From The Chronicle (Kansas City, KS), March, 1997
Amram CD 'almost biblical in its simplicity and power'
"The Final Ingredient: An Opera of the Holocaust in One Act." Music by David Amram; libretto by Arnold Weinstein. Premier Recordings.
By Stu Lewis
How often have you seen a television program that made such a powerful impact on you that you still remember it years later? For me, the first production of "The Final Ingredient" in 1965 was such an event. So when I read that the opera was finally being released on compact disc (from tape of the original telecast) I knew it was one I had to own.
On such occasions there is always a danger that the work in question will appear dated on subsequent hearing or will not be as good as one remembers. However, I am pleased to say that I appreciated this work even more after hearing it again. When I first encountered it, I was impressed primarily by the story. Now that I have spent much of my leisure time over the past few decades listening to opera, I am better able to appreciate the power of Amram's music. The story of "The Final Ingredient," described by its composer as "almost biblical in its simplicity and power," depicts a group of concentration camp prisoners in their attempt to improvise a Passover seder. The "final ingredient" of their seder is a bird's egg they see in a nest that hovers just out of reach. There is one young man in the group still strong enough to climb the fence and obtain it, but he is reluctant due to his own conflicts with his father, a fellow prisoner.
The singing on this CD is uniformly strong, and since the ensemble cast consists of people whom I have not heard of before, I will not single any out by name here. The creative team is another story. The eclectic composer and musician David Amram is well known to Kansas City audiences. The words are by widely published poet and playwright Arnold Weinstein (I believe this is the same person who wrote the witty and acerbic Lyrics for William Bolcom's "Black Max" song cycle). And the libretto itself is an adaptation of a television play by Reginald Rose, one of the giants of the "golden age" of television, when television drama was regarded as a genuine art form.
The music of "The Final Ingredient" is serious, as befits its subject matter, yet melodic, with a genuinely Jewish feel (perhaps somewhat similar to John Williams' score for "Schindler's List," though more modernistic). As is true of much modern opera, much of the melodic development is carried by the orchestra, with less emphasis on solo arias than was prevalent in earlier opera. There is only one solo long enough to be termed an "aria," Walter's lament over the death of the rabbi. On the other hand, there are some wonderful set pieces for chorus, including a powerful setting of the Hebrew "Yigdal" and a combination of a lullaby and words from Psalm 137 ("If I Forget Thee"), expressed in music of heartbreaking beauty. It is not only the set pieces, however, but Amram's skillful interweaving of various musical motifs that gives the work its power.
Weinstein's libretto is a model of verbal economy. Though the printed libretto that accompanies the CD is entirely in prose format, there arc some beautifully rhymed moments, such as the following comment on the impending death of the rabbi: "My heart and my head ask who will lead the Jews./ My feet, instead, care only who will get his shoes." American opera rarely, if ever, achieves "best seller" status, and it would be a shame to see this opera fall by the wayside. Perhaps a video would achieve wider circulation. Or better yet, one could hope that the release of this CD will lead some opera companies to stage live performances.
In his notes on the opera, David Amram states, "The Message of 'The Final Ingredient' remains universal. All of us must somehow walk on a path of God-fearing understanding, and compassion and respect for one another. If not, bigotry and hatred can reduce us to allowing another Holocaust to happen."
However, there is an even more powerful message.
In an era in which assimilation poses a greater threat to Jewish continuity than does anti-Semitism, this opera reminds us that as long as Jews celebrate Passover, we will never die.