Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Levy, Daniela Smolov. “Parsifal in Yiddish? Why Not?” The Musical Quarterly 97 (Summer 2014): 140-80.

The impetus for Boris Thomashefsky’s 1904 adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal at the People’s Theater, a fashionable Yiddish theater in New York City, was a convergence of the opera’s reputation as a serious, highbrow work of art with a movement in American Jewish circles toward staging more refined and edifying entertainment. In the years around 1900, Yiddish theater was central to the cultural lives of immigrant Jews, and broadly appealing musical productions (characterized as shund or “trash” by intellectuals) were in high demand. Around this time, playwright Jacob Gordin led a reform movement of Russian-Jewish socialists and anarchists seeking to replace the shund programming in Yiddish theaters with more uplifting and edifying works, a goal that was in line with the broader Progressive Era democratization of high art. In this intellectual context, director Thomashefsky, dramaturg Leon Mantel, and an unidentified chorus master of the Met adapted Parsifal, the quintessential edifying work in 1900s America, for the Yiddish theater. The text was translated into vernacular Yiddish, and the plot was likely simplified to be performed with a combination of spoken dialogue and vocal music. While details about the performance are scarce, according to reviewer Max Smith, a selection of random tunes from the opera were cobbled together and performed as “soft music” at various points without regard for which scenes the music originally accompanied. It is unclear to what proportion various factors led to its short run of just ten performances. Lack of interest in high culture, discomfort with a Christian topic, and poor production quality all likely played a part in the closure of this unusual opera adaptation.

Works: Leon Mantel (dramaturg), Boris Thomashefsky (director), anonymous (arranger): Parsifal (163-68)

Sources: Wagner: Parsifal (163-68)

Index Classifications: 1900s

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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