At a time when we are told repeatedly to wash our hands, comes a music-theater work inspired by Ignác Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician known as the pioneer of handwashing and antiseptic procedures
An online stream of the world premiere production of SEMMELWEIS, a music-theater work inspired by one of medicine’s most tragic heroes, Hungarian doctor Ignác Semmelweis, will launch on Saturday, May 2, 2020 at 1PM ET, at www.Doctor-Semmelweis.com, and will be available for one month. SEMMELWEIS was created by American composer Raymond J. Lustig, Irish-American writer Matthew Doherty, and Hungarian director Martin Boross. The world premiere performance in 2018 was co-produced by Budapest Operetta Theatre and Bartók Plusz Opera Festival. It will be free to watch, but viewers may make donations via the website to support organizations currently working to understand and combat the global coronavirus pandemic, and to alleviate its toll, especially on the most vulnerable populations: UNICEF USA, Alight, and the Semmelweis Foundation.
The obstetrician Ignác Semmelweis – who championed the practice of handwashing in the 19th century that is the foundation of today’s antiseptic procedures – has had a resurgence of interest during the current coronavirus outbreak. Semmelweis was an “outsider,” a “foreign” doctor, Hungarian, but living and working in Vienna’s top hospital in a xenophobic era. Amidst a devastating epidemic in 1846, Dr. Semmelweis discovered that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers by the unclean hands of their own doctors. Tragically, the medical community rebelled against Semmelweis’ discovery. They scoffed at his findings, rejected his theory, stripped him of his credentials, and the doctor was subsequently driven into an insane asylum where he died alone. It was not until decades later that his discovery was validated and accepted.
The entire action of SEMMELWEIS may be seen as if a reflection – a fever dream or death dream – of Ignác Semmelweis’ inner psyche at his life’s end. Dr. Semmelweis re-experiences events from throughout his life, perhaps out of sequence, distorted, or unreliable, as if through a lens of a mind in turmoil.
Google, which paid tribute to Semmelweis in its March 20, 2020 Google Doodle, reported, “Today, Semmelweis is widely remembered as ‘the father of infection control,’ credited with revolutionizing not just obstetrics, but the medical field itself, informing generations beyond his own that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases.” In response to the Doodle, the Wall Street Journal deemed Semmelweis “The Unsung Pioneer of Handwashing,” with CNN, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Radiolab telling the doctor’s story as well in March 2020.
New York City-based composer Raymond Lustig has a background in science, and is a published researcher in molecular biology, with previous posts at Massachusetts General Hospital and Columbia University. Lustig’s wife, Dr. Ana Berlin, is a surgeon and palliative care specialist on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Lustig says, “There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our deadly myopic inertia, and the clear truth that we as a society need our full human participation, our fresh perspectives and brave new ideas, literally to survive. My hope is that, by giving vocal expression to the Semmelweis story – not just that of the man himself, but also of the women and mothers from whom he is inseparable – we may all be inspired by his refusal to remain silent on a truth that was not merely inconvenient, but intolerable.”
SEMMELWEIS asks what it is like to be the first to see into a terrible blind spot, to perceive a truth too awful to believe, to disrupt a powerfully held world-view, to experience a world dismissive of and even hostile to your idea, and to fear that the answer may die with you. What is it like to have the earth-shattering insight of a cure, and yet be haunted by the countless mothers that would never be saved?
The production, featuring a cast of all women with the exception of Dr. Semmelweis, shines light on the role of women – from patients, to sex workers, to midwives, to Dr. Semmelweis’ own wife, Mária – and illuminates the cost to their bodies, lives, and families when powerful men prioritize the preservation of their own power over their duty to truth. SEMMELWEIS explores what happens to a man whose conscience will not let him participate in a deadly and sexist status quo.
SEMMELWEIS’s story is symbol-driven and tightly integrated with movement, staging, lighting, projection, and voiceover to convey the essential narrative outline. SEMMELWEISblends elements of song cycle, choral opera, pure-tone sacred vocal singing style, and pop and musical theater influences. The work is scored for women’s vocal ensemble, baritone soloist, and seven instrumentalists. Specially designed music boxes and tuned bells are played onstage by all soloists and chorus, and four dancers, choreographed by Anna Biczók, are interwoven with the singing cast.
