Soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy has performed many duets over her 25 years in opera. With her starring role in “The Dybbuk,” for the first time her leading man is not a man, but a clarinet.
“The clarinet is a Jewish voice,” says Widmann-Levy. “To have the [characters] converse the way they do, with beautiful borderline klezmer clarinet phrasing, the whole time you feel you’re at a wedding, with an undertone that something terrible is going to happen.”
The West Coast premiere of Ofer Ben-Amots’ “The Dybbuk” is Sept. 24-25 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
Based on S. Ansky’s 1920 play, “The Dybbuk” is a multimedia chamber opera that in most respects retells Ansky’s story of Leah, a woman possessed by the spirit — or dybbuk — of Chanon, her dead lover.
Unlike Ansky, Israeli-born Ben-Amots took the words out of Chanon’s mouth, replacing them with the reedy sound of the clarinet (to be played on the JCC stage by Kliment Krylovsky).
Ben-Amots made another bold tweak to the narrative, stripping the silence from Leah (who speaks little in Ansky’s original) and making her the star. It’s a feminist twist on a Yiddish classic.
“I decided to do everything from her perspective,” says Ben-Amots, who teaches composition at Colorado College. “She is falling in love, she is disappointed, and she wants to get with her beloved. The entire piece is a one-woman opera.”
Unlike some contemporary classical music pieces that shun euphonious melody in favor of high-minded screeching, Ben-Amots’ opera work is tuneful.
“The field of composition today goes in many directions,” he says. “Some go with electronics, contemporary avant-garde, but I feel very close to Mozart and Wagner in that I try to communicate the music to the audience. The music is an extended tonality. I write not only from the brain but also from the heart.”
Widmann-Levy will be a familiar figure to Palo Alto audiences who know her as the JCC’s cultural arts director. She had been waiting patiently, she says, for the right project to give her a chance to sing on her home stage.
“I was introduced to it by a colleague who thought the role would be great for me,” she says. “I looked at the score and thought this is exactly what I want to do: Jewish expression through the arts. I’d been keeping my singing career and position here separate until a good opportunity would come.”
The Haifa-born singer has performed across the country and Europe, singing famous roles from Mozart, Puccini and Bizet operas. She made a big splash in 2012 starring in Michael Tilson Thomas’ tribute to his grandparents in “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater.”
She’s also made a specialty of performing and recording Ladino music from the Jewish communities of medieval Spain. Ten years ago she moved to Sunnyvale with her husband and two children, joining the JCC staff in 2012.
As a young composition student, Ben-Amots, 61, learned from such internationally esteemed figures as Alberto Ginastera and George Crumb. But it was one of his earlier teachers, fellow Israeli Joseph Dorfman of Tel Aviv University, who taught him the all-important lesson.
“I never felt I could communicate through the avant-garde,” he recalls. “Dorfman met me in Germany, looked at my cello sonata and said ‘You have to start writing Jewish music.’ From that moment on I got involved with Jewish music.”
Among his oeuvre are, a cantata based on the poetry of Israeli laureate H.M. Bialik, several choral settings of Psalms, Hasidic and Yiddish songs, and another opera based on a short story by I.B. Singer.
“The Dybbuk” has been staged around the world since its 2008 premiere in Montreal. Ben-Amots considers Ansky’s original the equivalent of a Jewish Shakespeare play, which makes sense given the many film and musical adaptations it has enjoyed in the last 100 years. In 1929, George Gershwin planned on writing an opera based on the play, but abandoned the project in favor of “Porgy and Bess.”
Given the obvious Yiddish influence of the play, Ben-Amots says he wrote music to fit the scene.
“The overall sound is very Jewish,” he says, “like sitting in the synagogue. I use hazzanut [cantorial music], nusach [traditional melodies] and motifs from klezmer, and integrate them. It’s an opera, so you go through musical textures and colors.”
The JCC production will benefit from the inclusion of a special musician playing percussion in the orchestra: Ben-Amots himself.
He will be on stage banging and clanging away to his own score. “I always say I’m the cheapest percussionist you can get,” says the composer.
Widmann-Levy is looking forward to performing “The Dybbuk” before the hometown crowd.
“Ofer’s music is hauntingly beautiful and exceptionally user-friendly,” she says. “After a few moments you have the motifs in your head and you’re humming them.”
“The Dybbuk: A Multimedia Chamber Opera,” 8 p.m. Sept. 24 and 5 p.m. Sept. 25 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $15-$45, with pre-show talks. (650) 223-8649 or www.paloaltojcc.org