OBITUARY : Hugo Weisgall

Elizabeth Forbes
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:39

The composer of 10 operas staged in the United States between 1952 and 1993, Hugo Weisgall also wrote several ballets, many songs (including eight song cycles), choral works, chamber music and liturgical settings. He was also an excellent conductor, teacher and administrator. Three of his operas, Six Characters in Search of an Author, based on Pirandello's play, Nine Rivers from Jordan, with a text by Denis Johnson, and Esther, taken from the Bible, were derived from works by Wedekind, Strindberg, Yeats, Racine and Mishima. In 1995 he won the William Shuman Award, donated by Columbia University to an American composer for a lifetime's achievement.

Weisgall was born in Eibenschutz, Moravia (now Ivancice, Bohemia), and emigrated to the US with his parents in 1920 when he was eight years old. He studied piano, harmony and composition at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, then with Fritz Reiner and Rosario Scalerio at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, gaining diplomas in conducting (1938) and composition (1939). He also studied composition with Roger Sessions. He was awarded his PhD by Johns Hopkins University for a dissertation on primitivism in 17th- century German poetry in 1941.

After military service in Europe (he was stationed in London as assistant miltary attache to governments in exile, 1945-46), Weisgall returned to the US to begin his career in earnest. He was director of the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts (1949-51), then took a post teaching at Johns Hopkins. Having written two operas, Night and Lilith, while a student in the 1930s, he now composed The Tenor, a one-act piece based on Wedekind's play Der Kammersanger, which was produced in February 1952 by the Peabody Opera Company, Baltimore. Weisgall himself conducted. In August the same year another one-act opera, The Stronger, based on Strindberg's Den Starkare, was performed, with piano accompaniment, at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, by the Hill Top Opera Company, founded by the composer earlier in 1952. This dramatic monologue - there are three characters, but only one, a soprano, sings - was revised and performed in 1955 at Columbia University, New York, this time with orchestra. It is one of his finest works.

Moving to a new teaching post at the Juilliard School in New York, Weisgall next composed a three-act opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, for the New York City Opera, where it was produced in April 1959 during a season devoted to operas by American composers. Beverly Sills sang the Coloratura (the Leading Lady in Pirandello's play). By now Weisgall's highly individual style, evolved from Neoclassicism and Bergian Expressionism, was fully formed. His next opera, Purgatory, after W.B. Yeats, was performed in Washington DC at the Library of Congress in 1961. It was followed by Athaliah, based on Racine, which received a concert performance in New York in 1964.

Nine Rivers from Jordan, with a libretto by Denis Johnson, was produced at the New York City Opera in 1968. It attempted, over-ambitiously, "to deal with the unprecedented problems . . . caused by the Second World War" - in other words, to "explain" the Holocaust - and was not popular. Much more successful was Jennie, or the Hundred Nights, commissioned by the Juilliard School, and performed at the American Opera Center there in 1976. The text was adapted from a modern Noh play by Yukio Mishima, the setting transferred to 19th- century London. The Garden of Adonis, originally written in 1959 and revised between 1977 and 1981, was finally performed in 1992 at the Witherspoon Concert Hall in Omaha. It was based on Andre Obey's play, itself based on Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.

In Weisgall's final opera, Esther, premiered at the New York City Opera in 1993, the composer at last achieved his ambition to write a Holocaust opera, using the Old Testament story as a parable, with the villainous Haman standing for the Nazis and Esther herself for the Jewish people. Weisgall's later style, leaner and more dissonant, suited the subject perfectly and the opera scored a great success, and is to be revived by NYCO next season.

Hugo David Weisgall, composer: born Eibenschutz, Moravia 13 October 1912; married 1942 Nathalie Shulman (one son, one daughter); died New York 11 March 1997.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments