China-US oratorio to debut soon
New show tells story of Jewish refugees in Shanghai
Published: Jul 09, 2023 11:22 PM
Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Co-produced by Chinese and US musicians, a 90-minute oratorio about Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany and heading to Shanghai in East China is set to debut in November, the show's main composers announced recently at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

Émigré, co-commissioned by conductor Yu Long, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, tells the story of two Jewish brothers who arrive in Shanghai as refugees in 1938 and go on to navigate their new life and establish a home and community there.

The show is scheduled to premiere on November 17 at the Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Hall before its US premiere on February 29, 2024, at the David Geffen Hall of the Lincoln Center in New York.

Written by award-winning composer Aaron Zigman with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh, the oratorio will be conducted by Yu.

"In the flood of history, we cannot avoid the changes in social circumstances and human destiny, but the light and goodness of humanity is a flat boat that never sinks," Yu said, speaking about why he commissioned the piece.

"She can pierce the darkness and carry the destiny of humanity and the continuity of history, sailing toward a bright and hopeful future," Yu added. 

"I am proud to be sharing this important work, brought to life by Aaron and Mark."

In the late 1930s, over 30,000 Jews fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis in Europe. Around 16,000 Jews took refuge in the city, arriving shortly after ­China had suffered the Nanjing Massacre.

Jews gradually settled into the city of Shanghai and started new lives, becoming an important force in the city's economic prosperity and urban civilization.

More than 400 of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai were musicians, who enriched the city's musical life with color and diversity. They not only brought Hebrew-Yiddish music, but also cabaret, jazz and pop music which had already swept through Europe and the US, as well as Western classical music, musicals and light operas.

"To write an oratorio about the cultural exchange between the Jews, who were welcomed by the Chinese people in WWII with open arms, and the people of China, has such a compelling meaning for me. If not for Shanghai and the goodwill of China, some of my ancestors or someone very close to me would have perished at the hands of the Nazi's during World War II," said Zigman.

For Zigman, Émigré is more than a love story, it shows a layered history. He learned about the history of the Nanjing Massacre years ago after reading The Rape of Nanking by Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang.

"The Chinese and the Jewish people both share similar types of persecution - both before and after the war - and that in itself has always made me feel that the telling of this story in some way with music would be important. So I chose the idea of a multi-cultural love story to bridge the divide," Zigman said.

Campbell noted that the story of a country that opened its arms to Jewish refugees in 1937 resonated profoundly with him, adding that he is grateful to Yu for the rare opportunity.

The show's cast includes Ben Bliss and Arnold Livingston Geis as the two brothers, plus Shenyang, Zhang Meigui, Andrew Dwan, Zhu Huiling and Diana Newman.