It’s unusual for a composer to debut his first opera at the age of 82.
Then again, Harry Bialor is an unusual composer. His opera, “Masada,” is having its world premiere March 23 at the JCC of Staten Island (1466 Manor Rd. 718 475-5200) as part of a UJA-Federation of New York-funded Jewish Music Month program. The piece will be performed by Voyces and Young Voyces, two S.I.-based ensembles, conducted by Michael Sirotta and accompanied by pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe.
Bialor (BAY-lor) was born in Poland, a Jew who survived the Nazi occupation by hiding on a farm with one of his two sisters for the duration of the war. His parents, two brothers and the other sister were killed by the Nazis. The two survivors made their way to Brooklyn, where Harry thrived as a businessman.
But at night he had another life — writing music.
“I went to the Munich conservatory for two years before the war,” he says. “And I studied at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music for two years after I came here.”
Insomnia helped fuel his creative juices.
“I don’t sleep well, but my big plus was that I had an electric keyboard in the kitchen,” he says, laughing. “You can accomplish a great deal at night when it’s quiet.”
With headphones he could work all night without disturbing his soundly sleeping wife. The result was a sheaf of songs and, eventually, an operatic retelling of the story of the Jewish resistance to Rome that ended in mass suicide at Masada.
Given his own history of defiance in the face of anti-Semitic violence, what drew Bialor to the self-annihilation of Masada?
“The story stuck to me,” he says. “Who can not be inspired by Masada? This has been in my mind for a long time. When I finally sat down to work on it, I wrote the entire piece in less than six months.”
However, the opera was hardly stage-ready, as Bialor himself readily acknowledges. He found conductor-arranger Sirotta through Cantor Suzanne Bernstein, who had successively served in the pulpits of each man’s congregation.
“I was the jeweler — the diamond was already there waiting to be set,” Sirotta says modestly.
Bialor nods at Sirotta, grinning, and says, “This guy harmonized it and made it professional.”
Bialor already had a 20-year relationship with Stern-Wolfe, one of the unsung heroines of the downtown classical music scene. She too became a willing accomplice in bringing his operatic vision to the concert stage.
Stern-Wolfe gave him both encouragement and a suggestion that became the center of the opera.
“I told him, ‘Where is the conflict,’” she recalls. “You have to have dialectics, even if you’re not a Marxist. You gotta have conflict!’”
Bialor found more than enough conflict by creating two pairs of lovers in the Jewish camp and by giving significant focus to the moral dilemmas of the Zealots’ leader.
That embattled figure, who sings beseechingly, “I am a leader with no place to go,” indirectly reflects Bialor’s own memories of the Shoah.
“I don’t talk much about it,” he says quietly. “When I was at Yad Vashem [Israel’s national Holocaust museum], I had to leave because I couldn’t stay in the children’s memorial…”
His voice trails off for a moment. In that brief silence, one can almost hear the voice of one of his characters, who sings, “This is a new dawn.”