Ahasuerus und Ester: Ignatz Waghalter’s Anti-Fascist Purim Opera (1937)

Beatrice Waghalter in the early 1940s

In 1937, while living in Vienna, Ignatz Waghalter composed Ahasuerus und Ester, based on the Biblical story of the Jewish Queen of Persia who risks her life to save her people from destruction. It is not difficult to understand why Waghalter was drawn to this story. Hamen, the malevolent adviser to the king who devised a plan for the extermination of all the Jews of Persia, is drawn as a Hitler-figure of the ancient world.

The opera was performed once in Vienna, with only piano accompaniment, shortly before Waghalter and his wife, Toni, obtained the necessary papers enabling them to travel to and enter the United States.

On February 10, 1941, a radio performance of Ahasuerus und Ester was broadcast by New York City’s historic classical music station, WQXR. Waghalter himself directed the performance from the piano. The role of Ester was sung by his daughter, Beatrice Waghalter (1913-2001). A substantial portion of the recorded broadcast has been preserved. In 2013, the handwritten orchestral partitur was discovered, thus raising the possibility of a future performance of the opera as it was conceived by Waghalter.

We are making available the section of the 1941 recording which includes the dramatic highpoint of the opera, when Queen Ester reveals to King Ahasuerus that she is Jewish. Ester obtains from the king the rescinding of the order for the extermination of the Jews of Persia. It is Hamen, instead, who is sent to the gallows.

Excerpt from February 1941 WQXR Broadcast of Ahasuerus und Ester


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