A Harrowing Song Cycle Takes on New Relevance in a Time of Crisis

by delarue

Ignac Semmelweis was a 19th century medical heretic who discovered the link between bacteria and infection decades before Pasteur codified it. But not only did the Hungarian-born, Vienna-based physician’s paradigm-shifting work go uncredited: he ended up being shunned by a medical establishment hell-bent on avoiding blame for deaths due to unsanitary hospital conditions. Seventeen years after saving countless women from lethal puerperal fever, Semmelweis died, forgotten, in a mental institution.

On September 11, 2017, singer Ray Lustig debuted his song cycle, Semmelweis, to a sold-out crowd at the National Arts Club. Reviewing it at the time, this blog said that “In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.” Considering the events that are still unfolding, Lustig’s salute to an unjustly neglected hero has taken on even greater cultural resonance. Now, you can watch the Hungarian debut of the performance, from the following year, on VOD for free through May 31.

In New York, in the title role, Lustig channeled understated angst and horror: Semmelweis can’t let himself off the hook for failing to save all his patients’ lives. Seamlessly negotiating several difficult shifts between idioms, from neoromantic lustre to acidic modernism, soprano Charlotte Mundy was the musical star of the show. The rest of the cast were impressive as well.

And let’s not forget the lesson that Semmelweis taught us: very often, conventional wisdom gets us in trouble. Just because someone who advocates drinking bleach also endorsed hydroxychloroquine doesn’t invalidate the drug’s promise as part of a treatment for coronavirus for some patients. It could be a grave mistake to assume that since the village idiot fixated on something, that idea is necessarily wrong.