled the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees. This history is the subject of Émigré, an oratorio with music by Aaron Zigman and lyrics by Mark Campbell, with additional lyrics by Brock Walsh. The piece made its U.S. premiere on Thursday with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Long Yu, who also commissioned the work for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

One might expect such serious subject matter to yield a rich, thoughtful work about multiple forms of displacement and difference; how did Jewish refugees interact with Chinese citizens before the Japanese occupation? How did this change when they were forced to move? But for all the interest of its premise, Émigré felt more like a Disney version of history, trafficking entirely in musical, poetic and dramatic clichés.

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Zigman is largely a film composer with credits including The Notebook and Bridge to Terabithia. Campbell’s name is more familiar to classical music listeners; his opera Silent Night with Kevin Puts won a Pulitzer in 2012. Neither of them was the right choice for this subject matter or approach. Émigré is not an oratorio. What it most sincerely wants to be is musical theater, but even the silliest entries of that genre at least have a full stage to work with, and any lyricist worthy of the name could come up with cleverer lines than these.

Two singers perform backed by a large choir
Arnold Livingston Geis and Matthew White with the New York Philharmonic Chorus.

Zigman’s musical language is quotidian; serviceable for the most part but with few surprises and a tendency to be both overloud and repetitive. There are some utterly expected “Chinese”-sounding musical elements: woodblocks and pentatonic scales. There’s also a cha-cha, because why not? It is blowsy and overblown at moments that do not require such volume, and nearly silent during the offstage bombing that closes the show. The whole production would sound better with a smaller ensemble, instead of having every member of the sections on the same part.

Campbell’s libretto, however, is pure schlock on both micro and macro scales. Brothers Otto and Josef (emphasis on the ‘juh”) Bader (tenors Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis, respectively) arrive in Shanghai—a “beacon of light on a silent shore”—from Berlin. Josef quickly falls in love with Lina Song (Meigui Zhang), a young Chinese woman who lives with her father Wei ( the mononym bass-baritone Shenyang) and sister, Li (Huiling Zhu). Each family objects to the lovers’ choices because of racism and fear, but Josef and Lina persist. As the Japanese occupation weighs on Shanghai, the Jewish characters are moved into the ghetto and forbidden from interacting with Chinese residents. Otto somewhat reluctantly falls in love with a sassy rabbi’s daughter named Tovah (Diana Newsome), the only character with even a hint of vivacity and one who deserves someone as fun as she is.  Josef and Lina marry in secret, and the characters all meet during a bombing raid to fight about accepting the couple. The men stick by their prejudices, but Li and Tovah argue for the power of love. Then a bomb drops and kills the two of them, leaving Josef and Lina to mourn with their now united families.

It’s a collection of the most obvious storytelling clichés that felt unrelated to the specific context: the lovers fall in love at first sight and exist only to be star-crossed, Tovah gets a “girl-power” message about leaving things to women to get them done, and a sudden set of deaths exist purely mine more pathos from the story. Even small things, like an immense language barrier and culture shock that would have affected Jewish refugees, were smoothed over completely. And if the ending sounds abrupt in my summary, it was no more so than how Émigré presented it.

Apart from its featureless characters and paint-by-numbers plot, Campbell also communicates entirely in couplets. It is innately silly but made sillier by the seriousness of its setting. There’s a strange pleasure to it if you’re in the right mood; hearing every lyrical cliché in an hour and a half makes one aware of just how many greater works one has consumed, and there’s some minor joy to be had simply in trying to anticipate the ending of each couplet. I’ll let you in on the fun:

“If only just because we have no other choice

If only just because we still have…”

If you guessed “a voice,” you win! Here’s a bonus round, from a love duet, slightly harder.

“Once upon a night

Fortune cast a…”

That’s right, the answer is “light”! If you see Émigré, you’ll get to play a 90-minute round. Other clunkers abound: “Every window is transparent,” Josef sings. Later, the windows return: “The world to be we only see through a window.” “You’re my dream even when I sleep,” Tovah and Otto sing to one another, before the similarly mind-melting, “We wait for the longest time for time to decide our fate.” I shan’t go on; I’m sure you get the picture.

The Phil was utterly wasted here; I can hardly assess their performance, because Zigman’s score could easily be played by a high school orchestra. The same could be said of the choir, who had little to do except echo the soloists’ lines in climactic moments. They sounded fine and are to be commended for their professionalism, even if I’m not to be commended for the same. There was also some rather good singing and a lot of acting; Geis, as Josef, has a lovely tenor sound, ideal for classic musical theater, and he committed 100 percent to his character such as it was. Shenyang is a bass-baritone with a surprisingly light touch and an expressive tone. Meigui Zhang as Lina was likable and had a supple and balanced sound. Matthew White had a very difficult vocal part—Zigman gave him almost nothing but high notes—and he acquitted himself well. Mary Birnbaum used the space well in her direction, but there wasn’t much she could do with a text this simplistic. The whole cast, orchestra, and crew would fare better in a piece that would make stronger use of their talents. As it was, they made what they could out of the material they were given, like all professionals must. I hope this resume line leads them to better (musical) shores.

While Serious in Subject, the Oratorio ‘Emigré’ Is Pure Schlock





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