Theodor Herzl’s life was one of political challenge, charismatic leadership and emotional complexity. It was high drama and high stakes.
So it seems fitting that composer Alex Weiser and librettist Ben Kaplan have turned the life of the larger-than-life journalist, playwright and Zionist visionary into an opera, “State of the Jews” (Dec. 5-8, 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St., 14streety.org).
Set against the political turmoil of turn-of-the-century Europe, the opera brings the story of Herzl’s wife to the forefront. Julie, who came from an upper-class Viennese background, was not on the same page as her husband; she didn’t support his work. As Weiser and Kaplan depict her in the opera, she tried to discourage him from publishing “The Jewish State.” Theirs was an unhappy marriage.
Kaplan explains in an interview that a lot of the scenes are drawn from primary sources — he looked at letters between Herzl and Julie, documents, Herzl’s diary, newspaper accounts and transcripts of speeches.
“As we were working,” Weiser explains, “Julie emerged more and more as an important character. She wasn’t a very public figure. She’s interesting not just as a foil to him but in her own right — she didn’t want to go through what the family was put through because of his work.”
“Julie’s Waltz” is a soulful lament of sharing a different life than she expected with her husband. “You told me life was beautiful,” she sings. And Herzl, in baritone, sings his “Sixth Congress Address,” looking to the future. They sing mostly in English, with some Hebrew, German and Yiddish.
The two creators work together at YIVO, where Weiser is director of public programs and Kaplan is director of education.
“Now there are unending debates here about what it means to be Jewish in America,” says Weiser. “They were having the same nuanced debates then.”
Kaplan adds, “We need to re-examine what has been forgotten because it’s our best shot at figuring out where we are and where we want to go.”