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A story of Jewish Shanghai, told through music

A rehearsal of <em>Émigré </em>by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall on Wednesday.
Adam Crane
/
Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic
A rehearsal of Émigré by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall on Wednesday.

Among all the fabled stories of struggle and survival during World War II, the tale of the Jewish community in Shanghai is not well known. A new musical work, Émigré, which premieres Thursday at the New York Philharmonic, seeks to shed light on that nearly forgotten corner of history.

In the late 1930s and very early '40s, thousands of Jewish people from Poland, Germany and Austria fled the Nazis and made their way to a new home thousands of miles away — in the Chinese port city of Shanghai.

That real-life historical episode inspired conductor Long Yu to create Émigré, which tells the fictional story of two Jewish brothers who have fled Germany to make a new life in China — and the love that one brother finds there.

Yu is the artistic director of Beijing's China Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of his own hometown orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

During World War II, Yu says, the orchestra looked very different than it does today. "The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, at that time," Yu observes, "I think 70 to 80 percent were Jewish musicians."

Yu knows this history well: Not only is he the music director in Shanghai, but his grandfather, the prominent composer Ding Shande, worked closely with these European Jewish musicians back then.

Composer Aaron Zigman, whose "musical drama" <em>Émigré </em>premieres at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday.
Dario Acosta / Courtesy of the artist
/
Courtesy of the artist
Composer Aaron Zigman, whose "musical drama" Émigré premieres at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday.

A touch of Hollywood

Yu assembled a team to create Émigré, including a friend and collaborator, composer Aaron Zigman; Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning librettist Mark Campbell; songwriter Brock Walsh; and director Mary Birnbaum.

While Zigman writes in many styles, he's best known for his film scores, including the 2004 hit romantic drama The Notebook.

"I've done a lot of films and just written just a lot of music in general across a lot of different genres. I started out as a pianist, a session pianist, in my early days," Zigman says.

The music for Émigré is lush and very cinematic. The work, which is sort of a combination of opera, drama and musical theater, requires massive forces: a full orchestra, a full choir and no fewer than seven solo vocalists. (Deutsche Grammophon released a recording of Émigré earlier this month.)

At its heart is a fictional love story between a Jewish man and a Chinese woman. In Émigré, the historical backdrop is real — not just the story of Jewish people coming to Shanghai, but also the occupation of the city by Japan. One of the brothers, Josef, falls in love with a Chinese woman named Lina, whose mother was killed in the Nanjing Massacre.

An unlikely Jewish refuge

Dvir Bar-Gal leads the Jewish heritage tour of Shanghai; for more than two decades, the Israeli-born journalist has been uncovering and sharing the little-known Jewish history of the city.

As Bar-Gal explains, there were actually several waves of Jewish migration to Shanghai, a port that did not require travelers to have a visa. First came wealthy Baghdadi Jews, following the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. Then came Russian Jewish migrants, fleeing the pogroms of tsarist Russia; and then, finally, Polish, German and Austrian Jewish people escaping the Nazis. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, however, the Japanese army forced the entire Jewish population into one area, the Hongkou district.

"From 1943 onwards, the so-called 'stateless people' — the Jewish people — in Shanghai had to live in a neighborhood of not more than one and a half miles, already packed with tens of thousands of Chinese living there. And now you have nearly 18,000 Jewish people that also had to live there," Bar-Gal says. "Conditions went down dramatically until the end of the war. 8,000 people were depending each day on the operation of the JDC, the Joint Distribution Committee organization in New York, which supported basically a soup kitchen to get almost half the Jewish population in Shanghai their daily meal."

Although the creative team behind Émigré shies away from talking about contemporary politics, it's hard not to hear resonances. The U.S. is in the midst of a huge debate on immigration. Tensions between China and the U.S. have been rising. There's the war between Israel and Hamas.

"I think we have a responsibility as cultural ambassadors to say what we say and let other people interpret what they want to get out of what we're saying," Zigman says.

Conductor Long Yu, the music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
Shiyi Pan / Courtesy of the artist
/
Courtesy of the artist
Conductor Long Yu, the music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

'Let people in'

And yet, librettist Mark Campbell argues, Émigré carries a simple message of moral urgency.

"I would hope that people walk away and remember that there was a country named China that let a group of refugees into their world, and let them stay with them," Campbell says. "China was going through a war as well, but let them in. And if there's a lesson to be learned, we have to be more open and let people in."

Long Yu hosted some elderly listeners at a rehearsal last week at the New York Philharmonic: Jewish New Yorkers now in their 80s and 90s. Yu says the moment brought him to tears, given this particular audience's special relationship to Émigré.

"They were all grown up and all [were] born in Shanghai during that period," he says, his voice shaking slightly. "And that — this moment, I can hardly use words to describe that, because you know, it's a shock! They are real persons standing in front of you. They love the city."

Yu says that to bring this project to life has been a privilege and honor. The piece premiered in Shanghai last year. This November, Émigré will be performed in Berlin — bringing the story of many of these Jewish émigrés full circle.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.