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Kaddish in the Opera: Odessa 2022

Excerpt from the Inna Rogatchi’s Special Project MEAN WAR: MONOLOGUES & PICTURES (C), 2022.

Odessa is a very special place not in Ukraine, not in the South-Eastern Europe. In the world. It is a unique universe. There are many books, and some movies depicting it, but none of it is not enough. Nothing is encompassing. In my modest view, it is easier and certainly quicker to describe and present New York and Paris than Odessa. Maybe, I am subjective. A large part of my immediate family is from Odessa, and I am lovingly proud of it. 

It is a warm, chic in its own way and hilariously funny, in its absolutely unique way, rich culturally, colourful, extremely potential, talented, very human, with all our shortcomings seen always through that one and only prism of a suburb irony which is first of all a self-irony, place of immense inner freedom and followed awesome tolerance which has been inherited there from the times of introducing the place as the porto-franco zone in the Russian Empire, the only one, and actually solely because of it. It is the place of great culture and architecture which has suffered a lot, and a lot, and a lot in various periods, but always tried to smile.  

I always remember the scene which was imprinted in my head from the late 1990s. I was  walking through rather sad and severely impoverished Odessa visiting the city’s places special for my family. All of the sudden, among that rather drub landscape, both literally and metaphorically, I heard the singing of a rare beauty. First, I thought that I was mistaken. The singing was too good. Superb opera voice. Superb masterly performance. I stopped under the rain on the main Odessa boulevard, Primorsky boulevard, close to the sea and the monument of the Duc, as the Duc de Richelieu is known there in the city which he has made that unique place on the earth, and tried to find the source of that heavenly-like singing looking to all sides from my wet umbrella. 

Soon, I saw the woman who was staying there in the middle of the boulevard under the cold autumn rain, without an umbrella, and singing one opera aria after another, with a very tired mid-aged face. Very very tired face. More than twenty years passed from that meeting, but for some reason, I do remember that woman’s coat of an uninteresting olive colour. How come? She had very little money in front of her, and it was clear that she was staying there singing for a long while. I became paralysed. I came closer. I wanted to do everything for that woman, but I was cautious not to interrupt her. So we stand nearby. She stayed  singing  heavenly, in Italian, wet, without an umbrella.  I stayed fully numbed, under an umbrella, waiting for her to have a pause. 

She stopped after some while, as she noticed me. I approached, trying to formulate in my head the most delicate way of speaking with her. Without letting me open my mouth, the woman said very simply: “ I am working there – nodding to the side of the world-famous Odessa opera house. – Sorry, I was. Now I am ‘working’ here’. She tried to smile. I tried not to cry. I invited the Odessa Opera soloist to come with me to my hotel which was very near, to get dry and to have some rest. I was already planning how I will invite her to the late lunch and will give her my room to relax a bit. She thanked me but nodded in a rejecting gesture. “No, thank you. I am OK. Honestly. And I will be going home soon, anyway, on the tram’. We both looked at the Odessa tram moving nearby. I asked her again. She nodded negatively again, smiling, This time, without effort, with a very nice, relieving smile. Of course, I gave her all the money which was in my purse. Valentina, it was the singer’s name, as she introduced herself, thank me and said that now, really, she can return home at once. Believe it or not, the rain stopped. We laughed together, and departed. I remember her and her singing ever since. 

Twenty-three years later, the Odessa Opera Orchestra  lives through the war, the Mean War. To mark the first month of the Mean War, the Odessa Opera Orchestra created a very memorable performance. It can be watched here.  

Unlike many musical renditions, which  are perfectly audible, this one is necessary to watch. The people from the Odessa Opera Orchestra took their live performance dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust in January 2020, and combined the record with the current pictures of the Mean War. The outcome is very powerful, with amazing harmony between the terrible current  visual with highly dramatic music by a highly dramatic composer created in 1991. Everyone participated in this heart-wrenching experience created by the Odessa Opera House musicians and directors of the video, the composer, and the conductor of the orchestra deserves a closer look. It is incredible how so many different dramas have amalgamated into the one shown in the video from the Odessa Opera House and dedicated to the memory of the victims of the first month of the Mean War. 

Back in January 2020, commemorating the International Holocaust Memorial Day, the Odessa Opera Orchestra played parts of the Mieczyslaw Weinberg Symphony No. 21, namely Kaddish. Weinberg composed the 21st from his 26 symphonies in 1991, five years before his death. For some reason, this very symphony is regarded among contemporary musicians as the one of the most enigmatic works of Weinberg. 

The Symphony No. 21 and in particular its part called Kaddish, is great, heart and mind haunting music by the composer with a truly tragic destiny.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was known in the Soviet Union as Moisei Samuilovich Vainberg. He spent there all his life after he managed to get there running from the Nazis being just 20 year old, just him alone from all his family. All his life was the chain of incredible coincidences which of course were nothing of the sort. 

