14Y Theater Programs

דער גרויסער װערטערבּוך פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך

The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language

A Chamber Opera
Piano Vocal Workshop

Saturday December 3rd, 2022, 7:30pm
14th Street Y

Music by Alex Weiser
Libretto by Ben Kaplan

Performance time: approximately 1 hour. Performed without intermission. A brief talk-back with composer, Alex Weiser, librettist, Ben Kaplan, and moderator, Ruby Namdar, will follow the performance.


Shtumer Alef: Caitlin McKechney
Komets Alef: Kate Maroney
Pasekh Alef: Sarah Klopfenstein
Yudel Mark: Jason Weisinger
Max Weinreich: Michael Kelly
Piano/Music Director: Paul Kerekes

Program Note

For years we had heard stories about the Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language, an infamous and incomplete multi-volume reference work. Plagued by arguments over spelling and competing Yiddishist ideologies, after more than two decades of work the dictionary remained unfinished past the letter Alef (the very first letter of the Yiddish alphabet). As we learned more about this dictionary from reading Alec “Leyzer” Burko’s dissertation (Saving Yiddish: Yiddish Studies and the Language Sciences in America, 1940-1970), we knew the story needed to be an opera.

The true historical details border on the absurd — hours long arguments over minutiae of spelling, acrimonious debates over the dictionary’s ambitious scope. And yet, the tragic passion in Yudel Mark’s determination to make an impossibly detailed and expansive reference work for a fast disappearing readership and the ardor with which Max Weinreich defended the sanctity of the takones — YIVO’s pre-war codification of spelling standards — speak to much deeper questions at the core of post-war Jewish life: What does it mean to lose your language? What can we bring with us as time changes our culture? How can we make sense of the enormous loss left by the Holocaust?

Our opera explores the true story of this dictionary. It also imagines into the story an additional metaphysical layer. In our telling, Yudel Mark is haunted by the three alefs of the Yiddish language who propel him to do his work with a prophet’s fervor. The alefs put into words what in historical reality was bubbling right under the surface: For these Yiddish linguists, their work was a kind of religion. They saw the fate of Yiddish as inextricably linked with the fate of the Jewish people. Where we depart from the historical record, it is always in the spirit of the story, in search of its deeper truth.

What you will hear tonight is a piano-vocal rendition of the full opera, performed as a concert reading. This is a crucial developmental stage that allows us to test out the music and the words and to listen to the dramatic flow before we bring in an orchestra (for which we anticipate two clarinets and a string quintet joining the piano). It also affords us the opportunity to finetune the dramatic and musical language before we worry about all of the wonderful joys and challenges of costumes, sets, staging, and acting. We hope to bring a full production of this show to a theater near you in the coming seasons. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy it. Thank you for joining us on the journey of creating this piece!

—Alex Weiser & Ben Kaplan


We wish to express our heartfelt thanks to the many individuals who aided in the creation of this work. Thank you to Ruby Namdar, Stefanie Halpern, Sandra Levykh, Cori Ellison, Sam Sussman, Ronit MuszkaTblit, Laura Newmark, Kryssy Wright, Miranda Cooper, Elinor Milchan, Leyzer Burko, Dovid Braun, Gregory Spears, Chris Rogerson, Fjóla Evans, Kristin Gornstein, Krysty Swann, Blythe Gaissert, Jason Weisinger, John Taylor Ward, Paul Kerekes, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Philip Trevino, Caitlin ​McKechney, Kate Maroney​, Sarah Klopfenstein​, and Michael Kelly​, ​who provided invaluable help and input during the development process of this opera. We are also very grateful for support from the 14th Street Y’s LABA, Asylum Arts, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research which helped make The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language possible.

—Alex Weiser & Ben Kaplan


Caitlin McKechney, mezzo-soprano, is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, song-writer and producer. As a performer, she has been seen most recently as a principle in Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from the Great War with The American Opera Project, for which she also served as associate producer. She has been seen in a wide variety of roles including Inez in Andy Vores’s operatic treatment of Sartre’s No Exit and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly (both with Florida Grand Opera), the title role in Carmen (Opera Memphis, Painted Sky Opera, Tacoma Opera), Ruth in Pirates of Penzance (Opera North), Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me Kate (Broadway Theater of Pitman, North Street Playhouse and NightBlue Theater) and a member of the 6 person actor-musician production of The Irish and How They Got That Way by Frank McCourt. Caitlin’s first musical theater work that she composed, Muse: The Women of Picasso, was included in Shrill Fest 2.0, produced by the feminist theater group The Shrill Collective.  Caitlin is also “head Cowgirl” and co-arranger for the Opera Cowgirls, an all-female alt-country opera fusion band that has performed at opera companies, universities, symphonies and dive bars across the country. caitlinmckechney.com

Mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney is in demand as a versatile concert soloist in repertoire from Bach to the 21st-century. Kate has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival, Bangor Symphony Orchestra, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Blue Hill Bach, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, New York City Ballet, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Seraphic Fire, Berkshire Choral Festival, Voices of Ascension, TENET Vocal Artists, Ekmeles, Carmel Bach Festival, Opera Grand Rapids, Beth Morrison Projects, Bard SummerScape, Trinity Wall Street, LA Opera, Lincoln Center Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, Musica Sacra, Bach Collegium San Diego, Princeton Pro Musica, Bach Vespers Holy Trinity, Mark Morris Dance Group, Yale Choral Artists, American Opera Projects, The Crossing, and Clarion. Kate has premiered works and collaborated closely with the Philip Glass Ensemble (world tour from 2012—2015 in Einstein on the Beach) and has collaborated with many composers including David Lang, Michael Gordon, Martin Bresnick, Alex Weiser, Julia Wolfe, Missy Mazzoli, Matthew Ricketts, Hannah Lash, Nina Young, Dominick Argento, Christopher Cerrone, and Ted Hearne. She is featured on Grammy-nominated recordings with Albany, Naxos, and New Amsterdam Records, and is part of the Grammy-winning recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” (Chandos 2020.) She is a soloist on recordings with Clarion (Maxamillian Steinberg’s Passion Week,) Seraphic Fire’s recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, and a forthcoming vocal quartet recording with David Lang of the little match girl passion, which will be released on Cantaloupe Records. She holds a D.M.A. from Eastman, degrees from SUNY Purchase and Yale, teaches voice at Mannes and Yale. While not singing or teaching her heart out, Kate enjoys studying French, and embarking on urban hikes around her beloved Brooklyn, where she resides with musician-husband, Red Wierenga, and their son, Ossian. katemaroney.com

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Klopfenstein has appeared with a number of opera companies around the United States, including Nashville Opera, Kentucky Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and St. Petersburg Opera. Notable roles include Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, Dorabella in Cosí fan tutte, Cherubino in Les nozze di Figaro, and Mercedes in Carmen. She has a passion for creating roles in new works, having recently appeared in her third world premiere opera, Southern Crossings by Zaid Jabri here in Manhattan in June. Dr. Klopfenstein has also performed numerous oratorio solos such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Alexander Nevsky, Messiah, and Mozart’s Requiem. She appeared recently with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra as Sally in Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and will next be seen as as Damon in South Florida Lyric’s production of Acis and Galatea. Dr. Klopfenstein maintains a private voice studio at University of South Florida in Tampa. She holds Doctorate and Master’s degrees from the University of Kentucky and a Bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University. sarahklopfenstein.com

Jason Weisinger is a singer, music director/producer, composer/orchestrator, performer, and educator based in Long Island City, NY. He has sung with many esteemed ensembles including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, American Classical Orchestra, The Crossing, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Mark Morris Dance Group, The Boston POPS, & the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. His voice appears on Last Week Tonight’s EMMY-nominated song Eat Shit Bob: The Musical as well as The Crossing’s 2019 and 2022 GRAMMY-nominated albums. As “…an Olympian of a music director…” (The New York Times), Jason specializes in developing new musicals. Most recently he served as Music Assistant on Hermés’ immersive musical ‘Love Around the Block’ by Dave Malloy. Jason also serves as composer/orchestrator/arranger at Park Avenue Synagogue, writing for cantor Azi Schwartz. jasonweisinger.com

Praised as “mesmerizing” and “vocally splendid,” American baritone and poet, Michael Kelly, is celebrated for his riveting interpretations of concert, recital and operatic repertoire. He has performed with regionally and internationally acclaimed presenters in a wide variety of styles and genres, including Carnegie Hall, Santa Fe Opera, Feinstein’s 54 Below and Theatre du Châtelet. He is an avid performer of new music, having collaborated with renowned composers to create, perform and record multiple world premieres of their works.  As a writer and performer, much of his focus is on the queer experience and LGBTQ+ advocacy. His words have been set to music by John Glover, Ben Moore, Tobias Picker and Kamala Sankaram. Michael is also a champion of the art song genre, and is the 2011 first prize winner of the Joy in Singing Competition and the 2013 recipient of the Pierre Bernac Prize. Michael is the curator for the baritone volume of NewMusicShelf’s Anthology of New Music. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and The Juilliard School. michael-kelly.com

