Elysium Between Two Continents Presents The Thirtieth Annual Erwin Piscator Award
A review by Nino Pantano
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 30th, Elysium Between Two Continents Presented
The Thirtieth Annual Erwin Piscator Award at the intimate and elegant Lotos Club in New
York City. This program is to benefit Elysium's International Educational Programs "Art
and Education without Borders." The Lotos Club gathering that afternoon evoked
memories of a musical soiree at the Kennedy White House when President Kennedy said
it was "the most illustrious gathering of intellects since Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
Movers and shakers notwithstanding, the "big bang" theory goes back to 1985 when
Gregorij H. von Le´tis instituted the Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) award honoring Erwin
Piscator's artistic and humanitarian legacy and his lasting influence on theater on both
sides of the Atlantic. Piscator was convinced that "art achieves its purpose only when it
contributes to the improvement of man."
The interesting program booklet included greetings from Dr. Kerstin Weinbach, City
Councilor and Head of the Cultural Department for the Magistrate City of Marburg, March
2017. The letter announced a newly opened cultural institution bearing the name Erwin
Piscator Haus. Piscator went to school in Marburg and returned there in 1951.The new
building replacing an older one proudly bears his name and continues his work.
After the wine and cocktail reception, the program began with soprano Jeannie Im singing
"An die Freude" (Ode to Joy) music by Franz Schubert from a text by Friedrich Schiller.
Ms. Im has been with Elysium since 2000 and was in the premiere performance of Ernst
Krenek's "What Price Confidence" at the Teatro dell' Opera di Roma co-produced by
Elysium. Among her many performances under the auspices of Elysium, were concerts of
works by performers who were exiled or killed in World War II. Matthew Lobaugh, who is
the Music Director of the New York City Wide Youth Opera, was her versatile piano
accompanist. Ms. Im strolled through the tables and sang in a clear commanding soprano
with joyful abandon.
Michael MŘller, the Mayor of Berlin had his representative, Ms. Katja Weisbrock Donovan,
who is the head of Cultural Affairs at the German Consulate in New York, bring greetings
and speak of the cooperation of the two cities - Berlin and New York. She mentioned the
Kellen family who were forced to flee Berlin during the era of the Nazis and the
importance of Erwin Piscator and Maria Ley Piscator to the world. The New York Theatre
Workshop founded by James C. Nicola was a pivotal influence as well. Michael Lahr was
the key to this joint effort of the two countries under the banner of art and enlightenment.
The dream turned into a reality of Gregorij H. von Le´tis and Michael Lahr.
The welcome was given by Gregorij H. von Le´tis who truly was monarch of all he
surveyed. His cherubic demeanor could not disguise his tremendous commitment to
evoke the theme of peace and justice through art. Mr. von Le´tis then proudly introduced
the chairperson of the luncheon committee, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, whose late beloved
husband Al Hirschfeld, was the Da Vinci of caricaturists. Ms. Hirschfeld's energetic
defense of the arts and its importance to all, made one think of "The Line King" a
wonderful, whimsical documentary of her late great husband.
A fascinating musical excerpt followed, colorfully sung by soprano Jeannie Im "Lied von
der TŘnche" (Song of Whitewash) with music by Hanns Eisler and a text by Bertolt Brecht.
The music evoked the German cabaret offerings of Lotte Lenya and the school of cabaret
in the style of The Threepenny Opera. Matthew Lobaugh's facile accompaniment made the
The salad was served and now the "salad days" prevailed. Michael Lahr, the erudite and
industrious Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Awards Committee spoke. As a specialist of
Erwin Piscator, the founder of the political and epic theater, Lahr brilliantly curated the
exhibit Erwin Piscator: Political Theater in Exile and it traveled to Bernried, New York,
Catania, Salzburg and Munich. Lahr spoke of the great joy and importance of the occasion
and introduced the famed playwright Tony Kushner.
Mr. Kushner alluded to the dark days we have been witnessing of late and how the arts
will pave the way for better days ahead. He referred to an earlier era in Greenwich
Village and elsewhere when Belafonte, Brecht and Brando championed causes and spread
the word of enlightenment and creativity. They knew where they were going artistically
and emotionally as did James Nicola in his early days at the studio, which has become a
kind of mecca, a place "Where one can roll up in like a blanket" (Fanny). Tony Kushner
spoke in staccato sentences like a prizefighter hammering away at the evils of the world
and praising the good in his introduction for James C. Nicola.
Gregorij von Le´tis made the presentation to James Nicola,"for his enormous contributions
to the American theater by producing and cultivating artists whose works inspire and
challenge the public." As Artistic Director of the New York Theater Workshop since 1988,
Nicola has forged a unique community of theater artists, a group of writers, directors,
designers and actors who form the core of NYTW's artist development activities. Many
plays, premiers including Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and "Homebody/Kabul" as
well as Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire" were performed.
James Nicola spoke intimately and passionately about his boyhood desire to excel in
theater and his lack of concentration on other subjects. Nicola's somewhat perturbed
parents granted him the right to pursue his goals but he had to measure up academically
to attain them. Nicola feels theater is "a sacred light" and that it illuminates the soul.
