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An Oratorio About Shanghai’s Jews Opens in China at a Difficult Time

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“Émigré,” a new oratorio about Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai in the late 1930s, begins with a song by two brothers, Josef and Otto, as their steamship approaches a Chinese harbor.

“Shanghai, beacon of light on a silent shore,” they sing. “Shanghai, answer these desperate cries.”

The emigration of thousands of Central European and Eastern European Jews to China in the late 1930s and early 1940s — and their survival of the Holocaust — is one of World War II’s most dramatic but little-known chapters.

In “Émigré,” a 90-minute oratorio that premiered this month in Shanghai and will come to the New York Philharmonic in February 2024, the stories of these refugees and their attempts to build new lives in war-torn China are front and center.

The piece, composed by Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Mark Campbell and Brock Walsh, has been in the works for several years, a commission of the Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Long Yu. But it is opening at a delicate time, with tensions high between China and the United States and with the Israel-Hamas war spurring heated debates in the cultural sphere.

The war in the Middle East is a sensitive subject in China, which has sought to pitch itself as a neutral broker in the conflict, though state-controlled media has emphasized the harm suffered by civilians in Gaza while giving scant coverage to Hamas’s initial attack. Israel has expressed “deep disappointment” at China’s muted response to the Hamas attack. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, on Tuesday called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for “the restoration of the legitimate national rights of Palestine.”

In recent weeks, promotional materials in China for “Émigré” have rarely mentioned its plot, and listed its Chinese title, “Shanghai! Shanghai!” The major state-owned Chinese news outlets did not cover the premiere this month, although an English-language television channel for foreign audiences did.

The creators of “Émigré,” which takes place during the Second Sino-Japanese War, said they hoped the piece would help underscore a shared sense of humanity in a time of renewed strife. “I don’t think music and politics really belong in the same sentence,” Zigman said. “I just want people to be human and kind, and there are certain parts of this piece that help that vision.”

In 2019, Yu, worried that the stories of Jewish refugees in his hometown were being forgotten, came up with the idea for the piece. He approached the New York Philharmonic, which has had a partnership with the Shanghai Symphony since 2014, about commissioning the work together.

Yu said he never expected the oratorio to premiere in wartime but hoped that its message would still resonate.

“We always make the same mistakes in our lives, and we have to learn from history,” he said. “We can be inspired by the kindness and support that Shanghai showed in this moment.”

To shape the music and the plot, Yu turned to Zigman, a classically trained film and television composer who has returned to classical music in recent years, including with “Tango Manos” (2019), a piano concerto he wrote for the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Yu has long known Zigman, who has composed more than 60 Hollywood scores, including “The Notebook,” and he and Thibaudet suggested the idea for a tango concerto.

For “Émigré,” Zigman said he was eager to create a “multicultural love story” that drew attention to the violent struggles unfolding in Asia and Europe at the time. Those include the 1937 massacre in Nanjing, an eastern Chinese city, in which tens of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by occupying Japanese forces; and Kristallnacht, the wave of antisemitic violence carried out by Nazis in 1938.

“Our project is really about bridging cultures and humanity and love, hope, loss and tragedy,” Zigman said.

“Émigré” tells the story of Otto, a rabbinical student, and Josef, a doctor, who leave Berlin for the port city of Trieste, Italy, and board a boat headed for Shanghai.

The brothers are anguished about leaving their parents and homeland but try to settle into life in China. Josef is interested in traditional Chinese medicine and visits an herbal medicine shop, where he meets Lina, the daughter of the owner, who is grappling with the death of her mother in Nanjing. They fall in love, but their cross-cultural union draws scorn from their families.

Shanghai’s role as a haven for Jews was a historical fluke. Britain, France and the United States insisted that Beijing let them set up settlements there in the 1840s. By the 1930s, the settlements had grown into a sprawling city. But the Chinese government controlled who was issued visas to enter mainland China, including for arrival at Shanghai’s docks.

