'Émigré,' a tale of Jewish Shanghai, debuts at the New York Philharmonic A fictional tale of the real-life Jewish community in Shanghai during World War II — with a cross-cultural love story at its heart — is premiering at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday.

A story of Jewish Shanghai, told through music

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A new work is being performed at the New York Philharmonic tonight. It's called "Emigre," and it's the story of two Jewish brothers who fled Germany in 1938 to make a new life in Shanghai. As NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas reports, it's based on the true story of the Jewish community in China, a nearly forgotten corner of World War II history.



ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: In the late 1930s and very early 1940s, thousands of Jewish people from Poland, Germany and Austria fled the Nazis and made their way to a new home thousands of miles away in the port city of Shanghai, China. That real-life historical episode inspired conductor Long Yu to create "Emigre."

YU LONG: The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra - at that time, I think 70 to 80% were the Jewish musician.

TSIOULCAS: Long Yu knows this history well. Not only is he that orchestra's music director, but his grandfather, composer Ding Shande, worked closely with these musicians back then. And Yu assembled a team to create "Emigre," including his friend composer Aaron Zigman. While Zigman writes in many styles, he's best known for his film scores, including the 2004 hit romantic drama "The Notebook."


AARON ZIGMAN: I've done a lot of films and just written just a lot of music in general across a lot of different genres. I started out as a pianist, a session pianist in my early days.


ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS AND MEIGUI ZHANG: (As Josef Bader and Lina Song, singing) No more lonely night would (inaudible) distant light...

TSIOULCAS: The music for "Emigre" is lush and really cinematic. It's kind of a combination of opera, drama and musical theater, and it requires huge forces - a full orchestra, a full choir and seven solo vocalists. At its heart is a fictional love story between a Jewish man and a Chinese woman.


LIVINGSTON GEIS AND ZHANG: (As Josef Bader and Lina Song, singing) Can we take a chance? The truth is we're so different. If so...

TSIOULCAS: But the historical backdrop is real - not just the story of Jewish people coming to Shanghai but also the occupation of China by Japan during World War II. And although the creative team shies away from talking about contemporary politics, it's hard not to hear resonances. Right now the U.S. is in the midst of a huge debate on immigration. And yet librettist Mark Campbell says "Emigre" carries a simple message of moral urgency.

MARK CAMPBELL: I would hope that people walk away and remember that there was a country named China that let a group of refugees into their world and let them stay with them. And China was going through a war as well but let them in. And if there's a lesson to be learned, we have to be more open and let people in.

TSIOULCAS: Long Yu hosted some elderly listeners at a rehearsal last week at the New York Philharmonic. They were Jewish New Yorkers now in their 80s and 90s. Yu says the moment brought him to tears.

YU: They were all grow up and all was born in Shanghai during that period. And this moment is really - I mean, I hardly can use words to describe that because, you know, you're shocked. I mean, those people - they are real person standing in front of you. They love the city.

TSIOULCAS: Yu says that to bring this project to life has been a privilege and honor. It premiered in Shanghai last year. This November "Emigre" will be performed in Berlin, bringing the story of many of these Jewish emigres full circle. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.



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