Kurt Weill's massive opera-oratorio, known in English as The Eternal Road, has proven to be a daunting task for any director brave enough to tackle it. The work, which has four acts and deals with persecution throughout Jewish history, calls for a cast of hundreds and costumes in the thousands. Not surprisingly, the 1937 premiere, which took place in New York City, was commandeered by German theatrical wizard Max Reinhardt, soon after he'd fled Nazi Germany.
Also not surprising is that the piece has been revived in its entirety only twice since its debut.
Now Thomas Lloyd, associate professor of music at Haverford College, is set to present a two-hour, self-fashioned version of the work.
Lloyd will lead the Haverford-Bryn Mawr College Chorale and Chorale Orchestra in the performance, scheduled for April 22 at 3 p.m. in Haverford's Robert Marshall Auditorium. (For more information, visit: www.haverford.edu/calendar, or call 610-896-1011.)
The professor, who also heads both chorales, said that he's always on the lookout for new choral pieces, especially outside the Christian tradition — the bulk of such material — since so many Jewish students attend both colleges and the surrounding areas have large Jewish populations.
He had heard and read about the Weill piece over the years and became especially excited after listening to the only recording of the music, which was released several years ago — excerpts from the larger work conducted by Gerard Schwartz.
Lloyd contacted the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York. "I asked them if I could extract portions of the recorded work and make something coherent out of it for concert purposes. They said they'd wanted to do something like that themselves and said, 'So, why don't you do it for us.' "
The foundation had a major stipulation, said Lloyd: Limit the number of characters in whatever piece he designed so that it wouldn't be too cumbersome dramatically and might be used by small choral groups and college choirs.
His version, the conductor said, has a little bit of the original drama — "there's 10 percent dialogue and 90 music" — but the main thing is that it uses something from all four acts. "You see, it wasn't clear whether the fourth act was done originally in 1937 because the drama critics had to leave after Act Three to make their deadlines for the next day's paper. It's said that if Act Four was in fact done, the performance would have ended sometime after two in the morning."
The plot of The Eternal Road runs on two tracks (the original libretto was by German novelist Franz Werfel). A group of Jews seeks refuge one night in a synagogue (in an unknown place and time) while a pogrom rages outside. The rabbi at the shul tells stories — biblical and otherwise — to those gathered that, in the original production, were enacted on a multilevel set behind them.
Lloyd has kept many of the major parts — the rabbi, the youth, the adversary who tries to lead the Jews astray. And there are the more recognizable biblical characters — Moses and Abraham, for example.
Weill's music, Lloyd said, like all of his work, from Threepenny Opera, written in 1920s Weimar Germany, to One Touch of Venus, written for 1940s Broadway, is a blend of styles — cantorial, operatic, musical comedy songs and jazz, among others.
The work, said Lloyd, even in this shortened version, touches on many themes. "Both Weill and Werfel had been driven out of Germany in the 1930s only because they were Jews — even though they had little connection to their Jewish heritage. And so this piece that was written before the war and the Holocaust, deals in its way with what leaving Germany meant and what going to America meant — and what it means to be a Jew."
In Lloyd's opinion, the conclusion is ambiguous and rightly so. "The youth, yielding to youthful optimism, leads the Jews out of the synagogue to follow the Messiah, insisting that the Jews can survive in exile."
But it leaves the question of whether in fact they can survive unresolved, he added.
Lloyd said he has two goals for Sunday's performance. The first would be "to present a convincing performance of the music so it might become part of the repertoire" for choral groups.
"But the drama also asks what it means to be a people, what resources we have in the face of evil, where do we turn when evil arises? And what allows us to go on? There are no easy answers to these questions, but great art never gives you easy answers," he said. "It gives us insight."