He has waited almost 35 years to see it on a New York stage, but Leonard Lehrman is remarkably sanguine as the two semi-staged performances of his opera “Hannah” are approaching.
“We’ve done concert performances of excerpts from the opera many times,” he says, sitting in his car, which is parked on Central Park West on a chilly Friday morning in November (the interview venue itself is something of a metaphor). “It has been 34 years since it was done last [in its entirety], 35 years since it was written.”
The first two — and thus far, only — performances took place on May 23 and 24, 1980 in Mannheim in what was then West Germany. The cast was drawn from local talent including members of the Seventh Army Chorus, who were stationed at the U.S. military base there, and their wives.
Since then, almost nothing other than those snatches in concerts that included other music. Yet Lehrman emphatically resists any suggestion that the wait frustrated him.
He shrugs and says, “I’ve done every one of my other operas. Five years ago, I decided it was time to do this one.”
“This one” is a turbulent three-act drama drawn from Talmudic sources, the Apocrypha, folktales and a bewildering range of Hebrew scripture. “We’ve quoted from 36 psalms,” Lehrman announces with a mixture of pride and amusement.
The larger shape of the story may be familiar. Israel is ruled oppressively by the Seleucids, personified by the tyrannical general Nicanor. The Israelites are being urged to Hellenize and to abandon their God. Nicanor also has reserved for himself the droit d’seigneur (as it became known in medieval Europe), sleeping with all new brides on their wedding night. His chief opponents are the Hasmoneans, led by the high priest Mattathias, his stalwart warrior sons and his nephew Eleazar. Mattathias’ daughter Hannah is betrothed to Eleazar but the shadow of Nicanor looms large, never more so than when Dinah, Eleazar’s sister, is raped by Seleucid soldiers.
Using this unfamiliar lead-in to the well-known Chanukah story, Lehrman and his co-librettist Orel Odinov Protopopescu created a surprisingly deft series of parables about the oppression of women in ancient Israel as well as the usual conundrums of assimilation and peoplehood.
But the most forceful message of “Hannah” comes from Lehrman’s music. As might be expected from a collaborator of Marc Blitzstein (the most-renowned English version of “The Threepenny Opera”) and a student of the Americanist Elie Siegmeister, Lehrman composes music that is frequently harsh, edgy, even metallic. The score of the opera is a full-throated throwback to the high modernism of the interwar period, with dips onto the 12-tone riptide and jagged rhythms that occasionally echo jazz but have a tensile strength all their own.
The payoff to the frequent thunder is the sudden tenderness of the duets between Hannah and Eleazar, particularly in his last scene, when the dissonance becomes a muted death knell and the intimacy of the moment is only a heartbeat shy of silence.
The reason we are sitting in Lehrman’s car is that he is about to drop in on one of his cast members to run though an aria or two in the man’s apartment. With a cast that includes eight ordained cantors, you take any rehearsal time you can get, working around busy schedules and the difficulties of access to space and a piano. A full orchestra is out of the question; the two performances this month will be accompanied by piano and organ only.
It’s not an ideal way to stage an opera, but Lehrman stoically accepts the circumstances.
“The piece needs to be done with an orchestra, and it won’t unless someone like Manhattan School [of Music] does it,” he says resignedly.
So the two performances in December take on added weight as a calling card for the opera itself.
“Hannah” has a difficult score, written in a modernist mode that isn’t conventionally audience pleasing. Yet, as several of the cantors who are participating in the current production have said, it is an important work deserving of attention.
“It’s been years since I’ve had to dig into music that requires so much,” admitted Cantor Meredith Greenberg, who sings the title role, in a telephone interview last week. “The piece is very demanding of one’s musical learning and musical chops. It’s very challenging. It has not come easily, but I like the piece a lot. The story is intense and tragic and I love telling it.”
Greenberg, who is the cantor at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., and the daughter-in-law of Itzhak Perlman, says that the demands of being a cantor in a medium-sized congregation “are more than full-time,” so she has had to struggle to fit the opera into her schedule.
Cantor David Katz, who plays her romantic vis-à-vis Eleazar, also found the challenge of scheduling to be a primary concern and limitation.
“The congregation is always first,” he said in a telephone conversation last week. “I’m their cantor, that’s my commitment, that’s where I am. If I were in New York City or it was during the summer, it would still be a challenge.”
Katz, who serves at Temple Or Elohim, in Jericho, L.I., has sung opera professionally — “a short-term in Europe and with the Amato Opera here,” he noted. His resume includes gigs with several American symphonies as well.
“This role, it’s unbelievable in terms of dramatic flow and musicality,” he said. “It has been wonderful discovering new things each time we do it.”
Why would he take on such a project?
He laughed, then said, “Eight cantors and a Jewish-themed opera? How could you say no?”
“Hannah,” a three-act opera composed by Leonard Lehrman from a libretto by Lehrman and Orel Odinov Protopopescu, will have its U.S. premiere on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Community Presbyterian Church of Malverne (12 Nottingham Rd., Malverne); it will be performed again on Tuesday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m. at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (One W. Fourth St.). For more information, go to http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/Hannah.html