June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

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    Dybbuk opera takes Ran to another realm

    Internationally acclaimed composer Shulamit Ran, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has dreamed for years of writing an opera.

    "But I wanted to write it on a topic that related to my own heritage, to who I am -- an Israeli, a Jew," said Ran, the William H. Colvin Professor in Music. "I saw Ansky's early 20th-century drama The Dybbuk performed when I was still a child, and it made a powerful impression. It was inspired by Eastern European and Jewish folklore, and there is so much depth to it, so many things to think about -- it's really a complex piece of art. When I was given this opportunity to compose, I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to make this the subject of my opera."

    Ran did indeed use the story she loved as a child when she composed her first opera, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), this past year as part of Lyric Opera's Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. Composer-in-Residence program. Produced and performed by the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, its world premiere will be on Friday, June 20, at the Merle Ruskin Theatre (formerly the Blackstone Theater), with a second performance Sunday, June 22.

    Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) tells the tragic story of the beautiful Leya and the student Khonnon, who have loved each other since childhood and were promised to each other before birth. After Khonnon's father dies, however, Leya's father finds a wealthier match. Khonnon dies in a frenzy of despair at the news, and his spirit inhabits the grieving Leya as a dybbuk, which defiantly speaks through her before the wedding. A ritual exorcism exposes the broken marriage contract and violently casts out Khonnon's spirit. Undaunted, the spirit returns clad in white to claim Leya, who reunites with Khonnon "in the endless night of the endless world between worlds."

    Composing an opera was an extraordinary experience for Ran. "To me, instruments and groups of instruments take on their own characters, their own personae. It is as though each instrument has a soul of its own," Ran said. "But I love the human voice -- it is the most fantastic instrument. I love writing for it. It is always an exhilarating experience to have people other than myself express my music through their artistry. There is nothing like it."

    However, it was also "the most labor-intensive thing I've ever been involved in. There's no end to it. Every aspect takes so much time -- for instance, now I'm proofreading the score, which takes hours upon hours. I'm surprised my family hasn't all divorced me en masse by now! They've been very patient."

    Ran's every moment seems to be taken up during the pre-production frenzy. While she is being interviewed, passersby in the hall stick concerned heads into the doorway. The set designer, whom Ran describes as "brilliant," tells her the costumes are not being made in Chicago. The man inputting the score into a computer comes in to discuss deadlines. The props master consults Ran on whether horns sacred to the Jewish tradition can actually be used on stage.

    It's no wonder that she plans a long vacation with her family after the opera has premiered, or that she plans on a more flexible schedule next year.

    "Every composer survives by getting commissions, but I'm at the point where I want ones without strict deadlines," said Ran, who has two young children. "I've taken so much time away from my family that I really feel I need to strike a balance right now."

    Ran has been a University faculty member since 1973. "It's my home," she said simply. When Ran was 24, she received an invitation from Ralph Shapey, now Professor Emeritus in Music. Shapey had heard a recording of a piece Ran had composed in 1969 called "Oh, the Chimneys," a setting of poems by Nelly Sachs on the subject of the Holocaust. Shapey recommended her for a faculty position. Thrilled, she accepted, and has been at the University ever since.

    Ran notes that the University has "an outstanding program in new music, signaled by the number of truly gifted young composers who come to us to study here. The department encourages them, hosting events like the Contemporary Chamber Players' Young Composers Concert -- in fact, there were two such concerts this year, since we had so many students. There's a lot going on: the New Music Ensemble concerts, and events initiated by the students themselves." That's important, she said, because "composers of new music can't just wait for composing opportunities to be handed to them on a silver platter -- they have to work for them, they have to be creative."

    Though Ran, flooded with commissions, is only at the University half-time, she finds teaching among her most rewarding work. "I enjoy teaching very much," she said, "every level of teaching, from the most basic to the most advanced. When I teach in the College, the bright, thoughtful undergraduates force me to question the most basic things about music and redefine things I take for granted. On the other end of the spectrum are the graduate students studying for their Ph.D.s in composition, who are gifted composers and who thrill me with their talent."

    Ran herself has been composing since she was 7, when an Israeli children's choir performed one of her songs on the radio. When Ran was a child, every poem she read had its own melody. "I was surprised when my mother told me not everyone heard what I did," Ran said. Born in Tel Aviv, she moved to the United States at age 14 to study at the Mannes School of Music in New York City. That same year, she performed her own "Capriccio" with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The first woman to be appointed composer-in-residence of a major American orchestra, she has been composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for seven years. Her 1991 work "Symphony" won the Pulitzer Prize as well as first prize in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards. Her 1993 piece "Legends" celebrated the centennials of both the University and the CSO.

    Ran would like to compose another opera in the future, though she won't say what texts she is considering until she chooses one. But it is clear she is hooked.

    "I can't wait until I write my next opera," she said, her eyes glowing. "It is intoxicating, a very powerful feeling. You could say I'm smitten with composing for opera -- or better yet, let's continue with the 'dybbuk' theme and say I'm possessed by it."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco