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.
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.
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!"
|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!: