Mamzer Bastard is a new opera about family identity and long-buried secrets, set in New York during a city-wide blackout in 1977. It borrows heavily from film noir. There are trailing silhouettes of men in long coats and fedora hats. Plus it’s part cinema, part theatre – the action is filmed live and projected onto a huge building in the set’s grimy, minimalistic take on the Big Apple. On top of this, it’s deeply immersed in Jewish folklore and liturgical music, with a libretto partly in Yiddish and Hebrew. In short, there’s a lot going on. This bold psychodrama almost collapses under its competing influences.
Mamzer is a Hebraic work that loosely translates to ‘bastard’. In Judaism in particular, it is a source of tremendous shame – a mamzer cannot form part of a Jewish congregation and can never marry. Yoel (Collin Shay) is a painfully naïve young man with a strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and secrets from his past threaten to make him a pariah among his community. A mysterious meeting on the pitch black streets of New York throw his legitimacy into question, and threaten to derail his arranged marriage the following morning.
The opera is an incredibly ambitious work from sisters Na’ama Zisser, who wrote the music, and Rachel C. Zisser, who co-wrote the libretto with their sister-in-law Samantha Newton. The incorporation of Jewish Cantorial (devotional) music alongside the contemporary classical undoubtedly works. The traditional Cantorial songs, sung by Cantor Netanel Hershtik of the Hampton Synagogue, New York, are among the most affecting moments in the opera. Their intimacy, otherworldliness and longing brilliantly sets the tone for a story based around folklore archetypes – the equivocating son; the straight-laced father; the devoted mother sewing a bridal veil well into the night; the strange man who comes out from the cold with a secret.
Shay as Yoel gives a convincing portrait of a sensitive young man in the throes of an identity crisis. His tortured intonation and piercingly high counter tenor voice inflects the piece with his youthful angst. His character is totally estranged from popular culture, and in one of the most touching arias he sings in a mikveh (a Jewish cleansing bath) about never having heard of Star Wars. The rest of the cast give strong and affecting performances, yet their voices stop just short of taking your breath away.
The real problem here is that show’s atmosphere of cloying dread is almost suffocating, and not helped by the entirely superficial use of film noir archetypes. The opera tackles some heavy themes – one of the characters was interned in a WW2 concentration camp – yet the action focuses too heavily on Yoel’s (somewhat self-indulgent) torment. As the piece reaches its climax the stakes are incredibly high, yet for the most part Zisser’s booming, foreboding score feels too much.
Having all of the action filmed live comes across as a cheap gimmick from director Jay Scheib. The eye bounces between the actors dwarfed by the huge and largely bare set, the surtitles, and the artfully shot video. The actors utilise the various closeups by live cinematographer Paulina Jurzec to give delicate and detailed characterisation (particularly Shay and Hintz), yet it inevitably takes away from the special qualities of live theatre.
This is an opera bursting with ideas. The music is adventurous, yet monotone in the sustained atmosphere of hysterical unease. The plot transplants small, believable characters into the heightened world of opera, yet the action does not match the intensity of the music. Mamzer Bastard is audacious and risk-taking, yet it doesn’t hold together as a coherent whole.
Mamzer Bastard is playing at the Hackney Empire until 17 June
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey