The 90-minute oratorio tells the story of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and finding a home and community in Shanghai

Maestro Long Yu, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the New York Philharmonic (NY Phil) today [6July] announce the co-commission of Émigré, a new oratorio by award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh. The work will be premiered on 17 November 2023 at the Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Hall before its US premiere on 29 February 2024 at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. The work will be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in live and studio sessions in the context of the world premiere performance and is due to be released in February 2024.

In the late 1930s, over 30,000 Jews fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis in Europe after Kristallnacht, with 16,000 taking refuge in the city, arriving shortly after China had recently suffered the atrocities of the Japanese occupation and the Nanjing Massacre. Zigman’s new work – a 90-minute oratorio – tells the story of two Jewish brothers who arrive in Shanghai as refugees in 1938 and go on to navigate their new life and seek a home and community there. The work is sung in English with minimal visual and production elements. The cast for the November premiere will feature Ben Bliss and Arnold Livingston Geis as the two brothers, plus Shenyang, Zhang Meigui, Andrew Dwan, Zhu Huiling and Diana Newman, the same cast that will be performing it in New York, where Long Yu will be conducting the NY Phil for the US premiere.

Following the premiere, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will perform the oratorio at the 2024 Beijing International Music Festival and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin (DSO) will perform the work in 2024. Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the work in 2025 and further international performances including the UK will be announced in due course.

Long Yu, Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, said: “In the flood of history, we cannot avoid the changes in social circumstances and human destiny, but the light and goodness of humanity is a flat boat that never sinks. She can pierce the darkness and carry the destiny of humanity and the continuity of history, sailing towards a bright and hopeful future. I am proud to be sharing this important work, brought to life by Aaron and Mark, and to be conducting the world premiere performance and the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the piece.”

Aaron Zigman said: “Writing this oratorio about the cultural exchange between the people of China and the Jews has such a compelling meaning for me. If not for Shanghai and the good will of the people of China, some of my ancestors and someone very close to me would have perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. My aim was to write a piece that expressed the beauty, yet also pain and hope for a better future that both the Chinese and Jews experienced together during the 1930s and 1940s. With libretto by Mark Campbell and additional lyrics by Brock Walsh, I am so blessed to have been able to collaborate with Maestro Long Yu, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic to bring this story to life.”

Mark Campbell said: “Émigré’s message about compassion deserves to be heard. The opportunity to help tell that message piqued my interest when Aaron asked me to collaborate on the work back in March 2020. The story of a country that opened its arms to Jewish refugees in 1937 resonated profoundly with me and I cannot express my gratitude ardently enough to Long Yu, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic for giving me the opportunity to help deliver this message.”

Aaron Zigman is a classically-trained American composer who has written scores for films and TV shows including The Notebook, Wakefield, Bridge to Terabithia and the Sex & The City franchise whilst also writing, arranging and producing songs for top recording artists such as Ray Charles, Sting, Tina Turner, Seal, and more. Zigman has also composed a number of chamber, orchestral and vocal works, and his -award-winning piece Tango Manoshas been touring the world with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Mark Campbell is a Pulitzer Prize winning librettist who has created 40 opera librettos alongside lyrics for 7 musicals and the text for 9 song cycles and 4 oratorios. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an opera featuring libretto by Campbell, received a 2018 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera Recording.