Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Sacco and Vanzetti: Execution Song

The Past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

The trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti 95 years ago isn’t past either. 

People aren’t just arguing about it. They are performing operas about it.

College classmate Leonard Lehrman composes music. (262 works to date, including 12 operas.) A project of several decades has been his completion of an opera titled Sacco and Vanzetti begun but left unfinished by Marc Blitzstein (1905-64). The opera memorializes an incident in the life of America a century ago, one that mixes Red-scare fear of anarchism and prejudice against immigrants, especially ones from swarthy-complected southern Europe.

Leonard confidently asserts that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent and were railroaded. His effort of five decades to tell their story via opera included support from Leonard Bernstein, who encouraged him, and Governor Michael Dukakis, who agreed that they were unjustly convicted. Dukakis did not merely pardon Sacco and Vanzetti, which would have implied their guilt. On the fiftieth anniversary of their death, he ordered their official exoneration. Creation of an opera about Sacco and Vanzetti encountered some of the same prejudice that allowed their unjust conviction and execution. Harvard—once again in the spotlight of disputes over ethnic and racial quotas—had a big role in their trial and execution.

Guest Post by Leonard Lehrman

After 21 years’ correspondence I finally met "Governor Mike," as he asked me to call him, in person at his home this past June. There I learned that his Brookline neighbors, Sarah Ehrmann (1895-1993) and her husband, attorney Herbert Ehrmann (1891-1970), who had convinced the composer and lyricist Marc Blitzstein of Sacco's and Vanzetti's indisputable innocence, had also convinced Governor Mike. At the back of Blitzstein's copy of Ehrmann's book, The Untried Case, the composer had sketched the 3-act outline of the plot of his opera, which made it possible for me to understand his intentions, and realize them, over a 25-year working period.

The case had become an obsession for Blitzstein, often called "the father of American opera in the vernacular;" He wrote an unproduced choral work about it in 1930, The Condemned, and then began a new opera on the subject, commissioned by the Ford Foundation, optioned by the Met in 1959. Red-baiting nearly killed it, while gay-bashing killed Blitzstein in Martinique, where he'd been vacationing, finishing up two one-act operas on stories by Bernard Malamud, having come to appreciate his own Jewish identity after a trip to Israel. Leonard Bernstein vowed to finish some of that music, but later turned it over to me, with his blessing, after attending a Blitzstein-Bernstein triple bill I produced at Lowell House, December 5, 1970. In 1990 he dubbed me "Marc's dybbuk."

"The need to guard against susceptibility to prejudice, intolerance of unorthodox ideas, and failure to defend the rights of strangers in our midst" are Mike Dukakis's admonitory words. They could easily have been Blitzstein's (and Bernstein's) as well. With the Blitzstein Estate's approval, I used them in the opera I completed in 2001. It premiered concertante, with piano, at The White Barn Theatre in Westport, CT, in August, 2001.
Vanzetti (James Sergi) consoled by Sacco (Gregory Mercer)

Just two weeks later came 9/11, and an opera with anarchists as protagonists and law enforcement as villains became virtually unproduceable. Then, six years ago, Trump made immigration from “undesirable” places a flash point of controversy. Hofstra University scheduled performances of the opera in three successive years, only to be canceled by COVID.

But now at last, thanks to grants from the Puffin Foundation (which co-funded the original commission), the Maldeb Foundation (founded by Joel Mandelbaum, Harvard '53), and a bequest by my late father, Nathaniel S. Lehrman, '42, Blitzstein's vision will finally come to full fruition, in the Bronx. (See below.)

Dad's class of 1942 had been only 15% Jewish, due to a quota imposed by President Lowell, who had tried to stop Louis Brandeis from becoming a Supreme Court justice, and who had headed the committee that advised Governor Fuller in 1927 not to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti. In the opera, fellow committee member Judge Grant, whose luggage had been stolen while traveling in Italy, remarks: "It is a well-known fact that all Italians lie and steal." To which Lowell chimes in: "Just like Jews." Also in the opera, journalist Heywood Broun's sarcastic contemporaneous remark is quoted: "It's not every wop that gets the President of Harvard to pull the switch on him!" 

My father's roommate, Dr. Bertram Slaff, told me that when Lowell came to dinner at Memorial Hall in 1940, he was greeted by a leaflet saying: "Were it not for you, Sacco and Vanzetti would be alive today." As Vanzetti proudly declared, in court, and in the opera: "Sacco's name will live in the hearts of the people," as will Vanzetti's, in the "work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man. . . ." Today theirs are considered (at least by some) among the most illustrious Italian names in history.
From: Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society

Read about them. Visit saccoandvanzetti.org and watch the memorial program at Community Church of Boston, with speakers including Governor Mike Dukakis, David Rothauser (producer and star of the 2004 film, The Diary of Sacco and Vanzetti), and me--on Sacco-Vanzetti Day, Tuesday, August 23, 2022 at 7pm, in person or on Zoom. Visit the opera's website:


And come to the premiere!: 
Sat. Sep. 10 at 7:00; Sun. Sep. 11 at 3:00 at Lehman College Studio Theatre. 
Admission is "Pay What You Can - No One Turned Away."

