May 14 & 16: Two Live Q&As for SEMMELWEIS – a music-theater work inspired by the “unsung pioneer of handwashing” (WSJ)

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Announcing Two Live Q&As for SEMMELWEIS with Composer Raymond J. Lustig

A music-theater work inspired by Ignác Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician known as the pioneer of handwashing and antiseptic procedures
Thursday, May 14, 2020 at 1pm ET – “Behind the Work” – a live stream conversation
with composer Raymond Lustig and Matt Gray, General Director of The American Opera Project

Saturday, May 16, 2020 at 2pm ET – Facebook Watch Party of the complete performance
with composer Raymond Lustig, librettist Matthew Doherty, and director Martin Boross

Hosted by the Hungarian Cultural Centers of London and New York

More information:

New York, NY – Composer Raymond J. Lustig, in collaboration with co-creators and partner organizations, announces two opportunities to go behind the scenes of SEMMELWEIS, a music-theater work inspired by one of medicine’s most tragic heroes, Hungarian doctor Ignác Semmelweis. SEMMELWEIS was created by American composer Raymond J. Lustig, Irish-American writer Matthew Doherty, and Hungarian director Martin Boross. The online stream of the full world premiere performance in 2018 – co-produced by Budapest Operetta Theatre and Bartók Plusz Opera Festival – is available until May 31 at

On Thursday, May 14, 2020 at 1pm ET, Matt Gray, General Director of The American Opera Project, will join Lustig for a live stream conversation. Lustig and Gray will talk about the history of Semmelweis, lessons for our time, and the development of the project. Several early workshops, directed by Gray, were staged with AOP’s generous support. Viewers are encouraged to ask questions in the comments. The livestream will be available at the page below, which you can follow to be notified when the broadcast goes live:

AOP Facebook page –
AOP YouTube
Raymond Lustig Facebook

On Saturday, May 16, 2020 at 2pm ET, the Hungarian Cultural Centers of London and New York will host a Facebook Watch Party of the complete online stream. Lustig will be joined by librettist Matthew Doherty and director Martin Boross to comment about the different scenes and answer questions from viewers throughout the work. The livestream will be available at the page below, which you can follow to be notified when the broadcast goes live:

Hungarian Cultural Center, New York Facebook page –
Hungarian Cultural Centre, London Facebook page –

The Washington Postfeatured the announcement of the online stream, describing SEMMELWEIS as having “compelling beauty and eerie prescience.” Seen and Heard Internationalhighlights the production’s “scintillating, mystical score with evocative imagery” and further praises Lustig’s style as, “modern, often minimalist: repetitive organ chords create an air of weight and solemnity in the opening scenes, while fleeting, klezmer-like passages added zest to the dreamlike score.”

The obstetrician Ignác Semmelweis – who championed the practice of handwashing in the 19th century that is the foundation of today’s antiseptic procedures – has had a resurgence of interest during the current coronavirus outbreak. Semmelweis was an “outsider,” a “foreign” doctor, Hungarian, but living and working in Vienna’s top hospital in a xenophobic era. Amidst a devastating epidemic in 1846, Dr. Semmelweis discovered that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers by the unclean hands of their own doctors. Tragically, the medical community rebelled against Semmelweis’ discovery. They scoffed at his findings, rejected his theory, stripped him of his credentials, and the doctor was subsequently driven into an insane asylum where he died alone. It was not until decades later that his discovery was validated and accepted.

The entire action of SEMMELWEIS may be seen as if a reflection – a fever dream or death dream – of Ignác Semmelweis’ inner psyche at his life’s end. Dr. Semmelweis re-experiences events from throughout his life, perhaps out of sequence, distorted, or unreliable, as if through a lens of a mind in turmoil.

Google, which paid tribute to Semmelweis in its March 20, 2020 Google Doodle, reported, “Today, Semmelweis is widely remembered as ‘the father of infection control,’ credited with revolutionizing not just obstetrics, but the medical field itself, informing generations beyond his own that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases.” In response to the Doodle, the Wall Street Journal deemed Semmelweis “The Unsung Pioneer of Handwashing,” with CNN, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Radiolab telling the doctor’s story as well in March 2020.