He was a musical prodigy from Warsaw, his family did not manage to get out of occupied Poland in the autumn  1939. His parents and younger sister perished in the ghetto there in Poland. 20-year old Mechek, as Mojse Wainberg was known to his friends, miraculously managed to get to Minsk, graduated from conservatory there a day before it was still possible to be evacuated from there, and he found himself in Tashkent where he became a close, a life-long friend of Dmitry Shostakovich. He moved to Moscow in the middle of the war, and since then was living and composing there, becoming the author of music of such legendary anti-war movie as The Cranes Are Flying which was the first Soviet film ever that received the Golden Palm Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. 

His first wife whom he met and married in evacuation in Tashkent was nobody else but Natalia Vovci, the daughter of the great Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Michoels who was viciously murdered on the Stalin’s order in the most resonated crime of the regime soon after the WWII. Vainberg himself was arrested in the anti-Semitic Stalin’s purge in the early 1950s, and only Stalin’s death in March 1953 released him from the Gulag. 

Stalin’s death, which was a real gift of life to the millions in the USSR, has also saved my husband who was born in Gulag as well, and was just a two month old baby when it happened. Thanks to the happy fact of the deceased monster, Michael’s father was released from Gulag eventually, and the family was able to move to a less deadly place than the Valley of Death where my husband was born, to Kazakhstan. Michael’s father with tuberculosis contracted in the Gulag, died very prematurely, being only 39. 

Michael Rogatchi (C). Kaddish. Oil on canvas. 90 x 88 cm. 1995. The Holocaust series.

Metsek Weinberg, as the composer  insisted to be called because ‘this is how my name was written in my birth certificate and how people knew me in Poland’ survived his short imprisonment in the Gulag better, but still always did bear its indelible marks, both in extra- and introvert ways. The genius was thoughtful and very shy. 

Samuil Vainberg, as we know the composer’s name back in the USSR, was very productive, but virtually unknown behind the Iron Curtain. He has become not just known, but phenomenally popular in the mid 2000s, after the international premiere of his now famous The Passenger opera in Poland. Poor Metsek never knew the success his name and legacy enjoys now. 

His enigmatic Symphony No 21 is dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Meaning : to his family, his both parents and little sister Esther. The Kaddish part of the symphony is extremely dramatic, but at the same time is contained. Those who would watch the video, would see that. It speaks straight to one’s soul. 

Musicians’ faces on this video are also very telling. Rarely one can see so many emotions and such dedication among the experienced orchestra members. But Odessa is Odessa, and everything is special about this place. 

The orchestra of Odessa Opera House is led at this performance by Hobart Earle, the conductor of American origin who was born in Venezuela and who studied in Vienna. His case is also very special. Hobart Earle came to Odessa by chance , being a 31-year old fine musician and singer working in Vienna. Earle fell in love with Odessa and its Opera House ( which is legendary, indeed), and started to work there as musician director and conductor for the $ 50 a month salary. 

It is Hobart Earle who did make the orchestra fit, its instruments as it should have been, its sound of a world class. He cared about the musicians, and he brought the orchestra to the world. Hobart Earle deserves serious recognition for his dedication and the results of it. 

I do not believe in coincidences. Hobart Earle decided to work and live in Odessa and to lead its Opera House Orchestra in the year in which Miezyslaw Weinberg created his Symphony No 21 with its Kaddish. In January 2020, Odessa Opera Orchestra performed this Kaddish under the baton of Hobart Earle and with incredible, personal dedication by them all in the memory of the victims of Holocaust. The Shoah in Odessa was horrendous. 

Just one year on, in the midst of the terrible Mean War, the Orchestra created a special video interacting their performance of Weinberg’s Kaddish with the war pictures of the day, dedicating this special musical video to the victims of the first month of the war against their country in 2022. 

As far as I can judge, Metchek Weinberg, as well as his most important friend and inspiration figure Dmitry Shostakovich would not be able to comprehend the reason for the re-dedication of his Kaddish piece. It is still hardly comprehensible for many of us. 

But the fact is that in March 2022, Weinberg’s Kaddish sounds in Odessa in memory of our contemporaries in Ukraine today. After this Mean War will end, this video will stay as one of the most tangible, tragic commemorations of so many afflicted souls. So many. 

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar, artist, art curator and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. She is also an expert on public diplomacy and was a long-term international affairs adviser for the Members of the European Parliament. She lectures on the topics of international politics and public diplomacy widely. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, arts, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is also the author of Culture for Humanity concept of The Rogatchi Foundation global initiative that aims to provide psychological comfort to wide audiences by the means of high-class arts and culture in challenging times. Inna is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Her family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Together with her husband, Inna is a founding member of Leonardo Knowledge Network, a special cultural body of leading European scientists and artists. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, arts and culture, history, Holocaust and post-Holocaust. She is running several projects on artistic and intellectual studies on various aspect of the Torah and Jewish spirituality. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband). Inna Rogatchi was the member of the Board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association and is member of the International Advisory Board of The Rumbula Memorial Project ( USA). Her art can be seen at Silver Strings: Inna Rogatchi Art site - www.innarogatchiart.com
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