Joshua Horowitz’s new opera is about a married couple locked in a battle royal over sexual positions, nocturnal emissions and the perceived inadequacies of each other’s genitals.
It’s based on Jewish holy texts.
Drawing on classical strains and Jewish folk music spanning the centuries, “Lilith, the Night Demon in One Lewd Act” recounts the legend of Judaism’s top she-devil.
Legend holds that Lilith was Adam’s sexually assertive first wife who, once spurned, vented her rage by birthing demons and snuffing out the lives of newborns.
“There ain’t nothing pretty about her,” the Berkeley-based composer says of his anti-heroine. “She’s headstrong, but she is a child killer.”
Horowitz’s hilarious, musically yeasty work makes its world premiere Thursday, May 1 at San Rafael’s Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, followed by a May 3 performance at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley and a May 4 performance at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center in Atherton.
The 29th Jewish Music Festival and KlezCalifornia are co-presenting the performances.
Staged as an oratorio, “Lilith, the Night Demon” is performed in English, Yiddish and Latin (with supertitles). Horowitz and his trio, Veretski Pass, will accompany the San Francisco Choral Artists. Two Bay Area singers star: soprano Heather Klein plays Lilith and bass Anthony Russell portrays Adam. Author and Yiddishist Michael Wex narrates.
The choir serves as a kind of Greek chorus, while the narrator plays the roles of mediator, color commentator and standup comic (“Before I begin speaking,” he says early on, “I’d like to say a few words”).
At the heart of the opera stand Adam and Lilith. As written by composer-librettist Horowitz, they resemble a Garden of Eden version of George and Martha, the pugilistic protagonists from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Though the opera is filled with salacious dialogue and NC-17 topics, Horowitz says none of it came from him. He drew his Lilith story directly from accounts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, the Zohar and a medieval Jewish tale called “The Alphabet of Ben Sira,” which added juicy details to the saga.
Though not directly mentioned in the Torah, the Lilith figure explains for some the presence of two creation stories in Genesis. Lilith, presumably, was Adam’s first bride, later tossed away for Adam’s trophy wife, Eve.
They are a JDate gone horribly wrong. Between Horowitz’s Adam and Lilith, the Yiddish curses flow like bitter wine. To wit: “All your teeth should fall out except one to give you a toothache” and “May you be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and burn by night.”
They sound even better in the original Yiddish.
Horowitz threw in a few original zingers, too. Adam calls Lilith a swamp donkey, while she calls him a turgid taffy roll. “It’s like ‘Carmina Burana,’ ” says Horowitz, comparing his Lilith to Carl Orff’s profane choral masterwork. “It’s nasty.”
“Lilith, the Night Demon” is not Horowitz’s first shot at opera. Several years ago he wrote one for children, “Der Wilde Man,” while teaching at the Academy of Music in Graz, Austria.
That’s where he earned his master’s in music composition. But rather than stay in academia, he devoted his career to exploring and preserving Eastern European folk styles, especially klezmer, with his bands Budowitz and Veretski Pass (Horowitz’s wife, violinist Cookie Segelstein, and bassist Stuart Brotman make up the rest of the trio).
The new opera, which began life three years ago initially as a piece on the subject of superstitions, evolved musically and thematically. In “Lilith,” Horowitz crafted a musical mashup — mixing classical forms, such as a send-up of a famous Bach chorale, with Bulgarian dances, Croatian sopa and klezmer jigs.
“When you think of Bartok and Stravinsky, the guys who use folk music in classical pieces, they always elevate it,” he says. “They write dissonantly, but not as dissonantly as the original. I do some of that [in ‘Lilith’], stripping it of its folkism and making it modern music.”
Magen Solomon, the Oakland-based artistic director of San Francisco Choral Artists, had worked with Veretski Pass on a 2012 piece called “The Klezmer Shul.” She is happy to work with the group again.
“I think it’s going to be astonishing,” she says of the opera. “I’ve never seen anything like it: the combination of humor and seriousness, the issues of babies dying, and also the bickering husband and wife.”
Solomon admires Horowitz’s choral writing — the composer describes it as “playful and sarcastic, even admittedly disdainful” — though she had to hold his hand at times. “Josh’s ideas were phenomenally inventive but not always practical,” Solomon says. “I would say ‘We are only 24 singers, so we shouldn’t divide into 19 parts.’ I helped get it into a form that was more singable.”
Michael Wex, author of the 2005 bestseller “Born to Kvetch,” has been friendly with Horowitz for years. When asked to play the role of narrator at a staged reading at KlezKanada last year, he jumped.
“I liked the script quite a lot,” he recalls. “It’s definitely Josh’s sense of humor, which I’ve always appreciated. I can’t read music, so I had no idea what this thing was going to sound like until we got together to rehearse. I thought it was absolutely fantastic.”
With his knowledge of Jewish lore, Wex was well acquainted with the Lilith myth. He says she looms large in Jewish culture as the one responsible for infant mortality, a common affliction in centuries past.
But the character precedes Judaism. Scholars of the ancient world trace her back at least 4,000 years to ancient Sumerian mythology.
Lilitu (the Sumerian word for female demon) is a character in “Gilgamesh,” the epic poem dating from 2000 BCE. In early Jewish texts, her name pops up in Isaiah 34:14, though there’s some debate about the meaning there. The text could refer to a screech owl.
She shows up in the Dead Sea Scrolls and, later, the Babylonian Talmud, circa 500 C.E. According to Janet Howe Gaines of the Biblical Archeology Society, the Lilith of the Talmud is “a demon in female form who had sex with men while [they] were sleeping. Unwholesome sexual practices are linked to Lilith as she powerfully embodies the demon-lover myth.”
Even creepier is her reputation for infanticide. Wex says fear of Lilith explains the enduring popularity of Jewish amulets, many of which depict Lilith, to keep her away and protect the life of a newborn child.
Wex also notes Lilith’s reputation as a seductress, associated with a long list of sexual no-nos.
“People in the last 30 years have started emphasizing aspects of the legend that weren’t necessarily the main ones before,” Wex adds. “There was this notion that she was Adam’s starter marriage and it didn’t quite pan out.”
The legend includes Lilith biting Adam, then morphing into a succubus responsible for, among other things, nocturnal emissions.
Horowitz says the most fleshed-out Jewish version of the myth comes from “The Alphabet of Ben Sira,” a satirical anonymous text written in Hebrew and dating from medieval times.
It marks the first appearance of the notion that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. “She didn’t want to lie beneath him,” Horowitz says of the Ben Sira version of Lilith. “They fought, she screamed the name of God” — a major sin — “and because of that she grows wings, becomes a demon, flies to the Red Sea and creates demon babies by visiting men in their dreams.”
In recent decades, Lilith has been reclaimed and reborn as a feminist icon, perhaps due in part to her independent spirit and self-reliance. The feminist Jewish magazine, Lilith, was named for her, as was the all-woman rock festival, Lilith Fair.
Keeping to the rock-fest vibe is the printed libretto, which includes illustrations by Phil Blank, an artist and musician based in North Carolina. A cross between Chagallesque dreamscapes and Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine,” his pictures bring to life all of “Lilith’s” humor and impertinence.
“Here’s a dirty secret,” Horowitz says. “I don’t go to opera, though I love Wagner, Ravel, Debussy. The whole set-up is for a comedy. It’s all counterintuitive from a compositional perspective. I thought, ‘Screw the third act. I’m going to do all the wrong things and see what happens.’
So far, so good. At a trial run performance in Quebec last summer, “Lilith, the Night Demon” brought the house down, even with all that infant mortality stuff.
“We had to stop at one point because they were on the floor laughing,” Horowitz recalls. “You laugh a lot and then there are serious parts in between. But you can’t get there if you just slam the audience with sadness.”
Now, finally, Horowitz’s hometown audiences will make up their own minds about Lilith and the show.
“It’s not an attempt to fit Jewish music into a non-Jewish mode or form, but really a synthesis that hasn’t been attempted,” says Wex. “There’s been nothing like that.”
“Lilith, the Night Demon in One Lewd Act” premieres 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road., San Rafael. Also 8 p.m. May 3, at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley; and 4 p.m. May 4, at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton. www.liliththenightdemon.com.
on the cover
Cover image constructed by Cathleen Maclearie using Phil Blank’s illustration “Lilith” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 19th century “Lady Lilith”