OPERA NEWS - Viewpoint: Subject Matters
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Viewpoint: Subject Matters

By F. Paul Driscoll

Viewpoint Gershwin hdl 919
Composer George Gershwin
Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy

IN 1929, composer George Gershwin accepted a commission from the Met for a new opera. Gershwin’s contract was for an adaptation of The Dybbuk, a play about a young Jewish woman who is possessed by the spirit of her dead beloved. Written in Russian by Belarusian author and activist S. Ansky, The Dybbuk was first staged in Warsaw by the Vilna Troupe, an internationally celebrated Yiddish theater company, two months after Ansky’s death in November 1920. The Dybbuk was a runaway success in Europe and reached New York within the year, in a production at the New York Yiddish Art Theater starring Celia Adler in the leading role of Leah. When The Dybbuk had its first English-language performances in New York, at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1925, Leah was played by Mary Ellis, a glamorous singing actress whose résumé included the world premieres of Il Trittico at the Met and Rudolf Friml’s Rose-Marie on Broadway—as well as a romantic relationship with George Gershwin.

The Gershwin Dybbuk was contracted to be delivered to the Met by April 1, 1931, but the project was abandoned when it was discovered that the rights to adapt Ansky’s play as an opera had been given to Turinese composer Lodovico Rocca. Rocca’s Dibuk, with a libretto by Renato Simoni, had its world premiere at La Scala in 1934, conducted by Franco Ghione. Il Dibuk made its New York debut at Carnegie Hall in May 1936, but dismissive reviews from local critics dimmed further interest in Rocca’s work.

Earlier that season, Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess had opened and closed on Broadway, with a disappointing initial run of just 124 performances. It was to be Gershwin’s last Broadway show. In the late spring of 1936, Gershwin accepted a contract from RKO to write the score for Shall We Dance?, a film for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Gershwin spent the rest of his brief career based in California, where he died in July 1937, from the effects of a brain tumor, at the age of thirty-eight. spacer 

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F. PAUL DRISCOLL

Editor-in-Chief 


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