In 1953 composer Mieczysław (or Moisey as he was known in the USSR) Weinberg was arrested as a part of the so-called “Doctors' plot”. His first wife Natalia Vovsi was not only the daughter of the great actor and Artistic Director of the State Solomon Mikhoels Yiddish Theatre, but also the niece of the Head Therapist of the Soviet Army Miron Vovsi. The composer was convicted in February 1953 and released following Stalin's death – thanks to, among other things, an entreaty written by Shostakovich.
Weinberg was born in Warsaw, studied at the Warsaw Conservatoire and in 1939 fled occupied Poland, abandoning his homeland and his family at the same time – all of his relatives died in the Holocaust. His new family headed by Solomon Mikhoels played an important role in the musician's creative life, as did Shostakovich with whom Weinberg became acquainted during the evactuation of Leningrad to Tashkent.
Thirty years later these impressions would be reflected in the composition of an opera based on the plot from Shalom Aleichem's play Mazel Tov. At one time Reb Alter (the play's protagonist) was Mikhoels' greatest role at the State Jewish Theatre and Weinberg probably saw the ground-breaking production with sets by Marc Chagal. The opera was, moreover, dedicated to Shostakovich who lived to see – and "blessed" – the commencement of work on the opus.
The genral uniqueness of the opera is determined by the balance between Shostakovich's seriousness and Mikhoels vividly national-flavoured tragi-comedy, while its plot is clearly closer to vaudeville. The protagonists are represented by a traditional quartet: Miss Fradl (soprano), the widow Beyle (mezzo-soprano), Haim the butler (baritone) and Reb Alter (tenor) – the alter ego of Shalom Aleichem, "book-pedlar, around forty years of age, a widower or perhaps an old bachelor. One half of his face laughs and the other half cries. He wears a dirty shirt-front and a shabby bowler hat" (Sholem Aleichem). The plot unfolds in the kitchen of a manor-house and inexorably moves towards a double engagement (Fradl to Haim and Beyle to Alter), while the mistress herself – Madame – "only appears for a minute in the final scene". Weinberg himself wrote the libretto, essentially not changing a single word of Sholem Aleichem and retaining the colour of the small-town dialect, abundant in phrases and sayings, as well as sincere yet trivial endearments.
Today works by Weinberg – who composed twenty-six symphonies, seventeen quartets and seven operas – are performed by leading artistes and ensembles throughout the world. In 2016 the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theatre expanded to include Weinberg's opera The Idiot based on Dostoevsky's novel. Now the time has also come for Sholem Aleichem's Congratulations!