by Debra Bannerjee
Neither Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, nor even the modern-day composer John Adams thought to do it, yet the age-old story was ripe for the plucking, juicy with drama and conflict, tragedy and a complicated love triangle, the thematic lifeblood of opera. But Gerald Cohen, cantor of Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, did. He is composing an opera based on the story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and in doing so, he joins the ranks of American composers contributing to the new opera boom in the United States. The first act of the composer’s opera-in-progress, “Sarah and Hagar.” will be presented in concert form at Shaarei Tikvah on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.
Cohen, a composer of both concert and liturgical music, a cantor and performer, has been thinking about writing the opera for “a long time,” over 10 years. The story is read aloud every year at Rosh Hashanah, he said, and his wife Caroline suggested the story would make a good opera. “Although the sacrifice of Isaac [the son of Sarah and Abraham] is popular with composers, an opera is not in the repertoire,” Cohen said.
“A lot attracted me to it,” Cohen, a Yonkers resident, said. “Intense personal drama, family, history, creation of a new people, aging, fertility, they’re all interesting in opera.”
In the story, Sarah and Abraham have been promised to be the ancestors of a new people, but they are old and childless. Sarah decides the only way to have a son is by giving her maid Hagar as a concubine to her husband. Hagar’s child Ishmael is greeted as an heir, but when Sarah miraculously gives birth 13 years later to Isaac, a conflict develops that has long-lasting consequences for their descendants. Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab people; his half-brother Isaac was one of the first Jews. Cohen’s opera presents “hope for reconciliation,” Cohen continued, represented by Isaac and Ishmael coming together for the funeral of their father Abraham in the second act.
The first step toward composing the opera was finding Charles Kondek, the librettist. Kondek, a director as well as a librettist, has among his credits the libretti for operas premiered by the New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“We hashed out the story, worked out the details,” Cohen said. “The Bible is told tersely. We had to flesh out the characters, decide the back story.”
Kondek did a sketch of the libretto, and Cohen did a sketch of the music, including the big arias, such as the lullaby Sarah sings to the child she wishes for. “You can have musical ideas,” Cohen explained, “but it has to fit the drama. Words come first.” Cohen described his music as “passionate, lyrical, dramatic.” The opera’s music has references to Jewish music, he said, but it’s not “Jewish-sounding in a simple way.”
Cohen, who is on the faculty of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, won the Westchester Prize for New Work two years ago for the choral piece “An Undaunted Heart—Songs of Elders,” performed by Harold Rosenbaum’s New York Virtuoso Singers. He has been the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah for the seven years that it has been in existence, and before that at Genesis Agudas Achim in Tuckahoe, one of the two synagogues that merged in 1998 to form Shaarei Tikvah. The congregation has been “very supportive” of his life as a composer, Cohen said, and “takes pride” in his work.
Cohen has been working seriously on “Sarah and Hagar” for the last two years. Last year he finished the vocal score, and for the last few months has been working on the instrumentation. And although his opera has an orchestra of only six players, “instrumentation is very much an important part of the process of creating the opera,” he said.
He has been rehearsing with the singers, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash as Sarah, soprano Ilana Davidson as Hagar and baritone Robert Gardner as Abraham, since January. Two weeks ago pianist Linda Hall Gerson of the Metropolitan Opera was brought in. The opera will feature an eight-member professional chorus as well as musicians Tanya Dusevic Witek, flute; Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet; Krystof Witek, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Eliot Bailen, cello. Michael Adelson is the conductor. The first full rehearsals, held this week, took place at Temple Shaaray Tefila, 250 E. 79th St. in Manhattan, where a performance will be held Sunday, May 22, at 3 p.m.
The performance at Shaarei Tikvah will give the audience a chance to see a work in progress in an intimate setting. After the performance, there will be a brief discussion between the audience, composer and performers. Cohen will also have the opportunity to record the performance to show in hopes of getting a full production with an opera company.
“Composing is my life, but this is special for me,” Cohen said. “Having my first performance of my first opera is an extraordinary experience.”