Some are born great, Shakespeare wrote, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The prophet Moses almost certainly falls into the last category — a reluctant, stammering leader who nevertheless played a starring role in his people’s ultimate redemption.
In Yoav Gal’s opera, “Mosheh,” now running at the HERE Arts Center in Soho, the prophet (Nathan Guisinger) is seen through the eyes of the four biblical women (played by Heather Green, Beth Anne Hatton, Judith Barnes and Hai-Ting Chinn) who preserved his life and enabled him to fulfill his destiny. When a scene from the opera, which is sung in Hebrew with English supertitles, was presented in 2006 at the Merkin Concert Hall, Alan Kozinn of The New York Times hailed Gal as a composer who is “drawn to what’s next, not what has been.”
Directed by Kameron Steele, “Mosheh” gives the ancient story a contemporary spin. Moses is drawn from the East River and brought to Pharaoh’s daughter’s palace, which is formed from the colonnade supporting the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. A mysterious, terrifying, androgynous God, whose voice is created by an alto and a counter-tenor, awakens the young man to his awesome destiny. Meanwhile, the events of the prophet’s life are re-enacted around him, in what the composer has called a “modern-day, urban hallucination.”
Gal, who lives in Brooklyn, was born to a secular family in Israel. He has studied both visual art and music, and is known for his costume and scenic designs as well as his musical pieces. While “Mosheh,” like his previous “indie operas,” also employs extravagant and unusual costumes, what gives it a unique visual style is the use of multiple video screens to provide both scenic and narrative elements.
In composing “Mosheh,” Gal told The Jewish Week, he was reacting against two other operas about the prophet, Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished “Moses und Aron” and Philip Glass’ “Akhnatan.” In Schoenberg’s masterpiece, Moses appears as a tormented, misunderstood genius, while in Glass’ minimalist composition, he is a refugee from an Egyptian cult that inspired his monotheistic idea through its worship of the Sun God. Rather than focus on Moses’ wisdom and insight, as Glass did, Gal puts the focus squarely on the women who inspired what he calls “folklore,” the stories that “inform and structure” Jewish life.
The composer has written on his HERE blog that he grew up in a family whose Jewish identity was defined by its “anti-religious” feelings. Nevertheless, he pointed out, the very “lack of meaning” ascribed to the Torah “leads to exploration — you want to know what’s in the books and read them again.” By working with opera as a popular rather than elite art form, he sees himself, like Glass and other avant-garde composers, as rebelling against a form in a way that ultimately creates something new.
“I think that being irreligious or agnostic is sort of an active rejection,” he wrote, adding that it’s “important to me that people of my general background can own these histories and these traditions.”
“Mosheh” runs through Feb. 5 at the HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave. All performances are at 8:30 p.m. For tickets, $20, call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111 or visit ovationtix.com.