Emma McAlister plays Eve in "The Apple Tree" at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (Photo/Mia Perrotta)
Emma McAlister plays Eve in "The Apple Tree" at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (Photo/Mia Perrotta)

Soprano Emma McAlister wants to ‘make Wagner turn over in his grave’

Emma McAlister is looking to make the earth move at her graduate recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Well, to be more specific, her ambition is focused a little lower, like 6 feet under.

“I wanted to find a way to program a recital that would make Wagner turn over in his grave,” she said. Her desire to disrupt the German composer’s big sleep is driven by her love/hate relationship with his music and disquieting legacy. While Richard Wagner (1813-1883) died long before the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party, his music and philosophy were steeped in a mythic blood-and-soil German nationalism that portrayed Jews as unclean outsiders.

A soprano with a big, bright sound, McAlister is likely to be cast in Wagnerian productions, “and as you know he’s a famed, big ol’ antisemite,” she said. “I have been cursed with loving his music, which moves me so much. And I’ve had this struggle. How am I supposed to perform this man’s music, knowing what he has done and said to my people?”

On May 1, the soprano will strike back, accompanied by pianist Steven Bailey. To be presented in SFCM’s 200-seat Barbro Osher Recital Hall in the Bowes Center, McAlister’s program “Another Sunrise” explores the presence of antisemitism in the European classical canon by placing Wagner amidst musicians he reviled.

The recital’s centerpiece is his oft-performed Wesendonck Lieder, songs with which she won second place in SFCM’s Concerto Competition. She’s pairing the set with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Witches’ Song,” providing some levity amidst the grave theme.

Composer and antisemite Richard Wagner
Composer and antisemite Richard Wagner

McAlister has designed the concert so that Wagner will be consorting with composers he first denounced in his infamous 1850 essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”). Using strikingly vicious carrion-inspired terminology, Wagner detailed how Jews have no place in music, naming Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer specifically. “Saying that their music is revolting and completely uncultured,” McAlister intoned. “I thought, Wagner wanted to talk about Jewishness in music. Let’s talk about Jewishness!”

A native of New Orleans, McAlister grew up in a mostly secular family with a Jewish mother and Methodist father. “We considered ourselves culturally Jewish,” she said. As an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she began thinking seriously about her Jewish identity “and where I fit in religiously. I started to find my way on the religious path. It’s pretty new for me, but it has been something that has brought me so much comfort and community in times of strife.”

She moved to San Francisco to enroll at SFCM in 2020, while the pandemic was still raging, and connected with the Bay Area Jewish community through Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Studying for her MFA with Susanne Mentzer, McAlister has cultivated her passion for opera. She’s also dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights and Jewish representation, identifying as part of all those communities.

She expresses her love of opera in the second half of her recital, needling Wagner from a modern perspective. McAlister has long wanted to perform the one-act chamber opera by Jake Heggie (with a libretto by Gene Scheer) that lends her recital its name. “Another Sunrise” recounts the extraordinary story of Krystyna Żywulska, a Polish Jewish woman who boldly walked out of the Warsaw Ghetto and joined the Polish resistance while keeping her Jewishness on the down low.

“It’s one of the most engaging stories I’ve ever heard,” she said. “It’s shocking to me that her story has not been told more. She was a poet and lyricist, and this entire piece is about how she can’t find words to describe what happened to her. This was the perfect programming slot to do this.”
Aside from contending with Wagner and the difficulty some cases present in separating the art from the artist, McAlister sees the recital as exploring an overarching theme of nature. In her spare time, she likes exploring the Bay Area’s natural beauty, a pastime that would have resonated with another enthusiastic hiker: Wagner.

“Another Sunrise: Emma McAlister’s Graduate Recital”

5 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at Barbro Osher Recital Hall, Bowes Center, 200 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Free, no ticket required. Proof of full vaccination/booster required.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.