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One Thousand Lunches at the Opera

BU People: Jim Eisenberg gives an old opera new life

Click on the player at the bottom of this story to hear an excerpt from Giovanni Simone Mayr’s opera, Il Sacrifizio Di Ifigenia, with Jeanine Belcastro singing and Linnea Bardarson and Peter Krasinski on piano.

For five years, Jim Eisenberg had a choice between a leisurely lunch and opera. He chose the music. BU’s reservations coordinator, Eisenberg would head to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Mugar Memorial Library to pore over the only surviving manuscript of a 200-year-old opera. The result: he has created a modern, readable conductor’s score, ready for performance.

He hopes that one day he’ll see a production of the opera, Il Sacrifizio Di Ifigenia, written by the composer Giovanni Simone Mayr in 1811 and last staged in 1820. Based on Greek mythology, it tells the story of Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter so the gods will send wind to move his battleships. Eisenberg has approached local amateur orchestras without success, but he’s not giving up. “To bring a piece that only exists on paper back to life would be a wonderful thing,” he says. “Especially something so rare and remarkable.”

Eisenberg, who has studied classical voice, guitar, and piano, stumbled on the score while searching for information on Mayr, his favorite composer. Born in Germany in 1763, Johann Simon Mayr made his way to Venice, where he changed his name and wrote some 70 operas. “His main rival was Rossini,” Eisenberg says. “Some of his early operas were among the most frequently performed before Rossini became famous. For about 10 years, Mayr was one of the best-known opera composers in Europe.”

Eisenberg is a fan of Mayr’s “gorgeous orchestration” and beautiful melodies. “He was famous for his woodwind writing and was one of the first composers to use the harp as part of the orchestra,” he says. “I always say he has flow. It’s a musical quality — it takes you from musical idea to musical idea in beautiful arches of sound.”

When he learned that the bound manuscript of Ifigenia was housed next door to his office in the George Sherman Union, he knew what he had to do. Almost every day for five years, he toted blank manuscript paper to the Gotlieb Center, pulled on the white cotton gloves required when dealing with archives, and set to work.

One of his tasks was to change the structure of the score. For example, the violin parts in the 19th-century version appear at the top of the manuscript pages. To conform with modern conductor’s scores, Eisenberg moved those parts to the bottom.
The work was slow going, in part because the copyists, who had to copy by hand at least 25 parts for the orchestral musicians, were obviously in a hurry to finish. “I called the two copyists Sloppy and Sloppier,” Eisenberg says. “Sometimes they miscount the rhythms, and you have to stop and think, wait a minute, what are they trying to do here? It would be interesting to find out just what the rush was. I had visions of them copying away like mad for a rehearsal deadline.”

Eisenberg, who also arranges concerts for the University’s Center for Lifelong Learning, recently arranged a performance, with vocals and piano, of excerpts from Il Sacrifizio Di Ifigenia at BU. “You don’t get Mayr’s orchestration,” he says, “but you do get how charming his music is.”

These days, Eisenberg is composing his own opera, based on a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. And what of his lunch hours? “They seem much less focused now,” he says.

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.