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Emigré – Aaron Zigman’s New Oratorio about Jewish Holocaust Refugees in Shanghai – Receives U.S. Premiere from New York Philharmonic (Feb 29; March 1), Plus DG Recording, Out Now

In 1938, Shanghai was one of the few places offering refuge to Jews from Nazi Germany. Their oft-forgotten story finds new life in Emigré, an oratorio by Emmy Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated American composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Grammy-winning librettist Mark Campbell and additional lyrics by Brock Walsh. A binational co-commission of the New York Philharmonic with the Shanghai Symphony and its conductor, Long Yu, the 90-minute work was premiered in China last November, where it was hailed as “a clear winner” (Interlude, Hong Kong). Featuring the same Chinese and American cast under Long Yu’s leadership, Emigré is now available as a new release from Deutsche Grammophon, and is soon to receive its American premiere from the New York Philharmonic in a semi-staged production by European Opera Award-winner Mary Birnbaum at New York’s David Geffen Hall (Feb 29; March 1).

Since the mid-19th century, Shanghai served as a haven for Jews escaping persecution in Europe. Even while under Japanese occupation and still reeling from the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre, the great Chinese port nonetheless opened its doors to the many Jews seeking refuge from the Third Reich after Kristallnacht. Emigré tells the story of two such refugees, German Jewish brothers Otto and Josef Bader, who arrive by boat in Shanghai. There they both find love: Otto within the city’s Jewish community and Josef with the daughter of a Chinese herbalist. The patriarchs of both local communities are initially opposed to this cross-cultural pairing but, when tragedy strikes, they come together in their grief and their shared belief in a better future. As Zigman told the New York Times, “Our project is really about bridging cultures and humanity and love, hope, loss and tragedy.”

To tell his story, the composer drew inspiration from both musicals and 19th-century opera. Collaborating with veteran librettist Mark Campbell, whose work has been recognized with both Pulitzer and Grammy Awards, as well as with longtime pop lyricist Brock Walsh, Zigman also incorporated a variety of other musical styles, including the Buddhist, Jewish and Christian prayers with which his score begins. In an illuminating program note, he explains:

“To write an oratorio about the cultural exchange between the Jews, who were welcomed by the Chinese people in World War II with open arms, and the people of China, has such a compelling meaning for me. If not for Shanghai and the goodwill of China, some of my ancestors and someone very close to me would have perished at the hands of the Nazis during WWII. The Chinese and the Jewish people both shared similar types of persecution – both before and after the war – and that in itself has always made me feel that the telling of this story in some way with music would be important. So I chose the idea of a multicultural love story to bridge the divide. Émigré is a love story, but it only just scratches the surface of a layered history.”

To give the oratorio’s U.S. premiere, the New York Philharmonic will be joined by the New York Philharmonic Chorus and several Chinese musicians, under the baton of Long Yu, the co-commissioning Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony. The New York performances will be directed by Mary Birnbaum, General and Artistic Director of Opera Saratoga. Her semi-staged production will feature scenic design by Kristen Robinson, lighting by Yuki Nakase Link and costumes by Oana Botez, with visual projections – including images of devastation from World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War – by Joshua Higgason.

As in Shanghai, the U.S. premiere stars tenor Matthew White, grand prize winner at both the Gerda Lissner and Deborah Voigt International Vocal Competitions, as rabbinical student Otto, opposite soprano Diana Newman, recently seen at both the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, as yeshiva volunteer Tovah. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, whose “sizeable lyric instrument … lavishes honeyed tone on all registers and at all volumes” (Opera Today), sings the role of young doctor Josef, with coloratura soprano Meigui Zhang, who represented China in the 2023 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, as Lina Song, the woman he loves. Shanghai-born mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu, whose “impeccable” singing is characterized by “rich, golden tones” (Opera Today), portrays Lina’s sister, Li Song, with bass-baritone Shenyang, a former BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, as their father, herbalist Wei Song. Completing the cast of principals is bass-baritone Andrew Dwan, known for his “rich, flexible tone and convincing acting” (Bay Area Reporter), as the boys’ uncle, rabbi Yaakov.

On January 24, Deutsche Grammophon released its recording of Emigré’s world premiere presentation in Shanghai. Featuring the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Lanzhou Concert Hall Choir and members of the New York Philharmonic, this was warmly received by the international press. Émigrédelivers warmth, light,” declared Canada’s Global Times. Praising Zigman’s “highly listenable score,” the UK’s Financial Times found that “the premiere rose to the challenge.” After admiring the “strong cast of seven singers,” Hong Kong’s Interlude pronounced Émigréthe most ambitious undertaking to address the Hebraic legacy left by Shanghai,” predicting that it would prove “the most popular one.” Welcoming the oratorio as “a poignant musical work,” the Beijing Times concluded: “Émigré stands as a powerful symbol of cross-cultural collaboration, highlighting the universal language of music in bridging diverse communities and histories.”

About Aaron Zigman

Emmy-winning American composer Aaron Zigman is a master of multiple genres whose concert music is championed by leading artists and orchestras worldwide. He is also a stalwart of popular song and one of today’s preeminent film and television composers.

Zigman’s concert output encompasses operatic, orchestral, chamber and vocal music. His new oratorio, Émigré, receives its world and U.S. premieres this season from the co-commissioning Shanghai Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic respectively, with a Chinese and American cast led by conductor Long Yu in a semi-staged production by Mary Birnbaum. Set to lyrics by Mark Campbell, with additional lyrics by Brock Walsh, the 90-minute work for soloists, chorus and orchestra tells the story of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai to escape the Holocaust. The work will also be performed in Hong Kong, Berlin and London during the next two concert seasons.

As a longtime devotee of the tango, Zigman pays tribute to the Argentinean form in his award-winning piano concerto, Tango Manos (2019), a co-commission of the Beijing Music Festival, Radio France and the San Francisco Symphony. The concerto’s critically acclaimed world and U.S. premiere performances featured its dedicatee, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with the China Philharmonic under Long Yu and the San Francisco Symphony under Fabien Gabel. Zigman’s other orchestral works include his tone poem Rabin: An Orchestral Work in Five Movements (1994), written in memory of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan premiered Zigman’s Rhapsody for cello and piano at California’s La Jolla Music Society in 2021. The composer’s earlier chamber works include No Strings Attached (2007), a sextet for French horn player Brian O’Connor; Vis Vitae (2006) for mixed octet, as featured at the third annual Beverly Hills International Music Festival; and Impressions (2004), a suite for wind ensemble that was premiered by French horn player Richard Todd and members of the USC Symphony Orchestra. Zigman’s vocal works include a setting of Shir L’Shalom, two Ave Maria vocalises and La Donna in Viola for soprano soloists and chorus, which is set to an Italian translation of a poem by American feminist playwright Ntozake Shange.

Zigman has firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s go-to composers. His film career launched in 2000, when director Nick Cassavetes heard a performance of Rabin by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Zigman and Cassavetes went on to collaborate on six films, including the romantic cult classic The Notebook, for which the composer’s score sold a record number of albums. Working with top studios and directors, he has scored more than 70 Hollywood motion pictures to date, including such substantial box-office hits as Bridge to Terabithia, The Proposal, For Colored Girls, The Company Men, Wakefield and the Sex and the City franchise. Similarly distinguished in television, he has penned songs for shows including the popular series Fame and the Showtime TV movie Crown Heights, for which his setting of the Hebrew peace prayer “Sim Shalom” received an Emmy Award. Most recently, he scored American Dream/American Knightmare, Antoine Fuqua’s acclaimed Suge Knight documentary for Showtime.

Zigman began his career in the 1980s as a session pianist. A student of renowned MGM composer and orchestrator George Bassman, he signed a song-writing contract with music publishing giant Almo Irving while still in college. Subsequently working for industry legend Clive Davis, Zigman went on to write, arrange and produce more than 50 hit albums for some of the world’s foremost performing and recording artists, including Christina Aguilera, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, John Legend, Seal, Carly Simon, Sting, The Four Tops, Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick.

Zigman has accrued numerous honors, including the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Song, two International Film Music Critics’ Award nominations and twelve BMI Film & TV Awards.

Music: Aaron Zigman
Lyrics: Mark Campbell, with Brock Walsh
U.S. premiere:
Feb 29; March 1
New York, NY
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic Chorus
Conductor: Long Yu
Direction: Mary Birnbaum
Scenic design: Kristen Robinson
Lighting design: Yuki Nakase Link
Costume design: Oana Botez
Projection design: Joshua Higgason
Otto Bader: Matthew White, tenor
Josef Bader: Arnold Livingston Geis, tenor
Li Song: Huiling Zhu, mezzo-soprano
Lina Song: Meigui Zhang, coloratura soprano
Wei Song: Shenyang, bass-baritone
Tovah Odesska: Diana Newman, lyric soprano
Yaakov Bader: Andrew Dwan, bass-baritone

For tickets and information, click here.

World premiere recording:
Release date: Jan 24, 2024 (Apple Music Classical); February 2, 2024 (worldwide release)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Captured in Nov 2023 at Shanghai Symphony’s world premiere presentation in Shanghai

For downloads and streaming, click here.

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© 21C Media Group, January 2024


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