Although a monotheistic religion, Judaism has a vast history of folkloric representation of monsters and spirits. There's the famous golem, preceding both Frankenstein and The Incredible Hulk by centuries. There's the leviathan, equal in beastly stature to denizens of the deep such as the Norse kraken or Greek hydra.
But the spookiest creature might be the dybbuk, an annoyingly possessive ghoul who sticks like glue to a living person (the Hebrew term means "adhere") until a specific goal is accomplished. This ghost story was made popular by Russian author S. Ansky in his 1914 play "The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds," which as a mainstay of Yiddish theater became the epitome of Jewish goth.
Four years ago, Aron Zelkowicz decided to tackle music from "The Dybbuk" with a string orchestra as part of his annual Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, which has been a decade-long labor of love to promote Jewish music in a classical setting. Because of Ansky's association with composer Joel Engel, the story has a track record of music and dance since the play's debut.
"We did a suite of incidental music from the original play," Mr. Zelkowicz recalls. "Selections from the score were interspersed with readings from the play."
As a result, Mr. Zelkowicz met Israeli-American composer Ofer Ben-Amots, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who wrote new music for the classic tale and transformed it into a modern multimedia opera. "[Ben-Amots] has written choral works, chamber music and orchestral pieces, but his music shares a reliance on folk and liturgical sources. That's the kind of music I like to represent, because lovers of Jewish popular and folk music can attend a classical concert and hear something familiar. For example, as we've been working on the vocal music for the rabbi, I noticed he uses Torah tropes [cantillations]."
The "rabbi" in the opera is played by Bulgarian bass-baritone Guenko Guechev, who joins Israeli soprano Yahli Toren (as the afflicted Leah) and clarinetist Gilad Harel (as the dybbuk of her deceased lover Hannan) in the cast of characters. Ms. Toren, with a background of Ladino (Judeo-Hispanic) song, and Mr. Harel originated the roles when Mr. Ben-Amots staged the opera in Colorado, and have since taken it around the world.
"[Toren] is somewhere in between a soprano and a mezzo, and the singing and dialogue are in Hebrew with supertitles," adds Mr. Zelkowicz. "So the role is tailor-made for her voice."
Prominent in the many unusual aspects of this production is the centrality of an instrument representing a dramatic role. "[Harel] acts with Yahli, walks around and dances with his clarinet. Even in the moments when he's not on stage, we're still aware of him. The clarinet represents the spirit, and the music is separate from a body, so his part is written without text."
Among the many firsts for the PJMF this year -- which in previous seasons explored themes from Sephardic and klezmer music to Yiddish and American-Jewish song -- is its collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony. "We had marketing support from [the Symphony] as part of their Music for the Spirit festival," says Mr. Zelkowicz.
An initiative of PSO music director Manfred Honeck, the April 20-28 festival includes dates at the Petersen Events Center and Frick Art & Historical Center, and collaborations with Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities. "We're fortunate that he wanted the PJMF to be a part of it," he continues. "It's a way for [the PSO] to support something they don't normally do, contemporary works a bit beyond their classical endeavors. It's also the first time we've done a theatrical production."
And a whole megillah of DeMillean dimensions it turned out to be. Mr. Zelkowicz had to manage 35 members of the Children's Festival choir, 35 women from Duquesne University School of Music's Chorale ("they open the third act [singing] a beautiful setting of a Hebrew poem"), four additional musicians (other than Mr. Harel) in the ensemble, and four dancers from Texture Contemporary Ballet.
"The composer's original idea was to incorporate silent actors to do pantomime, almost like kabuki. But we felt it should be something more physical, so we have these highly trained graduates of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre," he says.
"Choreographer Joan Wagman introduced the dancers to Jewish concepts," he continues, "such as ripping clothes when mourning, looking at the flicker of the flames in your fingernails when you do Havdalah [the conclusion of the Sabbath], and the way a pious Jew would be praying by swaying back and forth. We're making those [movements] into something beautiful and spiritual."
Mr. Zelkowicz also notes that since its initial staging, Ben-Amots' opera has incorporated video projections. "It's not just special effects -- it's an art installation using video imagery instead of painting on a canvas. Most videos are abstract and colorful, underscoring the emotional content of the music. But there are specific images, too, like a candle or a grave. There's a pogrom, where the couple is attacked by Cossacks and you see horse hooves."
"All these elements -- dance, music, vocals, video, and spoken Hebrew and English combined -- are carefully balanced and woven into a tapestry throughout the whole opera. I'm personally not very spiritual, but I do think that something greater than the sum of its parts has enabled all of these things to come together."
Mr. Zelkowicz admits he may be taking a bit of a risk by bringing a complex and expensive event ("I would never be able to afford to do this in New York, where I've lived for years") to the New Hazlett on the North Side. "I chose the Hazlett because they're fully committed to supporting arts organizations, which is just another example of the stars aligning. Our crowds are usually in Squirrel Hill and Oakland. It's an unknown composer and a work that people don't know. So we're calling upon the audience to be brave and check out something that would be new to them."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.