Artists are encouraged to play their chosen destined roles. A force of nature illuminated
by a "splendid torch," a force of nature not to be denied. James Nicola is motivated by a
sacred flame and that light has brightened the world.
With so much at "stake" we proceeded to enjoy our delectable choice of steak (or
salmon), having feasted on brilliant words and deeds from the hearts and minds of the
Vartan Gregorian is the 12th President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant
making institution and is also a past honoree of the Erwin Piscator award. He is best
known for his outstanding service as President of the New York Public Library. (1981-89)
His services have earned him nearly 70 honorary degrees.The brilliant Mr. Gregorian
spoke eloquently on behalf of honoree Marina Kellen French. With joyful abandon and as
Robert Browning wrote "How do I love thee?" Mr. Gregorian alphabetically listed all of
Marina Kellen French's virtues practically from "A to Z" and why she is so admired.
Whether it be art, music, medical, literary, educational, she is there to lend support,
advice and encouragement!
Gregorij von Le´tis presented Marina Kellen French with the Erwin Piscator award "for so
generously giving of her time and talent to support so many artistic, cultural and
educational organizations both here in New York and in Berlin." Ms. French spoke of the
joys of giving and that it must be earned and of her two unforgettable years as a student
in Berlin, the land of her parents birth. The art of philanthropy and of aiding mankind is
her mission." What good is leaving the earth with accumulated wealth but having done
little or nothing to help ones' fellow humans?" That is also the mission of Gregorij von
Le´tis and Michael Lahr. That is the path chosen by Marina Kellen French. The honorary
Erwin Piscator award of 2017 was in memory of Maria Ley Piscator. (1898-1999) In 2014,
Ms. French was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany at the
residence of the German Consul General Brita Wagener in New York City.
In a proclamation printed in the program, Governor Andrew Cuomo praised James C.
Nicola for his "creative vision to American arts and culture" and Marina Kellen French "for
her generous work in perpetuating and preserving a legacy of great art in the world."
Mayor Bill de Blasio also congratulated the awardees and Elysium - between Two
Continents in the program with a special proclamation.
Jeannie Im accompanied by Matthew Lobaugh sang a lively "Good-Bye Trouble" with
music by Mischa Spoliansky and text by Frank Eyton. "I've put on my hat, I've locked up
my flat; the dog's at the vets, I've settled my debts" and concluding with "And if I could
design a world, I shouldn't plan a finer world." Ev'rything in it I see as it passes Thro'
wonderful rose colored glasses. Good-bye Trouble! I've finished with you, Trouble!" With
that special "Thank you for coming" from Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, the afternoon drew to a
upbeat close as we were enjoying the desserts and sweets of the luncheon - almost
redundant when one considers the real "sweets" offered by the words and deeds of the
Judy and I were happy to speak to many of the awardees and presenters. James Nicola
and I share Italian heritage. His family were Piedmontese from Northern Italy, mine were
Sicilian from the South. We laughed about the "rivalry" between Sicilians and non
Sicilians. Marina Kellen French is also on the Board of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. I
mentioned the great tenor Enrico Caruso singing "Vecchia Zimarra" in "La BohŔme", with
the Met Opera on tour in Philadelphia when the bass, AndrÚs de Segurola lost his voice
with the audience unaware. Caruso whispered to his friend, "turn your back to the
audience and I'll sing it for you!" The mighty tenor made a recording of Colline's famous
Coat aria at the insistence of the cast and his friends in 1916 - it is marked "Tenor-Bass."
Vartan Gregorian was affable and most gracious. He is the "Energizer battery" redux!
Louise Kerz Hirschfeld spoke of her husband's zest for life and creative output. I told her
that I especially admired his caricature of the matchless tenor Enrico Caruso (A former
Lotos Club honoree in 1916) and the fact that Caruso, who caricatured as a hobby,
published several volumes of caricatures. It was nice to chat with Jolana Blau, Vice
Chairperson, who was also chatting with Martin Dvorak, Consul General of the Czech
Republic in New York, Austrian Consul General Georg Heindl and his wife Neline
Koornneef Heindl and the effervescent Midge Woolsey from both WQXR and PBS and her
husband economist Dr. Jerry Stolt. Last year's honoree, President of the Licia Albanese-
Puccini Foundation Sachi Liebergesell, was present with General Counsel Brian O' Connor
Esq. and his wife Maura. The lovely intimate Lotos Club is a New York treasure and the
perfect venue for this stellar occasion.
We wish to thank Gregorij H. von Le´tis, President and Michael Lahr, Vice President for the
pursuit of a peaceful world through art and artists and for being such gracious hosts and
extraordinary humanitarians. As always, their friendship is treasured. If John Kennedy
appreciated Thomas Jefferson dining alone, what about his being in a room full of people
- men and women who match that ideal and are gregarious and fun as well.
I conclude with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that was referred to during this event,
"You see things and you say, "Why?" But I dream things that never were and say, "Why
Not?" Bravo to "Elysium - Between Two Continents for daring to ask "Why not?" and for
keeping the work and spirit of Erwin Piscator and his wife Maria Ley Piscator alive,
ongoing and thriving!
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