Opera North Blog

Performing the Jewish Archive: An Introduction


The Out of the Shadows festival visits the Howard Assembly Room on Wednesday 8 June with a concert of Music in the Terezín Ghetto by The Nash Ensemble.

Out of the Shadows presents Jewish cabaret, choral and chamber music, an oratorio, an exhibition of visual art and more at venues throughout Leeds and York during June. It has been organised by Performing the Jewish Archive, a major international research project led by the University of Leeds that aims to bring recently rediscovered musical, theatrical and literary works by Jewish artists back to the attention of scholars and the public, and stimulate the creation of new works.

In the first of three features, we find out more about the background to the project from Dr Stephen Muir, Senior Lecturer in Musicology and Performance at the University of Leeds and Principal Investigator, Performing the Jewish Archive.

The aims of Performing the Jewish Archive are to explore hidden archives, to uncover and perform lost works, and to create a legacy for the future. In the second decade of the 21st century, how much more material is left to uncover?

When we applied for the grant to the Arts and Humanities Research Council back in 2014, they made it clear that proposals should be ambitious, groundbreaking, and even risky. And what could be more risky than setting out to discover things that you can’t be certain are actually there?!

Of course it’s not quite that simple. In many cases, we know that something is out there, and it’s just a case of tracking it down and then working with whoever owns the item in question to gain their trust and gain access to the material. An example is my own research into Jewish music that ended up in South Africa. I almost stumbled upon the first collection that I found there – an astonishing set of manuscripts taken from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to Cape Town by Cantor Froim Spektor in 1928.

While I was carefully looking through these manuscripts with Spektor’s granddaughter, who keeps the manuscripts in her house in Cape Town, she casually mentioned that “Mrs Greek probably has some of her father’s papers, too”. And indeed, Shirley Greek did have a whole suitcase full of manuscripts and unique printed music taken to Cape Town by her father, Cantor Morris Katzin, from Riga (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1930. I then gave a talk on my research at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, and was mobbed at the end by relatives of musicians who wanted me to investigate their family members.

And there are similar examples in Helsinki, where Dr Simo Muir is researching Yiddish theatre and synagogue music, and in the Czech Republic, where Dr Lisa Peschel is uncovering forgotten scripts of cabarets and plays composed and performed in the Terezin ghetto (or concentration camp) near Prague. At each stage of this exciting type of research we get tip-offs regarding other things to investigate, or read about them among the materials we’re already examining.

I honestly think that there’s enough material out there even just in my own area for the rest of my career, and I still won’t get through everything I want to! The Jewish Archive, as a broad concept, was so fractured and dispersed during the 20th century that artefacts come up on the most unlikely of places; I think we’ll be kept busy for a very long time to come yet!

Out of the Shadows takes place in Leeds and York throughout June. Are you taking the work of Performing the Jewish Archive any further afield?

Yes indeed. In fact, the Out of the Shadows festival in Leeds and York is actually the second in a series of five (or even six, depending on how you count!). We have already taken the festival to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (one of the four main collaborating universities on the project, the others being Leeds, York and Sydney, Australia). August 2015 saw a one-day festival to try out ideas, test the water, and introduce some of the repertoire we had found. We returned to Madison at the start of May 2016 for an intense but highly successful five-day festival. Videos of all the performances and other outcomes of that festival will shortly be posted to our website.

The festival will be taken to the Czech Republic in September 2016 (Prague, Pilsen and Terezin), and in 2017 we will visit Sydney, Australia (August) and Cape Town, South Africa (September). And we’ve also put on two performances of comedy sketches from the Terezin ghetto at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, and several performances of previously-unknown music at Holocaust Memorial Day events in Leeds and York. We’ve also been invited to Hong Kong (on the way to Sydney) and Johannesburg (on the way home from Cape Town), though we’ll need to see how much energy we have left by then!

Each festival is slightly different. There will be overlaps in repertoire, of course (apart from anything, some of the music and theatre is so excellent and rich that we want it to be seen and heard everywhere!), but we will also be introducing new works at each festival, some of which we probably haven’t yet uncovered! And most of the festivals feature some element of original composition as well, so those will always be fresh off the press each time. And we’ll try to inflect something of the local environment and culture each time. It’s an absolutely enormous undertaking, but I am so lucky to have an extraordinary team working alongside me, and I’m completely confident that we’ll achieve all that we have set out to do.

The Out of the Shadows festival begins on Wednesday 1 June. Look out for more features leading up to the Nash Ensemble's concert,  Music in the Terezín Ghetto in the Howard Assembly Room on Wednesday 8 June.

Concert in the Attic, painted in Terezín, courtesy of Helga Weissova

Cantor Froim Spektor, courtesy of Performing the Jewish Archive

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