SEMMELWEIS owes its inception to The American Opera Project’s Composers and the Voice residency. Several early workshops, directed by Matt Gray, were staged with AOP’s generous support at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, HERE Arts in New York City, the New York Academy of Medicine, and South Oxford Space, Brooklyn, and selected for a special AOP workshop with eminent director Jonathan Miller. The National Arts Club (NYC) also presented a concert performance of the full music of SEMMELWEIS on Sept 11, 2017, conducted by Ryan McAdams, with executive producer Edward Andrews. Additional support comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ensemble Studio Theater, Musiktheater Wien, and Dr. Warren Widmann.
Composer Raymond J. Lustig’s music has been described as, “entrancing…surreally beautiful… ecstatic…rapturous,” by The New York Times. Born in Tokyo and raised in Queens, New York, Lustig pursued his simultaneous interests in music and the sciences.
Massachusetts-born writer Matthew Doherty has published poetry and prose in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Poetry, and Glimmer Train (a literary quarterly). He was a Steger Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alabama.
Director Martin Boross is artistic director of STEREO AKT, a Budapest based contemporary theatre collective. Between 2011 and 2014, he was a member of Artus Theatre. He earned his diploma in 2013 at the University of Theatre and Film Art of Budapest, Faculty of Dramaturgy. Since 2011, he has directed twelve theater pieces—both onstage and site specific — as well as an opera, a documentary film, and numerous smaller scale works such flash-mobs and civil campaign
Statement from Amelie Weidinger Production Manager, Budapest Operetta Theatre
The Semmelweis Story – Crossing Borders
A unique meeting of a contemporary American opera, a classical Hungarian operetta stage, and the memorial of an outstanding visionary doctor
How is it that a theatre, internationally known for its jovial performances of operetta classics, stages a contemporary opera in oratorical style with quite a serious subject? Located in the vibrant heart of the Hungarian capital, the Budapest Operetta Theatre currently is one of the most reknowned music theatres in Hungary, playing almost 600 performances each season to an audience of 400,000. Under the leadership of Atilla Kiss-B., its repertoire presently consists of the most popular Hungarian operettas as well as musicals. In addition to the lighter genres, the Theatre also is dedicated to staging new works, focusing on contemporary pieces based on literary or historical sources. In fact, the last two premieres before the coronavirus- shutdown happened to be Boris Vian 100 – Chanson d’écumes and The Diary of Anne Frank, a dramatic mono-opera by Grigori Frid.
Still, how did the American opera SEMMELWEIS – composed by Raymond J. Lustig with libretto by Matthew Doherty – find its way to a Hungarian audience? The connection was through Dr. László Rosivall, head of the Semmelweis Memorial Commitee of Semmelweis University Budapest. Discovering there was an American composer creating a theatrical piece on the fascinating story of Hungarian doctor Ignác Semmelweis, Dr. Rosivall immediately got in touch with Lustig. 2018 was the memorial year of Semmelweis, celebrating his 200th birthday. For this occasion, the Memorial Committee organized an event series and many projects lead by Semmelweis University, the flagship of medical research and education in the Central European region. This is also why you can meet Semmelweis anywhere in the world from New York to Krakow – 21 statues of the iconic medic were erected by Semmelweis University as a donation during the Semmelweis year in 15 countries on 4 continents.
The idea of presenting the new opera about the Hungarian doctor to Hungarian audiences was highly appreciated. With support of the Committee, the Budapest Operetta Theatre (led by György Lőrinczy at that time) undertook staging the premiere in cooperation with the Bartók Plusz Opera Festival in Miskolc, which is one of the most important events of contemporary classical music in Hungary. Atilla Kiss-B. supported the premiere by establishing the connection to the Festival. The director of the Hungarian staging was Martin Boross.
The cycle closes curiously as 2020 happens to be the 250th anniversary year of Semmelweis University, which played a major role in making the Hungarian premiere of SEMMELWEIS happen. It seems just like a lucky twist of fate that it is this very year when the piece has its “online premiere,” making the message of Semmelweis accessible to wider audiences just when it is needed the most, in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Being an international cooperation of music theatre and medic professionals, connecting continents and completely different professions, the streaming project itself points out the importance of cohesion and collaboration. – Amelie Weidinger
Photos: Courtesy of Budapest Operetta Theater and Bartok Plusz Opera Festival
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