Ivan Fischer conducting in 2011. (Merano Festival)
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Opera Conductor Stands up to Anti-Semitism

Hungary’s Ivan Fischer premieres new opera based on historic blood libel

Rachel Silberstein
October 22, 2013
Ivan Fischer conducting in 2011. (Merano Festival)

Ivan Fischer, a well-known Hungarian conductor with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, was featured in the New York Times this weekend for writing and staging an opera challenging the growing anti-Semitic sentiment in his homeland. Tablet’s Jamie Kirchick has written extensively about the rise of Hungary’s far-right nationalist Jobbik party, which has publicly made anti-Semitic comments and minimized the Holocaust. Hungary’s left-wing parties have been weakened by scandal in recent years and today the Jobbik party, which is also anti-gay and anti-immigrant, controls 12 percent of the Hungarian parliament.

But despite the country’s growing intolerance, free speech has not been compromised in Hungary. Fischer, who is Jewish, joins a growing number of artists challenging Hungary’s disturbing trend. Fischer’s opera, titled The Red Heifer, is based on a historic blood libel, in which the Hungarian Jewish community was blamed for the murder of a young peasant girl in the village of Tiszaeszlár in 1882.

The Times describes the performance:

His ambitious composition uses both a full orchestra and a Gypsy band, with references to music from Klezmer to rap to Mozart. The production, featuring adults and children, is set in the 19th century but includes pointed contemporary references.

Onstage, a red papier-mâché cow stomps on the peasant girl’s foot. Another scene features lively folk dancing by the same crowd that later turns into soccer hooligans blowing vuvuzelas, waving Hungarian flags and calling for retribution against the Jews. After that, the 19th-century Hungarian statesman Lajos Kossuth arrives out of the past, singing in a deep bass-baritone: “I am ashamed by the anti-Semitic agitation; as a Hungarian, I feel repentant toward it, as a patriot, I scorn it.”

Using this theme is a direct rebuke to the Jobbik party, who treat that infamous blood libel quite differently. “A group of 15 accused Jews were eventually acquitted in a court trial, but the murder victim, Eszter Solymosi, has since become a martyr figure for the Hungarian right,” Kirchick wrote in 2012. “A memorial constructed in her honor several years ago is a pilgrimage spot for Jobbik members and other far-right activists.”

Fischer’s opera—and the widespread publicity surrounding it—is already helping to draw attention to the present political climate in Hungary. Whether it can spark real-life change remains to be seen. Here, Fischer discusses his opera and the blood libel:

Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.