Arts and Entertainment

“Émigré”: A WWII Love Story Told Through Music

A review of the recently released oratorio “Émigré”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On February 29th, “Émigré” (2024) made its United States premiere at Lincoln Center’s Wu Tsai Theater. The oratorio—a multi-movement narrative work featuring a chorus, orchestra, and vocal soloists—was performed by guest conductor Long Yu, alongside the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and various soloists. The piece’s composer, Aaron Zigman, utilized a variety of musical styles in the work, including Western classical music, traditional Oriental tunes, and musical theater, producing a unique sound that draws from musical elements across the world. Yu commissioned the piece from Zigman because “[f]or my hometown, I wanted stories—not just Chinese stories, but parts of Shanghai that represent the big stories of our time.” Hence, “Émigré” was born: a love story between Jewish refugees and Shanghai citizens amidst World War II. During the war, Shanghai was the only city where Jewish refugees could enter freely without the need for a visa or passport. However, both Chinese and Jewish communities were subject to persecution and inhumane conditions as Axis-Japanese forces occupied the city; Chinese citizens were subject to the constant threat of Japanese violence and potential raids, while the Jewish community was forced into a small ghetto where there were unrestrained diseases and food shortages. Zigman said, “The Chinese and the Jewish people both shared similar types of persecution… My aim was to write a piece that expressed the beauty, yet also the pain and hope for a better future, that both the Chinese and Jews experienced together during the 1930s and 1940s.” In two acts and 24 movements, “Émigré” explores several themes still significant today, such as racism, disputes over traditional gender roles, and the conflict between love and family.

The piece commenced with the basses playing a low note, as the other strings painted the image of an unresting sea with wavering arpeggios and broken chords that imitated the fluctuation of the sea waves. Their fluid, ocean-like sound mirrored the anxiety of the main characters, Otto (Arnold Livingston Geis) and Joseph Bader (Matthew White), as they uneasily embraced their new lives in China. The chorus sang in a mixture of Latin and Hebrew as a form of prayer for all of the Holocaust’s victims, alternating between “kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy)” and “ose shalom (one who makes peace).”

As they settle in Shanghai, Josef continues his pursuit of a medical career by seeking a job in a local traditional Chinese pharmacy, where he encounters Li (Huiling Zhu) and Lina (Meigui Zhang), the daughters of the pharmacy’s owner. Lina and Josef soon fall in love, attracted by each others’ exoticism. As they playfully conversed with each other, the music transitions from Classical style to more traditional Chinese-influenced elements in terms of the chords and tone, representing Josef’s further immersion in Chinese culture. Meanwhile, Otto works at a synagogue, following his dream to become a rabbi. There, he meets Tovah (Diana Newman), a young Jewish woman born in Shanghai. Otto questions Tovah’s place in the synagogue, as it was unconventional for women to work at them at the time. Tovah responds by expressing her staunch support for women’s rights.

Subsequently, Tovah invites Otto to a club party. Her quick and playful dance moves are accompanied by lively Latin dance music, reflecting her cheerful personality. Tovah sings about her hope for women to get the same opportunities that men do. Nevertheless, Otto, respecting traditional values, remains skeptical. 

The second act begins with the chorus intermittently marching onto the balcony stage, some holding lanterns. During the movement, Josef and Lina begin to mourn for the dead, including Lina’s mother, who was killed in the Rape of Nanjing, and Josef’s parents, whose fates are unknown to the brothers. The chorus members come to put down lanterns around the balcony as they sing a prayer to those whose lives were devastated by the ongoing war, all while the violin and cello play a sorrowful yet soothing duet.

Josef and Lina later face another issue: their marriage is opposed by both Lina’s father, Wei (Shenyang), and Otto due to racial prejudice. Josef and Lina marry in secret despite the father’s condemnation and are driven out of his house. 

Time lapses again, flashing to an air raid on Shanghai. The bombing takes the lives of many, including Li and Tovah.

The final movement is a quartet between Josef, Lina, Otto, and Wei. The music regains the sound of a classical requiem, bringing the oratorio’s ending full circle. The four, each having suffered from losing someone during the bombing, mourn for the deceased. Wei remorsefully regrets his harsh criticism of Josef and Lina, while Otto finally concurs with Tovah’s ideology of equal gender rights. The orchestra plays an A major chord preceded by one in D minor, a plagal cadence. The plagal cadence is also commonly referred to as the “Amen Cadence.” The “Amen” is not sung, but is understood.

Listening to “Émigré” is a pleasant experience with many surprises, especially thanks to the constant shift of music styles. The story, however, seems rushed and lacks depth—it does not flow well—and the movements seem like different and isolated episodes. The ending is most confusing, as the deaths of Li and Tovah abruptly change Wei and Otto’s minds on Josef and Lina’s marriage; it is as if the story was forced to have a happy ending. The story also lacks emphasis on the political state of Shanghai during the time, even though that was the motivation behind the creation of this oratorio. Despite this, the music is enjoyable to listen to and tonally fit the story. The many musical styles do not clash with one another, instead providing a fresh taste at the start of each movement. The orchestra, chorus, and soloists work beautifully together to paint a colorful story and deliver a powerful message.