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Michael Steely said...

So many people have been persecuted and killed in this country because of bigotry and hatred, and it still goes on. Not long ago, a white nationalist drove 200 miles to a Black neighborhood in Buffalo and murdered 10 Blacks in a grocery store. But bring up diversity, equity and inclusion and the right-wing freaks out: Critical Race Theory! They’re indoctrinating our children!!

It's gotten to the point that most Republicans seem to think anti-racism is racist.

Low Dudgeon said...

Justice works in mysterious ways, its blunders to perform? In school I did a lengthy study of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, after having been transfixed by the Upton Sinclair account, "Boston".

The prosecution and trial were a shameful mockery of due process. Toss in the passionate and eloquent written protestations of Vanzetti, and the legend of their unassailable innocence grew.

As with Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, though, the truth is a bit more complicated. In the mid-'80s a new report concluded Vanzetti was an innocent sacrifice but Sacco was guilty as sin.

The exact wording of the Dukakis declaration in 1977 treads carefully on actual/factual innocence. They were indeed "unfairly convicted and executed", just as stated. Justice, and injustice?

Unknown said...

Sacco could not have been guilty, as he was not there. Alibi witnesses were discounted because of prejudice against Italians. (This is clearly shown in the opera.) Witnesses to the crime mistook Joe Morelli for him - this is clearly shown in Reginald Rose's TV documentary, and Herbert Ehrmann's books. Read more at saccoandvanzetti.org

I met Alger Hiss twice and started an opera on him with Kim Rich. Still looking for a commission: The Puffin Foundation has ok'd every proposal I've ever made to them, since 1991, except for this one.

The Rosenbergs were innocent of atomic espionage, as shown in Walter Schneir's THE FINAL VERDICT. Blitzstein's sister told me he was thinking of the Rosenbergs, writing the opera he called his "magnum opus." My cantata on their Death House Letters, WE ARE INNOCENT, has had a dozen performances, and is quoted in the penultimate scene of SACCO AND VANZETTI.

Michael Trigoboff said...

The Venona Intercepts clearly show that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of nuclear espionage for the USSR.

They also contain strong evidence that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy.

Anonymous said...

Regarding atomic secrets, after the Soviet Union fell and the KGB vault opened, we learned the extent of Soviet penetration into the Manhattan Project. Stalin knew almost as soon as FDR the details of the Trinity shot. This knowledge reveals the difficultly prosecuting espionage and treason cases like Hess and the Rosenbergs by the Federal government. Secrets may stay buried and witnesses disappear, as is the case with successful espionage.

Low Dudgeon said...

Unknown @ 9:34, assuming it’s the poster, Mr. Lehrman?

Mr. Trigoboff has already covered the intercepted Soviet material which when finally released to the public implicated Hiss and Rosenberg as spies.

Sacco’s alibi witnesses were put up to lie by his anarchist colleagues, according to the subsequent confession of at least one of those witnesses.

The weight of informed opinion is behind Sacco’s likely guilt, though it is generally acknowledged the full truth one way or the other will remain unknown.

That’s not to discount the repugnant miscarriage of justice at S & V’s expense. It means some post-war leftist shibboleths do not pass muster.

Mike said...

Which raises the question: If the trial is a sham and the evidence questionable, why would you presume the defendant is guilty?

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the delicious line in the French movie "Z" when one of the uniformed fascists is being hauled off to jail and a reporter shouts, "Are you falsely accused, like Dreyfus?" and the fascist yells back, "Dreyfus was guilty!"

Great comments on Rosenburg (guilty) and Hiss (guilty), as apt comparisons.

Unknown said...

Hiss may've been an asset, a source of information, without having been a spy.
The Greenglasses were guilty of low-level atomic espionage; Julius of industrial but not atomic espionage; Ethel of nothing.
NY City's City Council has exonerated her.
(The NCRRC was dissolved, after achieving that goal.)
So-called evidence of Sacco's possible guilt has been traced to the bitterness felt by Tresca and Moore when the latter was fired from the case. It has no basis in truth and has been repeatedly refuted. I brought this up at the meeting of the Sacco-Vanzetti Memorial Committee last night, and was told that the late Bob d'Attilio had said it was no longer even worth addressing. Yet it still comes up, and is simply wrong.