Feature: Director Mary Birnbaum Readies EMIGRE—Oratorio by Zigman, Campbell and Walsh—for US Debut at Geffen Hall

Work is Co-Commission of New York Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphony, under Conductor Long Yu, with Stellar International Cast

By: Feb. 27, 2024
Feature: Director Mary Birnbaum Readies EMIGRE—Oratorio by Zigman, Campbell and Walsh—for US Debut at Geffen Hall
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“I think the story is about survival, and about people sheltering one another,” director Mary Birnbaum told me in our conversation about EMIGRÉ, the oratorio that features what she called “composer Aaron Zigman’s sweeping score” and the “complex storytelling” with lyrics by Mark Campbell and additional lyrics by Brock Walsh. The work makes its US debut on February 29 at the New York Philharmonic in Geffen Hall, under conductor Long Yu.

EMIGRÉ tells multiple stories, both historical and personal. Specifically, there’s the story of China’s welcoming Jews who were trying to escape the Holocaust in Europe (after Kristallnacht) and, then, there’s the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of China and the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Then there are the people, survivors from Europe as well as China and how they come together. But beneath the devastation, as composer Zigman told the New York Times, it’s a story of “bridging cultures and humanity and love, hope, loss and tragedy.”

The oratorio was a co-commission of the Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony, with its music director/conductor Yu putting the orchestra’s resources behind, as well as funding expenses for members of the Philharmonic to Shanghai for the world premiere last November.

Though the director admits that it is, in a way, a period piece, the message about the need for the citizens of the world to protect each other is as timely as ever, "It’s easy to draw a straight line to the Israel-Hamas crisis and also the war in Ukraine,” Birnbaum notes--and she feels excited to be part of it.

Although she has been involved with the new work for more than a year, her staging wasn’t seen in Shanghai for logistical reasons, so the New York performances at Geffen have special meaning for her. Says Birnbaum--who’s well-known as a director, is on the faculty at Juilliard and heads Opera Saratoga--“The performances in Shanghai were what I’d consider a concert version”--i.e., a “stand-up-and-sing” approach--“though they both feature the same stellar cast of Chinese and American acting singers.”

The U.S. premiere, as in the Shanghai debut, features tenor Matthew White, soprano Diana Newman, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, soprano Meigui Zhang, mezzo Huiling Zhu, bass-baritone Shenyang and bass-baritone Andrew Dwan, with the chorus under Malcolm J. Merriweather. Deutsche Grammophon recorded the world premiere in Shanghai, which included some members of the Philharmonic alongside the Shanghai orchestra, with the Lanzhou Concert Hall Chorus, as well as the soloists just mentioned.

In New York, the approach is one that is more immersive, Birnbaum notes, taking advantage of the expanses of Geffen Hall for the massive forces of the Philharmonic, members of the Shanghai Symphony, and the Philharmonic’s chorus (again, adding some singers from Shanghai). Here, it will feature scenic design by Kristen Robinson, lighting by Yuki Nakasee Link and costumes by Oana Botez, with visual projections, including images of devastation from World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War—by Joshua Higgason.

Birnbaum’s staging is meant to show off the stories’ propulsive action and character development through song in very specific ways. “Zigman’s score catches the very romantic epic and painted landscape of Shanghai in the ‘30s-‘40s, when it was known as ‘the Paris of the East,’ with Campbell’s keen understanding of how people speak about relationships and grief, and the addition of Walsh’s voice that is different enough from Mark’s to help vary the approaches to certain characters.”

Notes the director, “I think the stagecraft will add a great deal to the performance here. I’m going to keep the staging simple and metaphorical versus literal to the best of my ability.” She adds, “But I think the big thing here is that the piece involves a lot of logistics and clarity about the spaces that things take place in.”

She adds, “I think it’s very meaningful that the themes in the piece--growing antisemitism, the migrant issue, US-China relations or China’s relations to the rest of the world--are timely and warrant attention. It’s a piece with big ideas, both historically and in the present.”

“I see my job in two parts,” says Birnbaum. “First, to make it very clear to the audience where events are happening and clarifying historical points accurately.  Second, to make it feel hopeful. Much of the music and the storyline are so sad from the outset because we’re in the Holocaust--and as soon as you say ‘Holocaust,’ people have a definite reaction.” She adds, “I feel I need to bring an energy into the piece so that it doesn’t turn into a spiral of upsetting events for those in the audience.

“I want them to think of the miracle that China was able to issue these visas to get these Jews out of Eastern Europe, and then the ongoing miracle that their descendants are alive and congregating in New York, to make it hopeful and not sad, even though much of what happens certainly is.”

The staging was filled with demands for her, starting with how to fit the massive forces on stage, as we are transported through time and place, with all those orchestral player, chorus and soloists. 

“I really like the space here. We started the ideas for our production design with the feeling of Geffen Hall, because we knew that we wanted the beginning and end to feel like we were here in the hall together,” she explains.

“We were inspired by the light wood, the sound panel at the top of the hall, and that’s where we started in making a screen from that wood,” she told me. From there, she and her colleagues looked at “tons” of photos of Shanghai during that time period to set the action of the piece as well as to try to bring in the textures and maps of the city in the projections being used.

“I had a mixed perception of what the city would have been like--I believe many people do--because it seemed so far away and exotic and that, somehow, it was less developed than Europe,” she admitted. “But that wasn’t true. Shanghai was bustling; they called it the Paris of the East in the 1930s,” she continued. “There was an incredible international scene, with art deco architecture everywhere. It was a huge international business center as it is today. We started looking at the deco architecture and landed on a shape for the production that’s inspired by it, by the river that runs through it--a little like a map.

“I also knew that I wanted people to cross down from the balcony to the floor of the orchestra so it would feel like they were wandering through the city, and then we have a strip of space at the front of the orchestra where much of the most personal story takes place.” The chorus will be in the seats behind the orchestra and back in the balcony. “And while I wanted the lead singers to interact and see them I knew we wouldn’t have time to work on the staging.

But there was still another challenge: The piece has “bookends” that Aaron, Mark and Brock have written.

“There’s a prayer at the beginning; we’re framing it as the lighting of a (Jewish) yizkor candle as well as the lighting of a Chinese memorial of death candle for two daughters of the piece who perish at the end. These two candles would burn throughout the show. Then, at the end, the two fathers will carry those candles toward each other like a requiem.

"There’s this hopeful moment of maybe a future where we won’t have to worry about any citizens of the world not having a place where they can belong,” she concludes.

What should people walk out thinking about after seeing this? “What’s the message?” I ask, going full circle from where the conversation started. Birnbaum hesitates. “I have mixed feelings when answering something like this because if we’re clear about the storytelling, our message will come through.

"On the one hand, I’m wary about seeming to preach to people, especially right now. Yet, for me, what we’re getting at, is that there’s one human story, not many stories, e.g., ‘We want love, we want to take care of each other, we want to survive.’ Yes, that’s it,” she concludes. “Miraculously, people survive. We persist. We keep going.”

Caption: Conductor Long Yu in Shanghai, with orchestra and soloists.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra