‘I have a good Jewish mother story for you,” said Elijah Moshinsky, the director of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Nabucco,” which opened last week. “It was about eight years ago, just before my mother died, and she pulled me toward her bed and said in my ear: ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’”
Turns out Moshinsky, who is 65 and has been directing operas for almost 40 years, has quite a few Jewish mother stories. His mother met his father in Shanghai in the 1930s, where both their families eventually settled after fleeing pogroms in the early 20th century.
“Ironically, Shanghai was a very safe place to go for Jews,” he said. “There was a large Jewish community there, and it was very good to stateless people.”
But then came Mao. Four years after Communists took over China in 1949, the Moshinsky’s fled again, this time to Melbourne. Elijah was educated in Australia through college, and then went to Oxford to get a doctorate under the revered intellectual historian, Isaiah Berlin, who was also Jewish.
“He took me on because, he said, ‘An Isaiah should choose an Elijah.’” Moshinsky, who was speaking from London, where he now lives, taught history for a few years in Australia, but realized the academic life wasn’t for him. All the while, he had a shadow career as a theater director, initially as a student at Oxford and eventually staging classics like Shakespeare.
Then, in 1975, London’s main opera house, Covent Garden, hired him to direct “Peter Grimes,” and five years later, he made his debut with the Met, staging Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” starring Luciano Pavarotti. He has not left the art world since.
But neither has he left the Jewish world.
“Both my parents were Orthodox,” he said. “I had a bar mitzvah, married a Jewish woman, and we’ve raised our kids Jewish.” They still do Shabbat dinners, he added, “as much as we can.”
His production of “Nabucco,” which had its debut in 2001 and runs through November, has a special resonance for him. The opera that made Verdi a star in the 1840s, “Nabucco” retells the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Jews’ exile in Babylon. It ends, however, with Nebuchadnezzar’s rejection of paganism and his embrace of the Jewish God.
Verdi, and most Italians in his time, saw a parallel between the fate of the biblical Jews and the struggles of Italians for a unified state. But Moshinsky said that in his production, he wanted to place the opera more squarely in a biblical, almost mythical context.
“There’s such a pressure these days to modernize things, but I thought” — if he tried to update it to today’s politics — “I would be ridiculous to have [for instance] an Arab convert to Judaism.”
Still, he recognized that the opera’s general plot — occupation and then exile might, ironically, have more resonance for Palestinians today than it does for Jews. “Of course, I can see that,” he said. “In a way, the opera speaks to any oppressed people.”
Yet the opera is filled with too many literal enactments of biblical events — God, for instance, strikes down an enemy of the Jews with a lightning bolt — to be overly contemporized, he added.
“The opera is slightly absurd, so you can’t make too many modern parallels. I’ve seen [‘Nabucco’] converted for the Holocaust, where a fascist converts to Judaism. It was ridiculous, distasteful, to be frank.”
Moshinsky has directed several of the Met’s operas that are still in repertory, but he has not seen “Nabucco” since it debuted a decade ago. “How does it look?” he asked, when the interview began. In fact, he hasn’t even been to the Met at all since then because of a health problem.
He was diagnosed with lymphoma several years ago, which slowed him down considerably. But he recently had experimental surgery and will make his first trip back to the Met later this season, when it revives his 1996 production of Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case.”
“I find that I’m doing quite well,” Moshinsky said, “and that’s why I’m coming back.”