In the 1918 Victor Jansen silent film The Yellow Ticket, a spirited, intelligent young Jewish girl from Warsaw learns that her father is gravely ill. She tries to take matters into her own hands by attending medical school in tsarist-controlled St. Petersburg. However, in Russia, Jewish women are only permitted to work in the sex trade. Anything else means jail or worse. Lea compromises everything she believes and obtains the yellow passport needed to identify her as a prostitute.
The Foundation for Jewish Culture noted the film as "the first to explore Jewish discrimination in tsarist Russia. Remarkably progressive for its time." It was a natural fit for Alicia Svigals, called the foremost klezmer fiddler in the world, to compose a brand new score for a restored print of the film and perform it live with renowned Canadian jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. In the film's story, both women saw parallels to their own lives, not as only as female musicians in a male-dominated art form, but as lesbians in a world that still struggles to overcome deep seated prejudice against their lifestyles.
Svigals said that coming out was easy for her, even in the 1980s. "I've always enjoyed being on the margin and it was very helpful to coming out," she said with a laugh. "To be Jewish, gay and a musician, I mean it was the whole package and I was proud of it." Despite believing that the United States is the upward swing of acceptance, she wondered what it would be like go to Russia to perform her music. "I would feel like the protagonist in The Yellow Ticket," she said. "I'd be terrified of the police! It sounds like you can go to jail there for spreading [LGBT] propaganda and my entire being is that propaganda."
For Lerner, who is also training as a psychoanalyst, it's always been about the music, her culture and improvisation, not only on the piano, but in combining known elements in life and taking it in a new direction. "You make a decision to do the best you can for the music." She said. "You don't necessarily get support from society. As a woman, I've had to make a choice not to let bitterness impede my creative energies."
In becoming involved with The Yellow Ticket, Svigals recalled that the film found her: "I'm sure I watched it over 100 times. I thought it was incredible!" With a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture ( FJC ), Svigals set about writing a score for the film but soon discovered that this was only the beginning of a painstaking task to present the film as it was meant to be seen. The original German title cards were considered unsuitable for minors by the censors of the day and heavily edited.
After FJC Director Andrew Ingall discovered the full text of the title cards in a German archive, Svigal got to work on a faithful and literal translation. The DVD copy that Sviglas was originally given played at the wrong speed. There were only two 35-millimeter prints left in the world, so Svigals secured one from Germany and helped fund a new digital restoration that ran at the proper speed, making the film 50-percent longer and the only version in existence that is accurate in both speed and translation. "I'd never done anything like this before," Svigals said, "so I became a self-made expert on [film] restoration."
Svigals and Lerner met through Lerner's late partner, Adrienne Cooper, who was recognized as one of this generation's most influential singers and teachers of Yiddish music. "Alicia and I had an instant chemistry." Lerner said. "We were very compatible, both musically and as friends." As she started scoring The Yellow Ticket, Svigals knew that Lerner was a perfect partner for the project because of their mutual and limitless imaginations, combined with Lerner's unique talents as an improviser. "I knew she could take whatever I wrote and expand on it and make it different every time."
Screenings of the film, alongside their performance of the score, have already played to sold out audiences at New York's Lincoln Center.
Now, Svigals and Lerner are bringing it to Chicago for one night only Oct. 26 at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.
Lerner said she hopes Chicago audiences will watch the film and wonder if times have changed so much. "Maybe people will look at the film and think that it's not like that anymore," she said. "But, there are a few things in that film that really ring true today. In some ways the prejudice is underground and that's even more dangerous."
Tickets to the screening are free. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu/events/2013/yellow-ticket.