Operas set in ancient times are rare, but Russian-Israeli musician Dina Pruzhansky has created “Shulamit,” whose story is based on the Song of Songs.
Taking place in ancient Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon, Pruzhansky’s piece began as a song cycle that was commissioned by the Bacchanalia String Quartet and premiered at Bargemusic in 2013. The first iteration starred Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani.
“After the premiere, everyone, including Bob Sherman from WQXR, was so taken by Maya singing these extraordinary biblical texts that they encouraged me to consider expanding the works beyond a song cycle,” said Pruzhansky in an email interview with The Jewish Week.
Pruzhansky, who came to New York in 2006 to study at the Mannes School of Music, was awarded a BluePrint Fellowship by the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, a grant to expand the song cycle and premiere it.
To build out her one-act opera, Pruzhansky borrowed phrases from the biblical texts and developed the story. She also turned to Ecclesiastes for more information about King Solomon.
Pruzhansky wrote the music and libretto, Laura Alley Dietrich is the director, and David Rosenmeyer conducts the 12-person live orchestra. The set was designed by Lauren Helpern and incorporates artwork by painter Irina Sheynfeld with whom Pruzhansky worked closely on creating images correlating to the story.
The opera will be presented in Hebrew with English supertitles. “I was completely captivated by the original Hebrew text and the beauty of this poetry,” remarked Pruzhansky. “I found the original Hebrew verse to be the most inspiring source for my music, both in terms of the rich imagery and layers of meaning that vividly come across only in the original Hebrew texts, and in terms of it's superb play on words and sounds. Only when you read the original Hebrew verse, you start to realize why it's called The Song of Songs — it definitely was created by the poet of poets. I also wanted to show a wider audience what the original Biblical language sounds like.”
Currently there aren’t any plans for Shulamit to be performed elsewhere, though Pruzhansky hopes it will be able to be expanded to a two-act opera performed in a larger venue with a full orchestra.
‘Shulamit” will be performed at the JCC Manhattan on Thursday, March 3rd and Saturday, March 5th at 8 pm, 334 Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street, Manhattan.
Inset: Dina Pruzhansky. Photo by Rusiko Mchedishvili