Musicologist Dr. Michael Ochs brings the joy of Yiddish operetta to Ann Arbor.
Julie Smith Yolles Special to the Jewish News
When Michael Ochs was 2 years old, his family left Germany, where he was born, right before the beginning of WWII. They left everything behind and started their lives all over again in New York City.
“We spoke German at home. If you were from a German Jewish household, you looked down upon Yiddish,” says Dr. Ochs, a musicologist and retired music librarian at Harvard University. “So, I taught myself Yiddish.”
With a keen and well-researched interest in Yiddish theater, Ochs rediscovered Joseph Rumshinsky’s 1923 Yiddish operetta Di goldene kale (The Golden Bride) when he was mounting an exhibition for Harvard’s Loeb Music Library, where he had worked for 14 years.
The operetta incorporates elements of klezmer, Jewish cantorial music, Eastern European folk music, ragtime and jazz. When it premiered in 1923 in New York City, it was wildly popular among the large Yiddish-speaking population, and it toured nationally and internationally until the 1940s.
But it wasn’t until 25 years after Ochs’ discovery that he revisited the manuscript of the operetta and began translating it into English. He compiled all the music and words which, ultimately, led to an Off-Broadway run in 2016 with a full orchestra.
Ochs will be the special guest lecturer on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. on the campus of the University of Michigan, where he will speak about the genre of Yiddish operetta, focusing on Joseph Rumshinsky’s Di goldene kale, which will be enhanced with recorded excerpts from historic and modern productions of the operetta as well as live musical performances by two Jewish University of Michigan School of Musical Theatre and Dance (UMSMTD) students.
“By the time he was 18, Rumshinsky was already conducting and became the ‘Toast of Yiddish Operetta Composers.’ ”
— Michael ochs
“Joseph Rumshinsky was born in Lithuania and came to the United States in 1903, but before that he had fantastic training in music where he worked with cantors and choirs,” Ochs says. “By the time he was 18, he was already conducting and became the ‘Toast of Yiddish Operetta Composers’ and known as the ‘Jewish Victor Herbert.’”
In fact, Ochs adds, “Di golden kale is as good as some of Herbert’s more famous works, Babes in Toyland and Naughty Marietta.”
The “Toast of ‘Jewish Broadway,’ 1923: Di golden kale by Joseph Rumshinsky” is a free event co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Ann Arbor and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and is a part of the Jewish Book and Arts Festival 2018. It is funded through an endowment that Dr. Michael DiPietro and his wife, Alice Fishman, established in 2009 in memory of their mothers, Sybil Fishman and Pauline DiPietro, who both were music lovers.
“Alice’s father, Sidney ‘Steve’ Fishman, was very active at the JCC. He had worked for decades as a property master on Broadway which makes this event an appropriate presentation for our endowment,” said DiPietro, U-M professor emeritus of radiology and pediatrics.
Caroline Helton, an associate professor of voice at UMSMTD as well as an associate of the U-M Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, often produces or facilitates concerts by Jewish composers. She has been working with Ochs via email on the logistics of adding live musical performances to his talk.
Helton enlisted the help of Michael Yashinsky, a lecturer of Yiddish at the U-M Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, to work with the two students. Eitan Mazie, a junior in UMSMTD, will be the tenor; and Molly Bruner, who is receiving her master’s in voice performance (and is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor), is the soprano lead. They will be accompanied by John Etsell, a doctoral student in collaborative piano, who studies with U-M Music Professor Martin Katz.
“Di golden kale is so tuneful and joyous,” Helton says. “Eitan, who is Israeli American, sings two tenor solo pieces that have a klezmer quality to them. The melodies in this operetta are catchy and fun, so it’s much more like a musical theater experience in terms of the weight and music. It’s written really well for the Yiddish language; it has a natural feel to it.”
While Ochs says that there are several thousand Yiddish operettas, Di golden kale is the first complete operetta to be published in print; Ochs’ scholarly interpretation was published last year by the American Musicological Society as part of a 40-volume series of American musical compositions.
“In 1923, when Di golden kale was first performed in New York, there were 14 theaters in a section of New York City called the ‘Jewish Broadway’ that put on Yiddish productions, including some on Friday night, so Orthodox Jews wouldn’t be able to attend,” Ochs said. “The Yiddish operettas dealt with [the subject of] immigrants getting to the United States. Nobody will deny that [Di golden kale] happens to be an excellent work. Unfortunately, it foretells so much of what’s going on today — but in a funny way.”
Helton concurs that Yiddish theater was very popular among the Jewish immigrant population in the early 20th century.
“If you listen to other musical theater from the 1920s, you can hear how Yiddish musical theater is assimilating and drawing on its background in operetta, character songs, jazz elements and klezmer,” Helton says. “It’s a whole lot of fun, and the Yiddish people of the time could really relate to a love story of a Russian woman immigrating to the United States and how this lighthearted, romantic plot unfolds.”
Dr. Michael Ochs and the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance present “The Toast of ‘Jewish Broadway,’ 1923: Di goldene kale by Joseph Rumshinsky” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23. The event is free to the public and no tickets are required. Earl V. Moore Building, Britton Recital Hall, Ann Arbor. Events.umich.edu.