Cabaret comeback


This week the Divinity School marked the quarter's final Wednesday Lunch with bean salad, squash soup, and an hour's worth of lively cabaret from the New Budapest Orpheum Society. Led by Chicago ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman, the group is a music-department ensemble-in-residence devoted to reviving and performing—in the original Yiddish, German, and Hebrew—the Jewish cabaret music that thrived in Austria and Germany in the early 20th century. During the Holocaust, it all but disappeared. Written on broadsides rescued from the Austrian censor's office, the songs, Bohlman explained to a packed Swift Common Room, "take the notion of the carnival and put it on the stage."

Giving a theatrical flair to songs about an adolescent Berlin pickpocket, an Eastern European schoolboy, a fiery-eyed idealist student, and an "irreconcilable optimist," cantor Stewart Figa donned a Sephardic-style yamulke and then a bowler, throwing himself wildly into the lyrics. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, who, waylaid by traffic, whisked into the room just in time for her first performance—Bohlman joked that she was the afternoon's "Sabbath bride"—sang a strident lullaby from father to child. She closed the concert with composer Fredrich Hollander's "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)", a song made famous by Marlene Deitrich in 1930's The Blue Angel, the first German talkie.

The repertoire of the New Budapest Orpheum Society, named for a turn-of-the-century Viennese cabaret, includes work by composers who died in Auschwitz and others who went on to Hollywood careers. Although the cabarets vanished, some of the songs—which range from silly to sociopolitical—survived in ghettos and concentration camps.


Photos: Philip Bohlman looks on while Stewart Figa performs "The Irreconcilabe Optimist"; Julia Bentley rises to the climax of "Falling in Love Again."

March 7, 2008