Oratorio on Jewish refugees in Shanghai to premiere in city

Time:2023/7/7 14:08:30        

A 90-minute oratorio telling the story of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany and finding a safe haven in Shanghai will debut on November 17 in Shanghai, those behind the musical work announced at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on Thursday.

"Émigré" follows two Jewish brothers who arrive in Shanghai as refugees in 1938 as they go on to navigate their new lives and find a home and community in the city.

It is written by award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh. It was co-commissioned by preeminent Chinese conductor Yu Long, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

The three creators and Gary Ginstling, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, traveled to Shanghai to join Yu and the local orchestra to announce the work's world premiere and following performances.


(From left) Maestro Yu Long; composer Aaron Zigman; Gary Ginstling, executive director of the New York Philharmonic; Zhou Ping, director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra; librettist Mark Campbell; and songwriter Brock Walsh

Yu, musical director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, explained why he commissioned the piece.

"In the flood of history, we cannot avoid the changes in social circumstances and human destiny, but the light and goodness of humanity is a flat boat that never sinks," he said.

Yu will conduct the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere in November in Shanghai, before conducting the New York Philharmonic for the United States premiere next year on February 29 at the Lincoln Center.

The work will also be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in live and studio sessions, to be released in February 2024.

Zigman, a classically trained American composer, said: "'Émigré' is a love story, but it only just scratches the surface of a layered history."

More than 30,000 Jews fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis in Europe after Kristallnacht, arriving shortly after China had recently suffered the atrocities of the Japanese occupation and the Nanjing Massacre.


A group photo shows Jewish refugee musicians in Shanghai in 1942.

Zigman learned about the mass migration years ago after reading "The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang, finding that "we both shared a type of persecution and threat of our existence."

"Writing this oratorio about the cultural exchange between the people of China and the Jews had such a compelling meaning for me," he said.

"If not for Shanghai and the good will of the people of China, some of my ancestors and someone very close to me would have perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

"My aim was to write a piece that expressed the beauty, yet also the pain and hope for a better future that both the Chinese and Jews experienced together during the 1930s and 1940s," he added.

The cast for November premiere will feature Ben Bliss and Arnold Livingston Geis as the two Jewish brothers, with Shen Yang, Zhang Meigui, Andrew Dawn, Zhu Huiling and Diana Newman. The same cast will also perform in New York for the US premiere.


The creative minds behind "Émigré" share their inspirations and intentions.