Wilmington native Meira Warshauer premieres a workshop production of her new work, the opera Elijah's Violin on Sunday, March 18 at 4:00pm at Temple of Israel's Reibman Center on 10th & Market Streets in Downtown Wilmington.
Tickets for the performance are available online (choose "Meira Warshauer Opera Workshop") or at the door. Call the Temple of Israel if you have questions at 910-762-0000.
This first public presentation of the opera-in-progress is for all ages. Elijah’s Violin was adapted by Meira from the Egyptian oral tradition story, re-told by Howard Schwarz in his collection, Elijah’s Violin and other Jewish Fairy Tales. The story, with a libretto by Susan Levi Wallach and Meira Warshauer, features a magical violin which releases the imprisoned melodies of the heart.
The performance is dedicated to the Meira’s late parents, Sam and Miriam Warshauer.
Performers are from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Opera Workshop, directed by Nancy King, with soloist Carl Samet and a chamber ensemble with Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi, violin; Mary Gheen, flute; Jacqueline Taylor Hendricks, cello; and Bettsy Curtis, piano.
Listen to Meira talk about the opera above and see our extended conversation below.
Gina: So my first question for you is kind of two questions. It's about the story of Elijah's Violin. What is the story about and also what drew you to it and made you decide you wanted to write music about this story?
Meira: I love this question. Do you mind if I start with the second one first?
Gina: Start however you like.
Meira: Okay. In 1983, when my children were just being born and little and readable to for a bedtime stories, I saw on a bookshelf in North Hampton, Massachusetts where we were living, I saw this new book Elijah's Violin and other Jewish Fairytales collected by Howard Schwartz. So I thought, Oh, Jewish fairy tales, that would be nice. I'd been reading Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel and all the other fairy tales, so let's see what Jewish fairy tales are like. I bought the book and fell in love with the title story, Elijah's Violin, primarily because the violin in the story released the imprisoned melodies and I would interpret that as releasing the imprisoned melodies of the heart. It's just exactly what I always try to do with my music is to reach people in the heart. The notion that we, all of us, carry around melodies that are kind of imprisoned inside of us because the world is so crazy and sometimes not so safe and we can't really let our most precious heart's be exposed.
So we have these precious melodies that we hide and Elijah's Violin urges us and encourages us and makes it safe for our own songs to be in the world. As a metaphor for our life, or even just for singing and just for whatever it is, for being who we really are at the soul level. And Elijah is, as you might know in Jewish tradition, he was Elijah the prophet and he didn't actually physically die. He was, according to the Bible, he was carried away in a chariot of fire. So he never actually was buried and he's considered to be still living and he's actually considered to be living among us in every generation in hidden, not revealing who he really is.
So he could be a homeless person, he’s usually considered to be a poor person. Somebody who's very humble and doesn't draw any attention to himself, but who has this incredible wisdom. So that's how we present Elijah in the opera. Carl Samet will play the title role Elijah, but he'll also play the role of a mycologist in the forest, someone who gathers mushrooms. As Elijah, he's living by a cave. Elijah has the violin so that's something that whoever comes to the opera on Sunday the 18th, will get to see how that is revealed.
The other thing that inspired me to make this into an opera is, I think it was in 1992, I was asked to write a violin and piano piece for a wonderful violinist, Daniel Heifetz. I dedicated it to him, but I also dedicated it to my mother who was a violinist. This concert actually is dedicated in the memory of my parents, Miriam and Sam Warshauer, who lived their whole lives in Wilmington and were members of the Temple of Israel and most graciously remembering them at this event. They just passed away in 2013. But anyway, so my mother played the violin. I wrote this composition for violin and piano called Bracha, which means “blessing” and every time it's played, it seems like people really connect to it on a heart level and I felt like it could actually serve as the melody for Elijah's violin to play. So that's also included in the opera.
Gina: I wanted to ask you about a quote from cellist Esther Joost and this is actually talking about the "In Memoriam" piece, "It comes from a place which is beyond music. It is like a prayer from deep within the soul. It always evokes deep responses from the listeners and is very moving for me to perform." I feel like all the pieces that you write and the way that you compose and just the way that you exist is that you're trying to bring something transcendental into the musical conversation. I haven't heard music from Elijah's Violin that you're doing, obviously, it's not been performed yet, but I imagine that just the story itself is such a spiritual story and I just wanted to ask you about that. How do you access the music? Where does it come from?
Meira: Where does the music come from? Oh, I know, that's the mystery. It's really a mystery to me. I didn't start out as a composer. I started out playing the piano. I liked to kind of make up things on my own, but I didn't really have a way to do that. I took piano lessons for 10 years from Meira Eunice Troy in Wilmington and in college as a side while I majored in Latin American History and then went to New England Conservatory in piano. And at the end I took a course in composition for majors who were music majors but weren't composers. So by the time I got to that class I started my spiritual search. I was in Boston and there was a meditation center there. And so I signed up for transcendental meditation. So I was doing transcendental meditation and they claimed it will release your creativity, there are a lot of claims about meditation. But as it turned out, I found that in composing I kind of would go to a place that reminded me of a meditative state and just a receptive state and I guess a contemplative state and kind of listen on the inside and let that be my guide. That was my way in to composing. I was already in my late twenties, so I didn't have any technique, any composing techniques to bring to it, I just had my intuition and all the music that I had learned up until then, all the piano music and all the other music I'd been exposed to. I mentioned my parents. My mother. My mother always took us to whatever concert was in town that she was probably organizing, so I had a lot of musical experience, but I didn't have compositional technique until later. I entered from the point of view of a novice and someone who had already begun to experience meditation.
