From the time Long Yu became music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he knew what he wanted for his organization. “I’d always commissioned Chinese composers for the international stage,” he says. “But for my hometown, I wanted stories—not just Chinese stories, but parts of Shanghai that represent the big stories of our time.”
A chance encounter—a couple of encounters, really—led him to award-winning songwriter and film composer Aaron Zigman: first, at the home of Chinese actor-director Jiang Wen after Zigman had scored Jiang’s 2016 film Hidden Man; second, when pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who’d played on Zigman’s soundtrack to Wakefield, was looking to commission a piano concerto. Yu became the lead commissioner of Zigman’s Tango manos; after the concerto’s world premiere at the 2019 Beijing Music Festival the conductor broached the subject of a Shanghai project.
Zigman knew exactly the story he wanted to tell. At age 22, the budding composer met the pop artist Peter Max, who’d fled Nazi Germany with his parents in 1939 to settle in Shanghai, then the only city still open to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. Although Zigman had been a history major with a focus on the Holocaust, he’d never before encountered that chapter.
“Peter told me a lot about his Shanghai experience,” Zigman recalls. “That was where he was first inspired to become an artist. After Long put this idea in my head, I couldn’t turn the project down."
Zigman immersed himself in research and in a few months came up with a 20-page pitch deck resembling a screenplay treatment. “I decided to play down the politics and came up with a multicultural love story,” he says. “That offered room for both Asian and Eastern European influences, as well as a place for both cultures to join together.”
Émigré follows the Shanghai arrival of two Jewish brothers: one a rabbinical student, the other a doctor. The first lands at a local Yeshiva (Shanghai had a notable Russian Jewish presence even before the 1917 Russian Revolution), the second stumbles into a Chinese medicine shop. Both find love, with the patriarchs of both the Jewish and Chinese communities predictably resistant.
Zigman looked to musicals as well as 19th-century opera for inspiration. Working with Pulitzer Prize– and Grammy Award–winning librettist Mark Campbell as lyricist, as well as longtime pop lyricist Brock Walsh (with Campbell contributing most of the lyrics and Walsh writing words to fit Zigman’s song meter), the composer incorporated a variety of musical styles largely appropriate to Shanghai’s history.
“Shanghai was the only music city in the Far East,” says Yu, whose grandfather, the composer Ding Shande, was a Shanghai Conservatory professor in the late 1930s. “At least 50 percent of the Shanghai Symphony was Jewish. And, compared to Hong Kong or Taipei, Shanghai was the only city where you could find so many elements — Chinese music, French music, jazz. Aaron knows all those styles. He writes very enjoyable music, and it tells a powerful story."
Émigré’s world premiere in Shanghai, in November, eschewed staging or visuals. The New York Philharmonic’s performances—February 29 and March 1, presented by Linda and Mitch Hart, which mark the work’s US Premiere—will be staged by opera director Mary Birnbaum, conducted by Yu, and include both costumes and visual projections to help illustrate the characters and their backgrounds.
“We want our projection design to show Shanghai through various lenses,” Birnbaum explains. One character (reflecting Peter Max’s visual style) sees the city as a romantic adventure. Another has “a 1930s Chinese cinema lens filtering Parisian art nouveau, back when Shanghai was the ‘Paris of the East,’ ” the director adds. Yet another sees danger through historic war footage. “Ultimately, we see this story as a contemporary vigil for those who find themselves far away from home,” she says, summing it up: “We want to tell the story of a time when one culture provided safe haven for another.”