From Neil Diamond’s 1969 gospel-infused tune, “Holly Holy,” to this past summer’s “Song of Solomon: The Musical” by Andrew Beall and Neil van Leeuwen, the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Bible has inspired American songwriters for generations. Now comes pianist Dina Pruzhansky’s chamber opera, “Shulamit,” which centers on the bold and beautiful lover taken by King Solomon. The work, which premieres this weekend at the JCC Manhattan, will be sung in Hebrew with English supertitles.
Pruzhansky, who was born in Azerbaijan, and who won numerous piano competitions in her native land, made aliyah as a teenager. In 2006, she moved to New York to pursue a career in musical theater. Last year, the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO) commissioned her to create “Central Park,” a children’s opera based on Russian-Jewish poetry. COJECO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group are jointly sponsoring “Shulamit.”
Directed by Igor Konyukhov, with both music and libretto by Pruzhansky, the new work focuses on a love triangle among the peasant girl Shulamit (mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky), the mighty but dissipated King Solomon (bass Mikhail Svetlov) and the dashing young shepherd (tenor Benito Rodriguez Ceballos), whom Shulamit loves. The libretto draws on both the Song of Songs and on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which show Solomon at very different stages of his life and career
Unlike Elizabeth Swados’ 1995 song cycle, “Bible Women,” about well-known female figures in the Torah, Pruzhansky’s opera focuses on a heroine who is shrouded in mystery. Shulamit is mentioned by name only twice in the Song of Songs, as the “black and comely” woman after whom the author, thought to be Solomon, lusts. But Shulamit is depicted in the sacred text as equally uninhibited in her pursuit of physical pleasure.
In an interview, Pruzhansky told The Jewish Week that the opera shows Shulamit causing Solomon’s worldview to “shatter and shift.” The “jaded” king is dissatisfied by his life of luxury, as he sings in the show’s opening number, “Hevel Havalim” (Vanity of Vanities), and he is shocked by the loss of his lover to a much less powerful rival.
But Shulamit must follow her heart. Among her passionate arias are “Schora Ani” (Dark I Am, But Beautiful, O Daughters of Jerusalem), when she first meets the hundreds of pagan women in Solomon’s harem and “Al Mishkavi Ba Leilot” (On My Bed at Nights), as she dreams of escaping into the arms of her beloved.
In “Shulamit,” Pruzansky observed, “Everyone sees love in a different way.” The title character is “not just faithful to her lover, but she is faithful to herself.”
“Shulamit” will be performed on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. and on Saturday, Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. at the JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. For tickets, $25 ($20 for JCC members), call (646) 505-5708 or visit http://www.jccmanhattan.org