W.U. composer’s ‘Borgia Infami’ will debut on campus

John Kaneklides, Robert McNichols, Jason Mallory, Joel Rogier and Zachary Devin rehearse for the world premier of Borgia Infami.Photo: Bill Motchan


Among opera fans, a world premiere is special. Excitement is in the air as a previously unheard work is performed. The audience will hear something new. It also means extra prep work for performers, musicians and stagehands.

On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, St. Louis will host a world premiere of “Borgia Infami” at Edison Theater on the Washington University campus. The late Harold Blumenfeld, a longtime professor of music at Washington University, composed the opera in 2001 with his collaborator and librettist Charles Kondek.

Getting the work from the printed page to the stage was no small feat. It took a tenacious effort by Allen Sherman, the executor of Blumenfeld’s estate. Sherman and his wife, Heidi Lopata Sherman, helped care for Blumenfeld in his later years when the composer was living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Blumenfeld died at the age of 91 in 2014. Heidi Sherman, his niece, was the beneficiary of his estate. However, she died before Blumenfeld. Allen Sherman decided to use his late wife’s inheritance to honor an important local music figure. 

He first established the Harold Blumenfeld Library Fund for Music and the Arts. Next, he created an endowment fund to implement the Harold Blumenfeld Memorial Event, supporting concerts and lectures at the Wash U. Department of Music.

That left one piece of unfinished business: Blumenfeld’s two-act opera depicting the dysfunctional Borgia family. Sherman’s feeling was that “there’s something sad about music composed but never played, just as there is with a painting never seen.”

Sherman enjoys music but doesn’t consider himself an opera expert, nor did he have any experience producing a show. But he thought it was worth trying to memorialize Blumenfeld by fulfilling one of his later works.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this would be a cool thing to do.’ It was a long shot, and I made presentations to all the opera companies in town,” he said.

He found interest from the noted Winter Opera St. Louis company. Sherman also got Wash U. on board. The result will be a fully staged opera with an orchestra, chorus and dramatic arias. It also will be performed in English, so the plot will be easier to follow for opera novices.

The Borgia family has been fictionalized previously on TV in a BBC series and, later, on Showtime. It was also the inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”. The antics of Lucrezia Borgia and Rodrigo, who became Pope Alexander VI, might make the Corleone family seem tame by comparison. “Borgia Infami” doesn’t sugarcoat the duplicitous group. It’s a tale complete with corruption, violence, incest, poison and suicide.

All of this occurs within the walls of the Vatican.

For Winter Opera St. Louis, the production is not without technical challenges. Blumenfeld’s score is not an easy one to perform for musicians or singers. There are a number of quick stage set changes, keeping the behind-the-scenes stage crew members hopping. That didn’t stop Winter’s general director, Gina Galati, from jumping at the chance to tackle a Blumenfeld original.

“It’s the first time for us to do a world premiere, and it’s important for us to collaborate with Washington University,” Galati said. “I feel like we have a good opportunity to showcase one of St. Louis’ composers here and put on a production encompassing all the different art forms in the community.”

Blumenfeld had a long tenure at Wash. U. He taught music at the university from 1952 to 1989. He also founded and directed the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and he led the Wash U. Opera Studio. He was a music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Opera News.

Well before Blumenfeld became a noted composer and music educator, he had a significant role in World War II. He served as an interpreter in the Army Signal Corp and he was present at Ohrdruf in 1945 when it was the first concentration camp liberated by the U.S. Subsequently, Blumenfeld worked in counterintelligence, identifying members of the Nazi Party. He was fluent in German and other languages. Those skills came in handy in later years.

Blumenfeld was born in Seattle. He attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., from 1941 to 1943 before his military service. He later studied at Yale and the University of Zurich. He trained as a conductor at the Tanglewood Music Center with Robert Shaw and Leonard Bernstein. 

Blumenfeld composed operas both comic and serious. “Borgia Infami” is the latter, particularly so for the opera company. Galati has scheduled plenty of rehearsals to make sure the performances are true to the composer’s score.

“I think we’ll find out, because the music is difficult,” she said. “The singers’ vocal line is kind of a contrast with the actual accompaniment. I’m praying that the musicians know their music well. When we worked with the chorus for the first time, the vocals fight with the music. It’s a great thing for us, for the company, and it’s going to be neat to be in a new theatre that we haven’t been in before.”

Blumenfeld always hoped that “Borgia Infami” would be produced, said Dolores Pesce, a professor of music at Wash U. and a colleague and friend of the composer.

“Harold wanted this opera performed more than anything else, and I think he would be tickled that it is getting performed, so that is part of his legacy,” Pesce said.

Sherman is also eager to see the culmination of his labor honoring Blumenfeld. 

“I’m sure it has been challenging for the performers,” he said. “Harold wrote very difficult operas. I remember seeing one of his performed by the Cincinnati Opera Theatre Company some years ago, and it was a fantastic thing, but he writes very complicated music with lots of voices, and it’s not easy to put on. I’ll be fascinated to see what they do with it!”