New York City-based composer Raymond Lustig has a background in science, and is a published researcher in molecular biology, with previous posts at Massachusetts General Hospital and Columbia University. Lustig’s wife, Dr. Ana Berlin, is a surgeon and palliative care specialist on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Lustig says, “During the years we were working on SEMMELWEIS, I’d come to think of the Ignaz Semmelweis story as an allegory for climate change. This recent turn of events brings it full circle in a way that further highlights the universality of the story. It ends up being a story of course about our incredible human capacity for denial, about our most stubborn blind spots. What urgent truth is out there right now, looming, just out of our capacity to accept it?”

SEMMELWEIS asks what it is like to be the first to see into a terrible blind spot, to perceive a truth too awful to believe, to disrupt a powerfully held world-view, to experience a world dismissive of and even hostile to your idea, and to fear that the answer may die with you. What is it like to have the earth-shattering insight of a cure, and yet be haunted by the countless mothers that would never be saved?

The production, featuring a cast of all women with the exception of Dr. Semmelweis, shines light on the role of women – from patients, to sex workers, to midwives, to Dr. Semmelweis’ own wife, Mária – and illuminates the cost to their bodies, lives, and families when powerful men prioritize the preservation of their own power over their duty to truth. SEMMELWEIS explores what happens to a man whose conscience will not let him participate in a deadly and sexist status quo.

SEMMELWEIS’s story is symbol-driven and tightly integrated with movement, staging, lighting, projection, and voiceover to convey the essential narrative outline. SEMMELWEIS blends elements of song cycle, choral opera, pure-tone sacred vocal singing style, and pop and musical theater influences. The work is scored for women’s vocal ensemble, baritone soloist, and seven instrumentalists. Specially designed music boxes and tuned bells are played onstage by all soloists and chorus, and four dancers, choreographed by Anna Biczók, are interwoven with the singing cast.

SEMMELWEIS owes its inception to The American Opera Project’s Composers and the Voice residency. Several early workshops, directed by Matt Gray, were staged with AOP’s generous support at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, HERE Arts in New York City, the New York Academy of Medicine, and South Oxford Space, Brooklyn, and selected for a special AOP workshop with eminent director Jonathan Miller. The National Arts Club (NYC) also presented a concert performance of the full music of SEMMELWEIS on Sept 11, 2017, conducted by Ryan McAdams, with executive producer Edward Andrews. Additional support comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ensemble Studio Theater, Musiktheater Wien, and Dr. Warren Widmann.

Composer Raymond J. Lustig’s music has been described as, “entrancing…surreally beautiful… ecstatic…rapturous,” by The New York Times. Born in Tokyo and raised in Queens, New York, Lustig pursued his simultaneous interests in music and the sciences. Before coming to Juilliard to complete his Master’s and Doctorate degrees in composition, Lustig was a published researcher in molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Columbia University. As a composer, he remains deeply inspired by science, nature, and the mind. His awards include the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP’s Rudolf Nissim Prize, and the Aaron Copland Award. In 2016, he was invited by TEDx to speak about his practice of looking to constraint for new inspiration, in both scientific and creative work. Lustig has been commissioned and performed by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall Seattle, The Juilliard Orchestra, Caramoor Music Festival, Metropolis Ensemble, TENET Vocal Ensemble, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and numerous other orchestras and institutions across the country. His work has been supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, American Music Center’s Live Music for Dance Project, and the European American Musical Alliance in Paris.

Massachusetts-born writer Matthew Doherty has published poetry and prose in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Poetry, and Glimmer Train (a literary quarterly). He was a Steger Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alabama. He has lived and taught abroad in China, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, has worked as a long-haul truck driver in the U.S. and Iraq, and is currently completing a law degree at Boston College Law School.

Director Martin Boross is artistic director of STEREO AKT, a Budapest based contemporary theatre collective. Between 2011 and 2014, he was a member of Artus Theatre. He earned his diploma in 2013 at the University of Theatre and Film Art of Budapest, Faculty of Dramaturgy. Since 2011, he has directed twelve theater pieces—both onstage and site specific — as well as an opera, a documentary film, and numerous smaller scale works such flash-mobs and civil campaigns. His post-dramatic pieces are often interdisciplinary, participatory, and interactive, and he frequently use documentary materials from a social or political perspective. Boross is interested in audience interaction as the dramaturgical technique necessary to achieve a deep and intensive level of perception. Outside of Hungary, he has worked with international project-based teams in Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the United States.

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