Jewish influence ‘is in the notes’ of opera composer’s ‘Emmeline’

Tobias Picker — Photo by Josh Huskin 


As part of its 40th anniversary season, Opera Theatre of St. Louis will present “Emmeline” by composer Tobias Picker, whom the Wall Street Journal has called “our finest composer for the lyric stage.” Picker, 60, says there is “an influence of Jewish music” in everything he writes, which includes instrumental works in many musical genres.  

“Emmeline” is the tragic story of a woman who unknowingly marries her son 20 years after giving up her illegitimate child for adoption. Described as “an American saga,” the opera has been reviewed as “continuously gripping, without a wasted note or word.” It premiered in 1996 at the Santa Fe Opera and was broadcast nationally on the PBS “Great Performances” series.  

Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury will perform the title role. Also in the cast are John Irvin, Meredith Arwady, Nicole Haslett, Daniel Brevik, Matthew Lau, Wayne Tigges and Renée Rapier. George Manahan will conduct, and OTSL artistic director James Robinson will stage “Emmeline.”  

Picker made time recently to talk about the opera. He lives in New York. (For more about his work, see  

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 “Emmeline” was your first opera. How did you learn about this true story, which occurred in the mid-1850s in Maine? 

 Watching “American Experience” on PBS, I saw an interview with Judith Rossner, who wrote a novel based on an interview with a 90-year-old woman who had known the real Emeline (Emeline Bachelder, born in the early 19th century in Maine).  

In past interviews, you have said you wrote “Emmeline” for your mother. What did you mean?  

 Writing an opera based on a true story that is reminiscent of Oedipus, as seen through Jocasta’s eyes, one would examine his own relationship with his mother — that’s simply logical. My mother was a powerful artistic influence in my life.  

Your other operas include an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Dolores Claiborne,” “Thérèse Raquin” and “An American Tragedy.” What are you working on now?  

I’m writing a concerto for the National Symphony Orchestra for the next season at Kennedy Center and working on securing rights for my next opera.  

Can you talk about the next opera?  

Oh, no.

 You grew up in New York, part of an artistic family. How did your parents influence your artistic nature?   

There was a lot of music and art in my family. My mother was the first female shoe designer for I. Miller Shoes, the Manolo Blahniks of the day. She has been a productive artist for 80 years, and her work is in galleries in New York and Santa Fe. My father was a news writer for the radio station for the New York Times, a very literary person.    

Did your Jewish upbringing influence your work? 

 Culture was more a religion than the Jewish religion was for us. My parents were nonpracticing, but they had Jewish values about education and culture. I don’t think you can get over being Jewish — you just are. Something in our genetics holds us together, something that is apparent in the notes that I compose.  

Please tell me more about that.    

A very smart Jewish tenor pointed it out to me about my third opera, “Thérèse Raquin.” He said, “Everything you write sounds Jewish. I feel it when I am singing.” That wasn’t conscious, but it is in the notes, in the tunes, in the character of the music, the mood of the music. Some colleagues have perceived it as an underlying sadness or longing.  

You began composing at the age of 8, you got your first commission as a teenager and you studied at the Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School and Princeton University. What originally drew you to music?   At an early age, I was exposed more to music than anything else. A neighbor who worked for London Records gave my parents a whole stack of brand new LPs, a collection of the classical masterworks. I took them and made them mine.  

And what about music has kept you enthralled through the years?   

My passion for music still burns as brightly as ever. I am not fully alive, fully complete, if I am not composing.   

Will you visit St. Louis to see “Emmeline?”  

Yes. I will be there for rehearsals, for the premiere and for two other performances.   

Why should Jewish Light readers see “Emmeline?”   

It’s a rare experience in the theater, an intensely emotional journey. And from the beginning of the overture, anybody familiar with Jewish music will hear the Jewish influence, the B-flat minor and the harmony and the melody


who:  Opera Theatre of St. Louis

when:  8 p.m. June 13, 17, 19 and 25; 7 p.m. June 21; 1 p.m. June 27

where:  Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves 

How much:  $25-$135

more info:  314- 961-0644