As my spiritual path developed and I came back to Judaism as my main practice, I was able to explore Judaism from that point of view of what's underneath? What's the hidden meaning? What's the- not really hidden- but what is the real meaning, what's the essence here? All the meditation that I did, various meditations and all of that, some study of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism, all of that brought me to see Judaism and also really all spiritual traditions from the point of view of transcendence or unity in that it's inside of us with, with every breath now as a mindfulness meditation. Every time we take a breath we have a chance to connect with the infinite, or if you look at a flower or you look at the sky or whatever it is, just a silent moment of being present, the whole thing opens up. And so if my music can somehow contribute to touching that place in me and in whoever plays or listens to it, I'm just so grateful.
Gina: That's what music is really all about, is to do that. And I don't see any other reason to do it. This is an opera workshop with students from UNCW directed by Nancy King. Just tell me a little bit about the performance and about the instruments.
Meira: Sure. I'm so happy that Nancy King took us under her wing and has this at the class project for her workshop class. We have five soloists, Carl Samet as I mentioned is the bass. Matthew Tally is the tenor, Catriona McLean is the soprano and Madison Murphy and Tanya Wheeler are both mezzo sopranos, and then we have a wonderful chamber ensemble. Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi, violinst, Mary Gheen is flutist and Jacqueline Taylor Hendricks is a cellist from Columbia who I've worked with in the past and she's coming in from Columbia on Sunday and Stephen Field is playing piano and it's all being directed by Joe Hickman, who is the conductor for this class and he also conducts at UNCW and Opera Wilmington and other places and also included in the class is the chorus.
I guess it's from UNC WOOP (Wilmington Opera Outreach Program). It's a workshop performance, so this is really an opera in progress and we're not going to have- there's spoken dialogue that we will not have and some of the songs haven't been written yet, but most of them have. The librettist who lives here in Columbia, Susan Levi Wallach, has been a wonderful collaborator and she has written together with me. She's written a narration for this performance that will link the songs together and it'll be like a story being intertwined with the songs and she'll be the narrator. She also has theater experience. So she's coming in on Friday to rehearse with everyone and we'll have rehearsal on Sunday with the cellist and then we'll have everyone together for one rehearsal and then present it.
We'll have minimal props. Mark Sorenston, who I guess does the costumes for Opera Wilmington is going to help Nancy with the little hints of costumes and props. It'll be kind of like a story told with songs and a little bit more than that. Hopefully the children and the audience will connect with the story and with the music and there's even a part in the opera when the audience is going to be asked to give back some encouraging sounds to the protagonist who has to get her courage together to play this violin, this magical violin. So there'll be some audience participation and we'll give instruction for that.
Gina: This is at the Temple of Israel?
Meira: Correct. It's at the Temple of Israel. The temple now has two buildings. The old one, the beautiful one on 4th and Market that probably everyone knows, and then there's also a new building on 10th and Market, 922 Market Street called the Reibman Education Center. So we're going to do it at the Reibman Center. One of the big advantages of that space is it's on one level and the piano can just be wheeled in. My cousin Charles Fox has a music store in Charleston and we're renting a piano from them and they're bringing it in by truck from Charleston Sunday morning and they'll just wheel it in to the Reibman Center for the performance.
Gina: How do people get tickets?
Meira: The temple office. The number is 762-0000. Temple of Israel also has a website, temple-of-Israel.org, and they are available on the website. And also at the door.
Gina: You're still working on this opera?
Gina: What's coming up next for it? Do you foresee it being done in a certain amount of time?
Meira: We have kind of a time frame. Hopefully. The opera director at University of South Carolina in Columbia, Ellen Schlaefer, also has her own independent opera company called FBN, opera for kids, and she intends to present a fully staged production that would be the actual premier of the full opera. Maybe in 2019. There's some fundraising that needs to happen before she can do that, but she's aiming for spring of 2019 or maybe the following year, depending on the time frame for grants and private funding, so that'll be the full opera with everything we think it means. What we're going to present in Wilmington is most of the music, just not all of the acting out and all of the dialogue, but it's pretty much on its way. It's definitely in progress, this morning I was looking at the score and seeing what's still needed. I know I can't do really any changes, but if there’s any clarification that's going to be needed at the rehearsal, I put the narration in the music so they'll have the cues. That's the way it is with a premier.
Gina: Is there anything else that you would like to say about this work or about music?
Meira: I'm just, I'm really happy that this performance is going to be in memory of my parents. Of course I owe them everything. They supported me in everything I did and especially my mother always tried to provide everything I needed musically and my father was 100 percent behind me and behind her and all of us. I think it would mean a lot to them to have it at their temple and to have it in Wilmington and have their friends come. People who knew them and people who don't know them, they'll hear their names and it just means a lot to me to have that connection as the first time it's presented publicly and then it can go on from there.
Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright