Cabaret Act Gives Sound to Lost Voices

Cabaret Act Gives Sound to Lost Voices
Cabaret Act Gives Sound to Lost Voices

Cabaret Act Gives Sound to Lost Voices

A Chicago musical group is reviving an art form that’s rarely heard these days. The New Budapest Orpheum Society plays Jewish cabaret music that was nearly lost to history. Some of the composers wrote music from the concentrations camps before they died there. Others survived and composed in exile.

Composer Ilya Levinson grew up in the Soviet Union in a musical family. His mother was a composer and piano teacher and his father, a stage director. Yet the only Jewish songs and traditional music he heard were on his parents’ 78 LPs.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s, when the Soviet Union started to loosen up that he heard music like this performed live.


It was a revelation. Levinson came to the U.S. to find more opportunities as a composer and steeped himself in Jewish music. It was another discovery – learning that composers created Jewish cabaret music in the concentration camps that set him on his current path.


He’s the musical director, arranger and pianist for the New Budapest Orpheum Society.


The group finds old cabaret songs like this one and gives them new life by performing and recording them in order to teach history.

LEVINSON: I think it got recognition and play in the 1900s, but after the Holocaust when a lot of performers, a lot of musicians were just killed, there was no one to carry the traditions and carry these songs into the new century and to share the story of human with a new generation. It’s very, very important.

He founded the group with Philip Bohlman, a noted ethnomusicologist at the University of Chicago.

BOHLMAN: What we do is try to give voice to people whose voices have been censored, whose voices have been silenced, whose lives have not been understood.


Bohlman says when these works were composed there was a growing economic crisis in Europe and increasing intolerance of Jews. Fascism was on the rise. Yet artists still questioned the political and social structures often using veiled references.

Like on this piece, from The New Budapest’s “Jewish Cabaret in Exile” CD:

MUSIC: “The well-furnished morals”, by Edmund Nick and Erich Kastner
SONG LYRICS: “We nod our heads like dolls,
for the mouth is iced shut again and again,
subletters and occupying troops in the empire,
that’s called family.”

BOHLMAN: This is what cabaret does, it turns the world inside out, and sort of reveals things you might not otherwise understand or see.

Bohlman says the composers kept working during the Holocaust. Some got out and composed in exile. Others composed in the concentration camps at great risk:

BOHLMAN: This was social critique. They were driven from their homes. Some of them took their own lives. Some of them were murdered.

Bohlman’s interviewed many Holocaust survivors to help them tell their stories. They tell him about the music in the camps and give him clues on where that music might be today. He finds it in various archives.

BOHLMAN: This music survived because of the will of those who created it. They wanted it to survive.

The survivors tell him there were nine cabarets at Theresienstadt concentration camp — even though there was only one piano with no legs, and the groups’ makeup kept changing as people were taken to other camps and killed.

The libretto for the most famous opera, “The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal,” was written on discarded registration forms from the concentration camp.

BOHLMAN: The other side had been blank and on this was typed the libretto of the opera.

His partner in the group, Ilya Levinson, says making music in any circumstance is what composers do:

LEVINSON: They just create music to transcend this horrible reality that is around them. And through this act of creation, they also prove to other people and give them hope it’s possible to live life.

The music written in the camps has a very different tone from earlier works. There are more veiled references — this time to death. The song “The Little Birch” is both lullaby and lament.


Sometimes the lyrics survive, but not the music. Then Ilya Levinson steps in to figure out an arrangement. Bohlman is the artistic director speaking to the audience to give them context for the work.

BOHLMAN: If we don’t listen to these histories, we will not understand history, we simply will not understand the 20th century, we won’t understand where Europe and the United States and the Middle East are today.


The New Budapest Orpheum Society recently brought the Jewish cabaret music to the stage on the Jewish festival of Purim. Some in the audience found the Holocaust pieces difficult to listen to — especially on a day that celebrates Jews escaping extermination in Persia.

ULLMAN: This kind of caught me off guard.

Jerry Ullman was in the audience.

ULLMAN: So right now, I happen to actually feel some tension regarding that because it’s a very sensitive subject. It’s a very thoughtful experience, certainly not a happy one.

The music was doing as the Orpheum Society intended. It was making people think --- proof that these songs are indeed a history lesson.

Lynette Kalsnes, WBEZ.

NOTE: All music performed by the New Budapest Orpheum Society. The pre-recorded music is from the group’s CD, “Jewish Cabaret in Exile.”

The concert tonight is at 7:30 p.m. at Fulton Recital Hall, 5845 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. It’s part of the 2010 Jean and Harold Gossett Lecture featuring Tony Kushner. Registration is required. Call (773) 702-7108.

The group performs “Jewish Noir: Cabaret and Film Song between Berlin and Hollywood” on May 20 at 7 p.m. Quadrangle Club Library at the U of C.