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Death Songs, Jews, and Comanches By: David Yeagley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 13, 2005


Why would a Comanche Indian write an opera about the Jewish Holocaust? Shouldn’t an American Indian write about his own Trail of Tears? Why this convergence of cultural ethos? Why this crossing of paths?

I hear these two giant, genetic dirges in the same key. Both are the lamentations of unwanted people. But, the reason I chose to write an opera on the Jewish Holocaust has to do with my educational background and personal experience.

 

Although I’m an Oklahoma Indian, I speak the artistic language of Europe. It so happens that, since I was a young teenager, Jewish people have always valued what I have to say. They have appreciated me and my work. Therefore I have always felt close to Jewish people.

 

I’ve also studied the Bible, privately and professionally, and had some formal Jewish studies. I am familiar with Jewish family life and worship. In Connecticut, I had Jewish neighbors who loved me as their own. (In fact, twice, they actually saved my life – terms for endearment, indeed.)

 

I trust the Jews with my tears. I once told a rabbi how I felt about Jewish people. I confessed, “I know if I really wanted to cry my heart out, I could come here (the synagogue) in the sanctuary, and just cry. No one would make me feel embarrassed. No one would shame me. No one would ask any questions. Everyone would understand. The Jews know.”

 

What would I be crying about?

 

The Indian story. It’s taken me many years to face it, but in my Comanche blood is written the worst historical trauma of all: to be free as the wind, then caged forever; to roam the prairie like a wild horse, then to be roped into everlasting confinement. Yes, I cry for an irreparable, tragic past. It is a doleful drone in my soul, a long, lonely drum beat.

 

I don’t know how to describe the sorrow. For all my education in the arts, I am mute. I have no voice. Yet.

 

I remember my composition teacher, Daniel Asia, at the University of Arizona. A nice Jewish boy from Seattle, Dan was wholly reluctant to talk about the Jewish Holocaust. He simply can’t. It is ineffable. I understand now. (Yet, I was composing Jewish “lamentations” for him in 1994.)

 

Then I met Jack P. Eisner in Israel, in 1998. (I was there for a premier of my ensemble work, “Three Spirit Dances on the Bark of an Ancient Stump.” I also introduced a new style of cantorial singing, and gave a performance on the Indian flute. This all happened in Caesarea.) Mr. Eisner was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.

 

I immediately became his captive, and immersed myself in his treasures of suffering. I wanted it all. I wanted to write an opera—the story line, the libretto, the music, and the orchestration. “We have a word for you in Jewish,” he said: “Chutzpah.” Even so, he commissioned me to write the first full length grand opera on the Holocaust. He later presented to score to Zubin Mehta, and Kristof Penderecki, both of whom endorsed it. Mr. Eisner passed away in August of 2003, before beginning the production.

 

However, I am happy to say that a portion of the opera will be recorded in Katowice, Poland, January 17, 2005. It will be the National Polish Radio Symphony, David Oberg conducting, with singers from the University of Central Oklahoma. It will be my third recording for Max Schubel’s Opus One label, the oldest, exclusively classical contemporary American music label in America.

 

I’ve already released one recording under Opus One, Clouds of an Evening Sun, for American Indian flute and orchestra. I’ve made a second recording for oboe and orchestra, entitled, HaNitzol (The Survivor). Not yet released, it is also performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony, featuring young Israeli oboist Meirav Kadichevski. HaNitzol is the memorial piece I composed after Mr. Eisner’s death.

 

I was with Mr. Eisner for a week at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, shortly before he passed. He beat me three straight games of chess. (I had him in check twice in the last game.) He thought I was impatient. “You play like a Comanche,” he smiled. “You always go for the kill.”

 

I haven’t killed my fears yet. I’m still afraid of the Indian tragedy within me. For now, I find my voice in the ancient wailing of another people. I indulge myself through their exquisite articulations. I hide behind the Jews.

Dr. David A. Yeagley is a published scholar, professionally recorded composer, and an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Liberal Studies. He's on the speakers list of Young America's Foundation. E-mail him at badeagle2000@yahoo.com. View his website at http://www.badeagle.com.


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