When Japan seized east-central China in 1937, including the area around Shanghai, the Nationalist Chinese government could no longer inspect visas at the city’s riverfront docks. But the Japanese military did not start controlling visa access to the area until shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

The result? Nobody was controlling who entered China at Shanghai. It became an open port for those four years: Foreign travelers were welcomed and could stay in the Western settlements.

Campbell, who has written librettos for more than 40 operas, said he hoped that the stories of refugees in “Émigré” could be a modern-day lesson.

“It’s very important for the audience to go away and remember there was a time in this world when one country embraced the refugees of another country,” he said.

In Shanghai, the stories of Jewish residents are preserved at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The core block of China’s legally designated Jewish ghetto, where the Japanese required Jews in Shanghai to live during the last three years of the war, has been preserved. Its Central European-style townhouses and house-size synagogue still stand.

But much of the surrounding area has been bulldozed amid rapid growth in recent decades, causing concern among preservationists. Two gargantuan office buildings, each 50 stories tall, cast huge shadows toward the little synagogue at midday.

At least 14,000 Jews lived in the ghetto during the war, and possibly several thousand more. Another 1,000 to 10,000 secretly lived elsewhere in the city. (Almost all of Shanghai’s Jews left after the war, many resettling in the United States.)

Shanghai was a deeply troubled place in the years that “Émigré” takes place: packed with Chinese refugees as well as Jewish ones, frequently short on food and potable water, and racked by epidemics of disease. Opium was smoked openly and prostitutes gathered on street corners.

Among the ghetto’s residents was Michael Blumenthal, who fled from Nazi Germany in 1939 at 13 and who much later became treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Blumenthal said in an interview with The New York Times in 2017 that when he was a teenager, a Japanese police station was just down the block from the synagogue. He and others had to apply at the station for permission to leave the ghetto during the war, and by the final year, it was almost impossible to obtain permission.

Trucks patrolled Shanghai, not just in the ghetto, to collect those who succumbed to illness. “I used to see them driving around the city, picking up dead bodies,” Blumenthal said. “The city was vastly overcrowded, it was dangerous, there was constant fighting among factions, and shootings.”

“Émigré” received wide attention in China when it was announced in the summer. With a Chinese and American cast, the work was hailed as a sign of the power of cultural exchange between China and the United States in a time of increasing tensions. Yu joined Zigman, Campbell, Walsh and Gary Ginstling, the president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic, for a news conference at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum celebrating the commission.

“Émigré” will have its American premiere in February with the same cast, and Ginstling said in a recent interview that he did not expect the Israel-Hamas war would lead to alterations in the work, which Deutsche Grammophon recorded in Shanghai for release next year.

“Things change quickly in the world,” he said. “We are committed to our role as cultural ambassadors.”

The Philharmonic’s version, directed by Mary Birnbaum, will be semi-staged and incorporate some visual elements, including images of devastation from World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Several New York Philharmonic musicians took part in the premiere in Shanghai, and a group of Chinese musicians will play at the premiere in New York.

At a recent rehearsal for “Émigré” at Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Hall, choir members sang Jewish, Christian and Buddhist prayers, which open the work.

“Grant peace in high places,” they sang in Hebrew.

“Sacred presence blossoming,” they sang in Chinese.

The cast includes the tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Josef; the tenor Matthew White as Otto; the soprano Zhang Meigui as Lina; the mezzo-soprano Zhu Huiling as her sister, Li; and the bass-baritone Shenyang as their father, Wei Song.

Between rehearsals, Zhang said that she was trying to stay focused on the music, and that she hoped “Émigré” could provide some relief from the war.

“We’re going through a very difficult time in this world,” she said, “but I think music has to be separate from this.”

Zhang added that she had found some comfort in a song at the end of the first act called “In a Perfect World.” In that piece, Josef sings:

If I ruled the world,

Mine to redesign,

I’d stop every gunshot, every war.

Now, forevermore.

Li You contributed research from Shanghai.

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