Northampton Press

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Opera depicts J.S. Bach as a 'real guy'

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 by ELIZABETH OUELLETTE Special to The Press in Focus

The family opera, "Young Meister Bach," a comical and educational tale about composer Johann Sebastian Bach's early years, has its world premiere, 3 p.m. March 1, Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center, 420 E. Packer Avenue, Bethlehem.

The music of Bach has a long history in the Lehigh Valley. The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which is producing "Young Meister Bach," was established in 1898 and continues to be a beloved part of the Lehigh Valley music landscape.

Composer Chuck Holdeman was commissioned by The Bach Choir of Bethlehem to write the opera. Holdeman is principal bassoonist of the Bach Festival Orchestra.

Holdeman partnered with librettist Bill Bly to write an opera about the young Bach. Bly is a second tenor in The Bach Choir.

"We have knowledge about all these problems he [Bach] had when he was 18, 19," says Holdeman, "when he was just getting started.

"We know that he was employed by the church and had problems on the job, that he was admonished for rehearsing in the choir loft with an unknown maiden, and that he got in a fist fight on the streets with a bassoon player … "

That fist fight is highlighted in "Young Meister Bach." Because there were differing accounts of the event, the performance shows four different versions of what might have happened, all done with good-natured humor.

"We decided to depict things in a humorous way," explains Holdeman, "and I think it will resonate with people of all ages. There is a sense of youth, of action, of fighting for your interests, which all people can relate to and remember."

"Young Meister Bach" opens in 1705, two years after J.S. Bach landed his first job at age 18. The story unfolds over the following three years. In the final scene of the opera, Bach gets married to his love, and gets a new job.

Holdeman found Bach's early struggles to be inspiring and relatable. He believes young people in particular can find inspiration in the way that Bach did not let his early troubles keep him down, and that he went on to become one of the greatest classical music composers to have ever lived.

"I would like people to know that Bach was a real guy," he says. "Bach had to learn things. He had to grow and learn just like everyone else."