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Artistic Sleuthing Helps Audiences Recover Lost World of The Yellow Ticket

May 8, 2013

For the 300 people who crowded into Boston’s landmark Coolidge Corner theater last week, the modern world fell away as they experienced something unavailable to audiences for over 90 years: The Yellow Ticket, a live multimedia concert event featuring the 1918 silent film of the same name accompanied by a performance of an original score by Alicia Svigals. The performance revealed what early 20th century audiences took for granted–like a new print of the film so crisp they could see the makeup of silent-film star Pola Negri, and  a new score that helps to translate the movie’s themes for a contemporary audience. And viewers could finally revel in a film meant to run 62 minutes but which, until recently, could only be viewed at a breakneck 47 minutes.

Svigals, one of the world’s foremost klezmer fiddlers, will perform The Yellow Ticket with piano virtuoso Marilyn Lerner in Philadelphia on May 9 and again at the June 10 Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards in New York.

The score is the newest commission from the Foundation’s New Jewish Culture Network (NJCN). It marks the first feature-length film composition by Svigals, who performs it live with pianist Marilyn Lerner at each screening. Previous stops have included New York, Miami, and Vancouver.

A peak inside the story of how this project came to be showcases both the intriguing detective work—and a strong appetite for collaboration—that marks the FJC and its grantees.

Back in 2012, when Alicia Svigals received initial support from the Washington DC JCC to score the film—which portrays a woman’s struggle to overcome adversity in Tsarist Russia in a story of secret identifies, heroic measures, and triumphant love—the only copy available to her was a DVD from a distributor in Texas lasting only a rushed 47 minutes.

“The original film copy that Alicia worked with had all those weird, funny moves you associate with silent films,” says Andrew Ingall, director of the FJC’s New Jewish Culture Network. That’s because many old films are transferred or projected in the wrong speed. “You shouldn’t be seeing all the jerky movements when you watch a silent film,” says Ingall.

Because silent films have deteriorated so greatly over the decades, and the existing DVD of The Yellow Ticket left a lot to be desired, Ingall helped Svigals to track down a 35mm print in Berlin. Svigals was able to leverage her funding from the FJC to raise additional funds from another foundation in order to remaster the film. That’s the crisp version that the audience in Boston—and forthcoming ones in Philadelphia and Houston—get to see.

When Ingall tracked down the film’s original censor report at the Detusches Historisches Museum, he and Svigals discovered that the film’s English-language title cards were significantly different from the original German ones. The government-commissioned report included the original titles along with a rather dated caution that the film’s themes may not be suitable for adolescents. Svigals set about to retranslate the titles herself, further helping today’s audience a clearer glimpse into the world of the movie.

“The social mores depicted in this wonderful and strange tale are a bit mysterious to 
us now,” says Svigals. Set in Poland and Tsarist Russia, The Yellow Ticket portrays a woman’s struggle to overcome adversity in a story of secret identities and heroic measures. Svigals says that the aims and goals of the characters might 
not as self-evident to audiences today as they were when the
 film was made. “I felt my 
task would be to help the viewer overcome these obstacles. I wanted to use the soundtrack to clarify the story’s structure, and through the music arouse in the viewer the profound emotions depicted in the film,” says Svigals.

For a city still reeling in the wake of terrorist attacks only a few weeks ago, the live performance of The Yellow Ticket served as a reminder of the transcendent possibilities of art, and of collaboration. The Boston screening was particularly memorable because it marked the first time that three major Boston Jewish organizations—the New Center for Arts & Culture, the Boston Jewish Music Festival, and the Boston Jewish Film Festival—had worked together.

“The FJC has long had a vision for what Jewish culture on the North American stage could look like,” says President and CEO Elise Bernhardt. “The New Jewish Culture Network was created in part to fulfill that vision. Rather than simply commissioning musicians, the idea was to foster a pipeline to serve grantees and the public who seek artistic excellence.”

The New Jewish Culture Network fosters ties between three different but equally important groups: musicians who want to push themselves into different territory, arts presenters interested in a collective commissioning process and building demand for new Jewish music, and audiences of all backgrounds.


More Press About The Yellow Ticket

Silent movie opens window on lost world of Eastern European Jews” from The Miami Herald (March 2, 2013)


The Yellow Ticket performance was commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, a league of North American performing arts presenters committed to the creation and touring of innovative projects. The Yellow Ticket debuted at the Washington Jewish Music Festival, presented by the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, through a commission made possible by the Arthur Tracy “The Street Singer” Endowment Fund. The New Jewish Culture Network has received major support from the Howard and Geraldine Polinger Family Foundation. Additional support is provided by Sylvia M. Neil, the Milken Family Foundation, and other donors. 

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