The video-opera “Moscow-NY,” which has its premiere at the JCC in Manhattan this weekend, is based on the life of Isaac Bashevis Singer — sort of.
Though it follows the general outline of the Nobel laureate’s immigration from Poland to New York in 1935, as well as his first wife’s decision to join the communists in Russia instead, “Moscow-NY” owes perhaps a greater debt to the personal life of the opera’s creator, Noemi Schlosser.
“I just knew so well after all these years what I wanted to write,” Schlosser said in an interview from Belgium, where she lives and where her company, Salome Speelt, is based. She explained how the production’s themes of forced migration, rootlessness and anti-Semitism were tightly bound to her own family’s past. “The idea that someone lives in some place physically and another mentally,” she said, comes from the Schlosser’s experience in Europe.
It begins with her grandfather, Wolfgang Schlosser. A highly assimilated German-speaking Jew, Wolfgang lived in Prague all his life until 1940. That year, shortly after the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia, he fled to London, where he lived out the war. When he returned to Prague, he found it and the rest of the country entirely transformed.
Former friends looked down on him for living out the war abroad, and anti-Semitism re-emerged in Soviet garb. Even though Wolfgang, an artist, supported himself by painting murals for the communist government, he had fled Prague again in 1968 — this time for Belgium — after the Soviet crackdown following the failed 1968 revolution.
“It was to save his a– and to live a normal life” that Wolfgang painted communist murals before fleeing to Belgium, Schlosser said. “But it was hard; people were being hanged in the streets.”
It was only five years ago that Noemi found out what happened to the extended Schlosser family during the Holocaust.
“The rest of the family was waiting for a boat to leave Hamburg” shortly after Wolfgang fled to London in 1940, Schlosser explained. “But that never happened.” Almost all of them were sent to the showpiece Czechoslovakian concentration camp Theresienstadt, before being transported to the real death camps further east.
Eliot Lawson, leader of the Belgium-based Enigma String Quartet, which performs the music for the production, did not hesitate to join Schlosser when she approached him about the “Moscow-NY” idea. They knew each other from grade school, and Schlosser even introduced Lawson to his wife, Valerie Vervoort, the soprano in the production. “All of us are friends,” Lawson said in an interview from Belgium. “That makes it easy, and also fun.”
But both Lawson and Vervoort, also interviewed from Belgium, said the show’s themes reverberate into the present. Anti-Semitism has re-emerged in Belgium in recent years, they said, and while neither of them is Jewish, “it affects daily life for everyone,” Vervoort said. “We have a big Muslim community here and we feel the tension between the Jewish and Muslim community and in our culture,” she said. Both Vervoort and Lawson said that it may be only a small minority within the Muslim community that is virulently anti-Semitic, but its visibility has created a chilling atmosphere.
Schlosser also emphasized the recent rise in anti-Semitism as fodder for her show, but she stressed that it is by no means confined to the Muslim community. The rise of the extreme right-wing Flemish parties in Belgium’s parliament last year has given succor to old-fashioned anti-Semitism, to say nothing of explicit bigotry toward the Muslim and French-speaking communities.
Schlosser said the small comments she often gets from certain Dutch citizens are revealing: “‘I can’t tell that you’re Jewish,’ that’s big now,” Schlosser said, repeating a refrain she hears often.
Karen Sander, director of arts programming at the JCC in Manhattan, who brought “Moscow-NY” to the center, found the show’s seamless integration of new and old anti-Semitism tragic. But she found it also gave “Moscow-NY” a powerful dramatic engine. Sander added that Schlosser’s multimedia approach makes it particularly affecting for a 21st century audience. “A lot of classical music groups are trying to figure out how to enliven their music,” Sander explained, noting the current trend for live concerts that feature the projection of silent films with live musical accompaniment. “Moscow-NY” does that particularly well, she said.
More drama is added with footage Schlosser took in 2005 when she visited a few of the more remote and still decimated Jewish communities in Russia. “I would just go to a place like a synagogue, and just talk.” Though many locals were still fearful to speak to a stranger about the Jewish community’s past, a few eventually opened up. “I got good sense about what it was like [to be Jewish] under Stalin,” she said.
Still, “Moscow-NY” does lean heavily on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s biography. Schlosser said the original idea for the music-theater piece came to her after reading the biography of Singer’s son, Israel.
In it, Israel described how his father Isaac and mother, Runia, split up over what to do in 1935, when the Nazis were sitting on Poland’s border. Isaac wanted to leave Europe and the Old World entirely, hoping he’d start a new life as a writer in America. But Runia was a committed socialist, and felt Jewish life could thrive in Russia, and later, in Palestine.
When Schlosser began writing the show’s script, many of the specific details of Isaac’s and Runia’s lives were molded to a more general immigration story, if not gutted entirely. “Moscow-NY,” which debuted in Antwerp, in 2009, as part of a local Jewish culture festival, focuses instead on a brother and sister.
Much like Isaac and Runia, the siblings are split up in 1935, with the male character (only named “brother”) chasing his dreams as a writer in New York, while his sister (similarly, named “sister”) goes to fight with the Red Army in Russia. The two characters, played by live actors, with Schlosser as the sister, narrate their divergent paths after their deaths — and that’s where the production again turns personal.
Noemi’s mother, Tereze, committed suicide two years ago. A Catholic-born sculptor, it was Tereze who instilled Noemi with a strong Jewish identity, and helped spawn an earlier music-theater piece from which “Moscow-NY” evolved. The brother and sister character come from Schlosser’s earlier creation, “Franny and Zooey,” which, like “Moscow-NY,” is also loosely based on a writer’s story (J.D. Salinger).
Noemi explained that despite her Jewish lineage coming solely from her father’s side, her mother is the one who taught her about Judaism, from the biblical stories to the baking of challah, to why women light the Sabbath candles. “She really embraced it,” Noemi says of her mother, though Tereze neither converted nor continued to practice Catholicism.
Noemi actually wrote “Moscow-NY” in about four weeks, while she was mourning her mother’s death in Israel. Her death led Noemi to delve even deeper into her Jewish roots, and she went to Israel to meet long-lost cousins from her father’s side. But Noemi knows she owes her mother a tremendous debt. “She’s the one who raised me Jewish.”
Noemi’s father, Petra, hardly talked about his Jewish identity at all when Noemi was growing up. The Schlosser family’s experience in the Holocaust, as well as Petra’s own brushes with anti-semitism in Belgium, where he moved with his father in 1970, seemed to silence him.
Noemi, 32, recalled a day when she was in high school and decided to wear a Star of David on her necklace. “I was spit in my face for wearing it,” she remembers. “And my father was very upset by that.” But his response was revealing: “Why are you wearing that? It’s not safe!” he told her. Now Noemi realizes why he felt that way. “He was afraid,” she says.
“Moscow-NY” weaves the essence of her father’s story into the brother’s story. Schlosser explained how, like her father, the brother believes he can leave the past behind entirely by going to America. “But he” — the brother — “cannot survive without the Jewish community,” Noemi said.
He finds that, alone in a foreign land, it’s the local Jewish community, and a growing pull to reconnect with the sister, whom he’s tried to forget, that reawaken him. He decides to find the sister he hasn’t seen since they split in 1935. Instead, he meets only her ghost. In the play, she dies at the end of the Second World War, killed by Nazi soldiers while fighting for the Soviets.
“Now that I left and don’t know anybody,” Schlosser said, describing how the brother feels shortly after immigrating to America. “All those memories are like ghosts in my head. All I can do is write them down.”
“Moscow-NY: A Video-Opera” will be staged at the JCC in Manhattan on Thursday, Feb. 17, Saturday, Feb. 19 and Sunday, Feb. 20. 8 p.m. on Thursday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Call (646) 505-4444 for tickets. $20.