Oratorio ‘Émigré’ Recalls Jews Fleeing Germany Into Chinese Embrace

Long Yu led the premiere of Aaron Zigman’s ‘Émigré’ earlier this season with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Leilei Cai)

NEW YORK — What could be more dramatic than a tale of a refugee fleeing oppression, winding up in a completely foreign culture, and falling in love with a local? That is essentially the plot of Émigré, a new oratorio with music by Aaron Zigman, libretto by Mark Campbell, and additional lyrics by Brock Walsh. The New York Philharmonic, with chorus and soloists, will give the work’s North American premiere at Lincoln Center on Feb. 29 and March 1.

While the details of the characters are fictional, the inspiration comes from a little-known chapter in history. In 1938, when the Nazi regime was quashing Jewish life across Europe, with concentration camps and annihilation looming in the Jewish people’s future, the oppressed citizens were stuck. In order to escape from what would be the most horrific genocide of the millennium, they needed a visa from a foreign country. At the time, practically no country was willing to accept Jewish immigrants. Among those who came to the rescue was the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, Ho Feng-Shan. He issued thousands of transit visas to Shanghai, which had no immigration restrictions at that time. Ho single-handedly enabled thousands of Jews to get out of Europe and on their way to freedom in this foreign land.  

The Jewish refugees landed in a place whose own citizens were living under Japanese occupation at the time. The Shanghai natives may have had an inkling of what the Europeans were going through, which perhaps enhanced the locals’ compassion for their new neighbors.

Composer Aaron Zigman (photo by Dario Acosta)

The initial idea for an oratorio came from the conductor Long Yu, a Shanghai native and the music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. He will lead the New York Philharmonic in this week’s performances, as he did the Shanghai Symphony at the world premiere in China earlier this season.

Long Yu said he wanted to create a musical composition based on this saga because “although these were challenging times, going back to when refugees from Europe first arrived in 1939 and 1940, there were also some wonderful stories — stories of a common humanity. Stories that should be remembered.” He brought the idea to Zigman, a classically trained composer and songwriter who has scored dozens of films. “I have known Aaron for a long time,” the conductor said. “We have worked together, and I know that his music is particularly well suited for storytelling.”

Zigman was already aware of this intriguing history through a close friend who had fled from Germany to Shanghai with his family in 1939. He agreed to the project right away. “I had to write this — it wasn’t an option — due to how I felt about the Chinese/Jewish symbiosis that I discovered 20 years ago that I didn’t know existed,” he said. Zigman soon crafted a plot that centers on a romance between a Jewish refugee from Germany and a young Chinese woman. By focusing on a love story, he said, he avoided getting too much into politics, and it kept him from staying in a completely dark place while he wrote it. “Through the annals of time,” he said, “love stories are just really a metaphor for different cultures connecting.”

In Zigman’s search for a librettist, he found an ideal partner in Mark Campbell, who had written librettos of a number of well-known operas, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Silent Night with composer Kevin Puts. Zigman also brought in his friend and frequent collaborator Brock Walsh to come up with lyrics for a few of the numbers. The result is an 80-minute work for orchestra, choir, and soloists in a style that hovers between opera and musical theater with melodies Zigman says he hopes will stay with the listeners long after the performance.

Zigman himself designed the text for the Prologue, which includes an excerpt of the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He also wove in a Buddhist melody and a French and Latin version of “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy,” a text used in Christian liturgy).

The performance in Shanghai included New York Philharmonic musicians, and some members of the Shanghai Symphony will join the Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. Though the world premiere was performed in concert, the Philharmonic brought in director Mary Birnbaum to create a semi-staged production for the New York performances. Birnbaum — who as director is responsible for everything the audience sees on stage — aimed to create a sense of place. “We have the task of bringing the audience back in time,” she said. “My goals are to spatialize the piece and to make it feel like we’re displacing and migrating, and to make the characters transcend the cultural and reach towards the personal. That’s because each of these characters are composites of many people’s experiences.”

Composer Zigman and conductor Long Yu conferred during a rehearsal in Shanghai. (Photo by Leilei Cai)

Another visual element comes from an idea Birnbaum and the costume designer Oana Botez had of, in some way, wearing the memories of the family that you’re far away from. “The research that we found showed that Jews sewed objects in the linings of their coats in order to smuggle them out of Europe. And then we thought, ‘Oh, how beautiful it would be to see those objects on the outside of the garments themselves’.” The singers are literally wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the story of European Jews fleeing to safety in Shanghai during World War II. A PBS documentary, Harbor from the Holocaust, directed by Violet du Feng, was released in 2020; the book The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman came out in 2021; the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was expanded in 2020, and its first traveling exhibit came to New York City for a few weeks in August 2023.

Émigré was co-commissioned by Long Yu, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. The soloists in the New York performances will be sopranos Meigui Zhang and Diana Newman, mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu, tenors Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis, and bass-baritones Shenyang and Andrew Dwan, with the New York Philharmonic Chorus directed by Malcolm J. Merriweather.

“I hope it’s an indelible experience for people,” said, Zigman, “and increases the awareness of this history.”

Émigré runs Feb. 29-March 1. For tickets and information, go here.