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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHIFF, D.: Gimpel the Fool
Gimpel the Fool is a setting of the
story by Polish-born American
Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer
(1904-1991). In the words of the
composer, also of Polish descent, “it
turned out to be world full of spirits
and demons, as well as a world
inseparable from Judaism”. The
opera was given its first performance
in November 1975 at Hebrew Union
College in New York as a version for
singers and piano. It was subsequently
orchestrated and the full
version is heard on this recording.
David Schiff was born in New
York City in 1945. He studied composition
with Ursula Mamlok at the
Manhattan School of Music and with
Elliott Carter at the Juilliard School,
and is the author of books on the
music of Elliott Carter and George
Gershwin. Since 1980 Schiff has
taught at Reed College, Portland,
David Schiff (b.1945)
Gimpel The Fool
Opera in Two Acts
Libretto by David Schiff
Gimpel - Richard Zeller
Elka - D'Anna Fortunato
Badkhen - Kevin Walsh
Rabbi - Thomas Glenn
Fegele / Goat / Evil One - Alissa Mercurio Rowe
Yetta / Rabbi's Daughter - Megan Besley
Wolf-Leyb - Vale Rideout
Leibish - Tyler T. Oliphant
Yekhiel - Bryan Hunt
Sura - Judith Schiff
Third Angle Ensemble (Ron Blessinger, Artistic Director)
Kenneth Kiesler, Conductor
How I came to compose Gimpel the Fool
by David Schiff
I first discovered the wonderful writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1974. I was teaching music theory and humanities at Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music and I assigned some of Singer's stories because I had never had a chance to read them. They were a revelation. My grandparents came from the same parts of the world that Singer wrote about: Galicia (now in Poland but then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and Warsaw. But they never talked about life in the 'old country' that they were only too happy to have escaped. All that remained were some untranslatable phrases of Yiddish, like 'kina hura', and some superstitions. Singer's stories allowed me to see what their lives may really have been like – and it turned out to be a world full of spirits and demons, as well as a world inseparable from Judaism.
At the same time I was also a graduate student in music composition at the Manhattan School of Music. One of my courses was Opera Composition. For our final assignment we had to write the libretto for a short opera. I decided then to write a libretto for an opera based on Singer's most famous story Gimpel the Fool. I went to a reading that Singer was giving of his stories and asked him afterwards if he would give me permission to write such an opera; he said that he was sure there would be no problem (it turned out to be more complicated than that!).
My wild idea was to write the libretto in Yiddish, the language in which Singer wrote all of his stories. I tracked down a copy of the Yiddish version, which a friend recorded for me so I could familiarize myself with the sound of the words. I taught myself to read Yiddish, but my understanding of the story came from my grandfather, Benjamin Meisner. On weekends, my uncle and I would visit him at the Extended Care Unit of New Rochelle Hospital. Like Gimpel in the story, my grandfather had been a baker in Poland. When his son read him the story in Yiddish he would explain the meaning of many words that are not in any Yiddish dictionary, such as the word for rolling pin. My grandfather was something of a Gimpel the Fool in his character – he was truly a good man, no matter what adversities he might encounter.
Soon after getting Singer's permission Cantor Lawrence Avery (who has performed for us at Congregation Beth Israel several times) told me that his congregation (in which I was raised) was planning a Yiddish weekend. We decided to present a Gimpel opera as part of that weekend which also included an appearance by Irving Howe, author of the great book World of Our Fathers. I wrote this first version of the opera for my students at HUC (but not for my future wife who entered the school the next semester). The first Gimpel was Howard Bender who has sung many times with the Portland Opera in recent years. At that point Gimpel was a short work for singers and piano. To fill out the evening, the cast performed Yiddish songs. The first performance was in November 1975. It was so successful that we were asked to perform it at HUC the following January. At that performance I played piano and Judy turned pages, which started many hopes and rumors flying in my family. The next year we were invited to perform Gimpel at Temple Israel in Boston, and for that performance I expanded the opera so that all the cast members would have a solo.
A few years later the 92nd Street YM-YWCA, famous for its poetry readings and concerts, decided to present Gimpel as the first offering in the series Jewish Opera at the Y. For this momentous event I orchestrated the opera, picking many instruments with a klezmer flavor, and expanded it once again. There were three sold-out performances and excellent reviews. Cantor Schiff made a spectacular appearance as the Evil One, dressed in a poison green tuxedo. The Y presented Gimpel again in 1980 and 1985, and at each new production I was able to make improvements – including an English-language version in 1985, used in performances in Portland. Reading the Singer story helped me understand so much about where I had come from culturally and spiritually, and I hope my opera may serve the same purpose for audiences today.
On her deathbed, Elka, Gimpel's wife of twenty years confesses that their six children are not his. Stunned and shocked, Gimpel tries to understand how he let himself be deceived. From his earliest childhood he had always believed everyone. He was an orphan and given to the baker as an apprentice. The people of Frampol told him that the Czar was coming, that the moon had fallen down, even that the Messiah was coming to town – and he believed them. The rabbi advised him that those who told him lies were the fools, not Gimpel, for they would lose the world to come. But even the rabbi's daughter played a trick on Gimpel.
The town decides that Gimpel will marry Elka, who lives in a clay shack at the edge of Frampol. Gimpel tells them, “You'll never get me to marry that whore!” but he pays her a dowry and the wedding begins. Gimpel realizes that this is a black moment for him – but he can't run away from his own wedding. At the end of the service Elka breaks the glass and everyone says “Mazel tov!”. After the wedding, Elka tells Gimpel that she is ritually impure – though she has just been to the ritual bath – and locks him out of the house.
Just four months after the wedding, Elka gives birth to a son, a little prematurely, she says, but Gimpel loves his wife so much that he even steals bread for her from his own customers. One night Gimpel leaves the bakery and returns home, but hears the sound of two different snores coming out of his house – Elka is in bed with Gimpel's apprentice. But before he can enter the house, Elka tells him to look after the goat, then she furiously denies Gimpel's accusations. Gimpel, determined to be a dupe no longer, goes to the rabbi to seek a divorce. The townspeople side with Elka, but the rabbi tells Gimpel to leave her house. Gimpel, however, soon misses his wife and the children and the rabbi finds a sentence in Maimonides that allows him to return to his wife.
Years pass. Elka bears six children in all and then becomes sick. On her deathbed she confesses her deceptions to Gimpel. Soon after the funeral, the Evil One appears to Gimpel in a dream and tells him to get his revenge on all the people of Frampol by pouring a bucket of urine on the challah dough – the dough for the Sabbath bread. Gimpel yields to the temptation, but then Elka's ghost appears to him, and tells him that she is now paying for her sins in the other world. Gimpel buries the dough, gives up all his belongings and wanders off into the world. He tells his stories about how the Czar came to Frampol and the moon fell down. The children laugh at him, but whenever he closes his eyes he is back in Frampol with Elka. She comforts him and tells him that they will soon be reunited in a world where there is no deceit, where even Gimpel cannot be fooled.
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SCHIFF, D.: Gimpel the Fool