© Reuters. Musicians perform on stage during the first performance of Emigrare at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall, in Shanghai, China November 17, 2023. REUTERS/Nicoco Chan
By Casey Hall
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Four years after it was conceived, the oratorio Emigre debuted this month in Shanghai, paying tribute to the wartime role played by China’s financial center in protecting fleeing European Jewish refugees to the city in the late 1930s.
The result of a collaboration between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and choirs from the United States and China, the work was premiered on November 17.
Composer Aaron Zigman, best known for his film scores, said he was approached by Shanghai Symphony Orchestra maestro Long Yu in 2019 with the idea of a piece telling the story of Jewish refugees from Shanghai.
“It’s the story of two German Jewish brothers who had to flee Nazi Germany and came to Shanghai, which at that time was opening its doors to many Jews,” Zigman said.
“It’s really a multicultural love story at the end of the day, and then a story of humanity and love and hope and acceptance through the tragedy of loss as well.”
In the late 1930s, as World War II was about to break out, Shanghai was one of the few places in the world open to Jewish refugees, with many countries restricting access to visas. As an “open port”, no visa was required for those arriving in Shanghai, mainly by ship, from Europe.
An estimated 20,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai throughout this period, although their new home was not without conflict. China was also at war with Japan, and Shanghai was occupied by Japanese forces beginning in 1937.
Mark Campbell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist behind the lyrics of Emigre, said he felt the story was “special and important” to tell now, given the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza , as well as the war in Ukraine.
“I think the message of accepting refugees, accepting people and welcoming them, resonates even more today,” he added.
Chen Jian, curator of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, was among the audience at the world premiere of Emigrare at the Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall in downtown Shanghai.
“I think this kind of creation is very meaningful and valuable,” he told Reuters before the performance. “In humanity’s darkest times, we need good hearts and good deeds. This story should have an educational effect on how we view conflicts in today’s world.”
The work, sung in English with Chinese surtitles, was presented in Shanghai until November 20. It is expected to be performed in New York early next year.