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Persis Vehar and Eleanor Roosevelt

Persis Vehar (photo by Jim Bush)

Buffalo composer's new opera debuts this weekend

The Carrier Theater at the Civic Center in Syracuse is the site of the fully staged premiere performances of Buffalo based composer Persis Parshall Vehar’s new opera Eleanor Roosevelt, at 4pm on Saturday, March 26 and Sunday, March 27.

Vehar, now in her 13th year as composer-in-residence at Canisius College, is a prolific, much performed and published composer who has had five previous operas produced. Vehar’s ability to set texts to music, honed in her many songs, song cycles, and choral compositions, has been widely praised; the New York Times has commented on her “honesty, clarity and compositional skill.”

“Although I had already admired Eleanor Roosevelt,” says Vehar, “my interest in her achievements greatly expanded after I attended a lecture, four or five years ago, by Robin Gerber, the author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. Gerber writes, “Eleanor Roosevelt’s remarkable ability to confront and successfully overcome hurdles, be they political, personal, or social, make her one of the greatest leaders of the last century, if not all time.”

The Syracuse Society for New Music produced Vehar’s opera, George Sand…And Chopin?, composed to a libretto by her daughter Gabrielle, based on the letters of George Sand. “I was immediately interested when Neva Pilgrim, the executive director of the society, suggested that I might want to consider writing an opera based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Vehar says. Pilgrim suggested the work of central New York native Rhoda Lerman as a starting point.

Lerman is the author of the well received 1979 novel Eleanor, a first-person narrative of what she felt were the key elements in the title character’s life. That novel provided the story for the 1982 TV film, Eleanor, First Lady of the World. Jean Stapleton was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Eleanor in that movie, and Lerman subsequently wrote a much-produced play, Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, for a single actress, based on her novel. Gabrielle Vehar, a writer with a strong background in both music and drama, used Lerman’s play as the starting basis for her libretto, streamlining some scenes while expanding the roles of certain characters, like Eleanor’s uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, while eliminating that of others.

“Though coming from a privileged background, Eleanor Roosevelt developed her social consciousness at a very early age,” Vehar says, “due to her experiences at an English finishing school run by Marie Souvestre, a French feminist educator who sought to develop independent minds in young women.”

When she returned to New York City, Eleanor became active as a social worker and she then introduced her fiancé Franklin to the realities of life for the vast number of Americans living in urban slums. Eleanor’s continuing interest in improving the lives of the poor eventually became a source of discord in her married life, and, after giving birth to five children, she discovered that her husband had a mistress. While the opera investigates Eleanor’s conflicted relationship with her very strong-willed mother-in-law, it focuses on her official trip to Paris in the postwar winter of 1919, with her husband, then serving as the assistant secretary of the navy. Observing the devastating effects of the war strongly shaped the course of the rest of her life.

The opera opens in 1945, with a phone call by President Harry Truman to Eleanor, asking her to be a US delegate to the newly formed United Nations. She at first refuses, and the scene then shifts back to World War I, as Eleanor remembers her restricted life as a mother and a wife. Eleanor does eventually accept her UN assignment on a committee where the powers-that-be felt that she would not be able to embarrass the US delegation.

“Not only did Eleanor quickly become head of the committee,” Vehar relates, “but as chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, she was probably the most influential person in securing the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which still remains the fundamental document of human justice. The personal diplomatic skills of Eleanor Roosevelt were essential to the passage of this historic document, an event that we both strongly felt had to be added to the episodes of Lerman’s play.”

Reservations are strongly recommended. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for students and seniors. For more information, visit or call (315) 245-1689.

The Culture in Cinema Series Finds Its Own Magic

On Friday, March 18, at 2pm, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko will be on the podium for an all-Russian program featuring leading British pianist Stephen Hough in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev’s mighty Symphony No. 5. Next, please note: The live simulcast of Mozart’s Magic Flute from Milan’s La Scala on Thursday, March 24, begins at 3pm, not at the previously announced time of 2pm. Anyone who was at the earlier simulcast of Pag/Cav (yes, they did reverse the traditional order!) will not want to miss the rare opportunity to experience how Italy’s premiere opera house treats this beloved opera. The Amherst Theatre (3500 Main Street across from UB South Campus), has been specially upgraded to accommodate the Culture in Cinema series. For more information, visit

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