Rediscovering The King of Lampedusa: An Evening of Performance and Talks with the Parkes Institute

Katie Power and Abaigh McKee, PhD candidates in The Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton, discuss Rediscovering ‘The King of Lampedusa’, a lecture-recital that took place at Nuffield Southampton Theatres City (NST City) in June.

On Tuesday 4 June 2019, The Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations hosted an evening of performance, music and talks at NST City to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the smash-hit Yiddish play Der kenig fun lampeduse (The King of Lampedusa). The King of Lampedusa tells the incredible true story of an Italian garrison surrendering to a young British Jewish pilot from the East End of London when he landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa during the Second World War, and for one evening only, the legacy of this play was brought to life through acting and music.

‘Rediscovering The King of Lampedusa’ was both a collaboration between various members of the Parkes Institute and a showcase of work by two PhD students. Katie Power is researching the history of Yiddish theatre in London, and Abaigh McKee, is researching music and ballet in Paris during the Nazi Occupation. The pair have worked together on the project for over a year, bringing together Katie’s research on Yiddish theatre in London, with Abaigh’s orchestrations of the recently rediscovered score from the original production. The project was a culmination of five years of research conducted by Katie, who first encountered The King of Lampedusa while studying for the MA Jewish History and Culture (University of Southampton). After receiving the Joseph Kremen Memorial Fellowship from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and funding from the Society for Theatre Research, Katie was able to conduct research trips to the YIVO Archive in New York to access the papers of Samuel Harendorf, author of The King of Lampedusa, and it was here that she came across the score for the play and decided to share it with Abaigh.

Professional string quartet performing original music for
‘Rediscovering The King of Lampedusa‘ NST City 2019

The archive contained five pieces of largely complete incidental music: an overture, two finales and two songs. The discovery presented a rare opportunity to hear the music for a play with such an interesting history. It felt important to showcase this music more widely and demonstrate collaborative research in practice. The process of arranging and orchestrating the music – particularly the songs – involved comparing the skeleton scores with the playscript and historical context to understand the way sections of music fit together and should be performed.

Katie and Abaigh workshopped the collaboration at the Parkes Institute Graduate Seminar in July 2018, where they presented a lecture-recital as part of the event’s evening programme. Katie presented her research on the play while Abaigh talked about the music and performed it for the first time in almost 75 years with a string quartet. The event was a great success and Dr Claire Le Foll, Dr Helen Spurling and the Parkes Institute generously agreed to support and co-organise a larger performance of the project which became ‘Rediscovering The King of Lampedusa.’

The evening, which took place in The Studio at NST City, interweaved music, readings and contextual information. Academics from the Parkes Institute (Katie Power, Abaigh McKee, Dr Helen Spurling, Dr Claire Le Foll and Professor Tony Kushner) contextualised not only the history of Yiddish theatre in London and the play itself but nuances in the text and the reality of the island of Lampedusa today. Readings of excerpts from Heather Valencia’s English translation of the script for The King of Lampedusa by members, students and friends of the Parkes Institute adeptly illustrated these themes and motifs, while Abaigh’s string quartet performed three pieces of music from the rediscovered score. The cast even joined the quartet to sing a refrain from the Act One Finale. This combination of different mediums brought to life the essence of The King of Lampedusa and demonstrated the breadth of research taking place in the Faculty.

With the event being such a great success, there are plans for a repeat in London in the not-to-distant future. Watch this space!

Cast and Crew of ‘Rediscovering King of Lampedusa‘, post-show, in the foyer of NST City.

Based at the University of Southampton, The Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, is one of the world’s leading centres for the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations and is made up of a community of scholars, archivists, librarians, and students.

The event was supported by Arts at University of Southampton and Nuffield Southampton Theatres.

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