An opera for this time and place – Raymond J. Lustig’s Semmelweis

HungaryHungary R. J. Lustig, Semmelweis: Soloists, Dancers, Béla Bartók Chamber Choir of Szolnok, Chamber Orchestra of the Budapest Operetta Theater / Dániel Dinyés (conductor). Bartók Plusz Opera Festival, Miskolc National Theatre, Miskolc. World premiere performance of 9.6.2018 reviewed as a video (available click here). (RP)

Enikő Lévai (Susan) and Szilveszter Szabó (Semmelweis)
© Budapest Operetta Theater and Bartok Plusz Opera Festival


Director – Martin Boross
Sets – András Tucker
Costumes – Jenny Horváth
Videos – András Juhász
Choreographer – Anna Biczók
Lighting – József Dreiszker
Chorus master – Éva Molnár
Dramaturgist – Diána Eszter Mátrai


Semmelweis – Szilveszter Szabó
Susan – Enikő Lévai
Párka – Frankó Tunde
Mária – Veronika Nádasi

Wash your hands! Several weeks back, we were constantly being instructed on the basics of hand washing and advised to do it as often as possible to combat the spread of COVID-19. Even if a lot of us have forgotten how to wash our hands properly, few today doubt that disease can be transmitted from person to person by physical contact. That wasn’t always the case, and convincing the medical establishment in the mid-nineteenth century of the fact was not easy.

Puerperal or childbed fever was common then in hospitals and often fatal to the new mothers who contracted it. Vienna General Hospital had two obstetric wards, one staffed by doctors and medical students and the other by midwives. It was common knowledge among pregnant women that their odds of survival were much greater if they went to the one staffed by midwives. The medical profession linked the deaths to a miasma, or bad air, in the ward, but in 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian doctor on the hospital’s obstetrics staff, began to think otherwise.

After the death of a colleague from septicemia, Semmelweis put two and two together. The bodies of the indigent women who died after childbirth were kept for autopsy before being returned to their families. Doctors regularly carried out autopsies in the morning and delivered babies in the afternoon, but the midwives did not. Semmelweis concluded that the doctors’ unclean hands were spreading infections, and he ordered that all medical staff wash their hands with disinfectant and that the ward be cleaned regularly. Consequently, the mortality rate dropped dramatically.

The Viennese medical community rejected Semmelweis’ theory, and he was dismissed from the hospital. He returned to Budapest and instituted his revolutionary procedures there, which resulted in a decrease in maternity ward deaths. In Vienna, however, the doctors returned to their old ways, and the fatality rates immediately increased to their earlier levels. Semmelweis, whose mental health deteriorated precipitously, died in an asylum at the age of 47, most likely due to injuries that he received while being forcibly restrained and put into a straitjacket.

Semmelweis published his findings, but it took time for them to gain widespread acceptance. Louis Pasteur’s concurrent research and findings on germ theory, as well as Joseph Lister’s development of its practical applications with respect to sanitation in medical settings and aseptic surgical techniques, would vindicate Semmelweis. Posthumously, his contributions have been universally recognized. In Vienna, a hospital and clinic are named in his honor, and the many tributes paid him include the naming of a planet.

Raymond J. Lustig’s opera Semmelweis, with a libretto by Matthew Doherty, tracks the historical series of events succinctly. The fate of the unfortunate Susan represents that of so many other women, but even greater emotional weight is added through the subtle incorporation, musically as well as dramatically, of a female chorus into the fabric of the opera. Three men wearing white medical coats and grotesque masks drift in and out of the action. They have nothing to sing, but their mere presence is troubling.

Director Martin Boross’ concept – for this co-production from Budapest Operetta Theatre and Bartók Plusz Opera Festival – weds Lustig’s scintillating, mystical score with evocative imagery, especially through his use of candlelight. An endless progression of paper dolls revolving around a candle is hauntingly beautiful; to me the figures represented the countless women who have given birth over the ages. At the beginning of the opera, a young woman named Agnes finds a candle that she hides to keep it safe from the strange figures in medical coats, only bringing it out at the end of the opera. Agnes has been fortunate enough to live to see a new, more enlightened era.

Lustig’s choral writing and orchestrations (the opera is scored for string quartet, piano/organ, accordion, vibraphone, hand bells and music boxes) made the most impact. His style is 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. Most stunning, however, were the wordless opening and closing chorus based on a traditional Hungarian lullaby that transported the listener to a place where the veil between life and death is practically transparent.

Szilveszter Szabó was a fervent, emotionally fraught Semmelweis. The music that Lustig composed for Semmelweis reminded me of Jacques Brel songs, which Szabó sang well, but seemed incongruous in the context of the score. (Granted, it may have a different impact live in a theater.) His music for the three female roles was more dramatic – dare I say operatic – and the strong performances of Enikő Lévai as Susan, Frankó Tunde as Párka and Veronika Nádasi as Mária, Semmelweis’ wife, elevated the performance. Under the baton of Dániel Dinyés, the Béla Bartók Chamber Choir of Szolnok and Chamber Orchestra of the Budapest Operetta Theater produced transparent, shimmering sounds.

Lustig has a background in science in addition to music, and is a published researcher in molecular biology, with previous posts at Massachusetts General Hospital and Columbia University. He says, ‘There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our deadly myopic inertia and the clear truth that we as a society need our full human participation, our fresh perspectives and brave new ideas, literally to survive. My hope is that, by giving vocal expression to the Semmelweis story…we may all be inspired by his refusal to remain silent on a truth that was not merely inconvenient, but intolerable’.

Semmelweis was developed under the auspices of American Opera Projects (now The American Opera Project). Workshop productions and a concert performance were held in New York long before the city became the epicenter of a global pandemic in April 2020. The opera has toured Hungary for two years. It’s now time to bring it home, and Martin Boross’ production would suit just fine.

Rick Perdian

Semmelweis is available for streaming (click here) through 31 May 2020.

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