Paul Kerekes is a New York­­­–based composer-performer and co-founding member of Grand Band – a piano sextet described by the New York Times as “a kind of new-music supergroup” – and Invisible Anatomy – an “otherworldly and uncanny” (Village Voice) composer-performer ensemble that’s “shedding labels” (Yale Alumni Magazine). Both ensembles have had the pleasure of being featured on festivals across the States and abroad, most notably Grand Band’s performance of Kerekes’ first six-piano piece, wither, on The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, which was described as “pointillistic, sparkling, and delicate” by the Kalamazoo Gazette, and Invisible Anatomy’s performance on the Beijing Modern Music Festival, which lead to consequent tours throughout China’s major cities. Paul’s music has also been described as “gently poetic” (The New York Times), “striking” (WQXR), “highly eloquent” (New Haven Advocate) and he has had the privilege of hearing his pieces performed by many outstanding ensembles, some of which include the American Composers Orchestra, Da Capo Chamber Players, New Morse Code, guitarist Trevor Babb, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Real Loud, andPlay, and Exceptet in such venues as Ordway Concert Hall, Merkin Hall, (le) poisson rouge, The DiMenna Center, Roulette, Spectrum, and Symphony Space. His compositions and playing have also been featured on NPR’s Performance Today hosted by Fred Child and released on major recording labels such as New Amsterdam Records, Innova, New Focus, and Naxos. He is a recipient of the Morton Gould Young Composer Award from ASCAP, the JFund Award from the American Composer’s Forum, and the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Paul is a graduate of Queens College and Yale School of Music and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. paulkerekes.com

Broad gestures and rich textures are hallmarks of the “compelling” (The New York Times), “deliciously wistful” (San Francisco Classical Voice), music of composer Alex Weiser. Born and raised in New York City, Weiser creates acutely cosmopolitan music combining a deeply felt historical perspective with a vibrant forward-looking creativity hailed as “personal, expressive, and bold” (I Care If You Listen). Weiser’s debut album and all the days were purple, was named a 2020 Pulitzer Prize Finalist and cited as “a meditative and deeply spiritual work whose unexpected musical language is arresting and directly emotional.” Released by Cantaloupe Music in April 2019, the album includes songs in Yiddish and English. Active as an opera composer, Weiser is currently working on two operas — a commission from American Lyric Theater, and an opera exploring the story of the unfinished Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language with librettist Ben Kaplan. Weiser recently completed another opera with Kaplan, State of the Jews based on the story of Theodor Herzl, his wife Julie, and the toll his political activities took on their family life. An advocate for contemporary classical music, Weiser co-founded Kettle Corn New Music, an “ever-enjoyable” concert series (The New York Times), and was a director of the MATA Festival, “the city’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers” (The New Yorker). Weiser is now the Director of Public Programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research where he curates programs and has commissioned over fifteen works from some of today’s leading composers. alexweiser.com

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Ben Kaplan studied literature and theater at Williams College. He currently serves as Director of Education at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where he directs programs that teach Jewish history and culture to a broad and diverse audience. These programs include the Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture and the YIVO-Bard Winter Program on Ashkenazi Civilization. Ben wrote the libretto for State of the Jews, an opera collaboration with composer Alex Weiser based on the life of Theodor Herzl. As a librettist, he creates historically-informed dramatic works that chronicle turning points in history lost to contemporary cultural discourse. benkaplanlibrettist.com

About the 14th Street Y

The 14th street Y is a vibrant community center grounded in the belief that contemporary Jewish sensibilities can be a source of inspiration, connection, and learning for the individuals and families we serve throughout downtown Manhattan. We focus on health and fitness, education and enrichment programs, and innovative arts and cultural programming.

We are committed to the development of the whole person and bettering people’s lives and strengthening individual and family connections by building an inclusive and sustainable community.

The 14th Street Y is part of Educational Alliance’s network of community centers in Lower Manhattan. We believe strong communities can transform lives. Our programs turn strangers into neighbors and provide New Yorkers access to quality education, health and wellness services, arts and culture, and civic engagement opportunities.

About the 14Y Theater

The Theater at the 14th Street Y’s mission focuses on social awareness and change through big picture narrative. Inspired by works that welcome artists of all backgrounds, we place artists as the heart of our community and seek to create an inclusive cultural experience for all.