'The Dybbuk' transforms Yiddish legend into multimedia opera

JCC arts director takes on new challenge: role of woman possessed

On a Friday morning, soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy, rehearsing with pianist Efrat Levy, transforms her shawl into a wedding veil, a shroud and the ghost of her lover. Her long chestnut-colored hair mimics the movement of her shawl, which she jokingly calls "a multipurpose schmatta," using the Yiddish word for rag.

But there's nothing comical about "The Dybbuk," Israeli composer Ofer Ben Amots' multimedia chamber opera that holds its West Coast premiere Sept. 24 and 25 at Palo Alto's Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

Based on a European Jewish folk legend that has intrigued countless artists, choreographers and storytellers, the dybbuk, which means "clinging spirit" in Yiddish, is an evil being that enters the body of a living human being. In the opera, which is an adaptation of S. Ansky's early 20th-century play by the same name, the dybbuk is the soul of Hannan, the recently deceased lover who inhabits the body of Leah, played by Widmann-Levy, driving her to the point of madness. At one point, the horrified Leah shouts in English, "You are not my bridegroom!"

With Hannan possessing her body, Widmann-Levy's voice moves back and forth from her natural lyric soprano to percussive tones in her lowest registers as she engages in dialogue with an unseen spirit. Hannan, who does not appear in human form, is "played" by clarinetist Kliment Krylovskiy. With only one other principal character -- baritone Gabriel Loewenheim, who plays the rabbi, the narrator and also a messenger -- much of the dramatic action must be conveyed by Widmann-Levy herself. The intensity is reminiscent of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," another opera with a mad scene in which the heroine is pressured into marrying the wrong man. But in "The Dybbuk" (spoiler alert), Leah rejects the arranged suitor, choosing to remain with her deceased lover and to die herself. So "at the end, the audience is happy," Widmann-Levy said, with a touch of irony.

With a complicated back story, there is much to explain, which is why the Hebrew arias are interspersed with English recitatives, and English supertitles will appear on a screen. Plus the musicians, who also include pianist Efrat Levy, violinist Asaf Levy and cellist Thomas Loewenheim, play key roles.

In addition, before the Sept. 24 show, composer Ben Amots will discuss the legend. The following night, he will be joined by Stanford professor Gabriella Safran, who is an Ansky scholar, and Congregation Kol Emeth Senior Rabbi David Booth, who will discuss the kabbalistic aspects of the legend.

Widmann-Levy, born in Haifa, has performed in opera houses and symphony halls worldwide -- in Italian, French, German and Russian. But she rarely has the opportunity to perform an opera in her native language

"It's wonderful," said Widmann-Levy, who also serves as arts and culture director at the JCC. "There's a lot to be said for singing in your mother tongue. There's an immediate connection, and an interpretation that is on a very primal level."

While growing up in Israel, Widmann-Levy said music has always been a part of her life. As a child, she remembers watching Leonard Bernstein conduct the Haifa Symphony. "I was over the moon. I was in awe. It was a defining moment. I knew I wanted to be a part of this great thing, this musical connection."

She was determined to make music her life, with her voice as her instrument. "I always feel a spiritual elevation in singing. It's therapeutic," she said. "I don't think I ever looked at it as a career. I just knew that I had to sing and I pursued it. I feel it's almost something you don't get to choose. You just have to do it. It fills you, it nourishes your soul, and it takes you to beautiful places in the world."

Widmann-Levy began studying voice at the age of 12 and studied in Tel Aviv with Metropolitan Opera coach and current assistant conductor Joan Dornemann. At Dornemann's urging, after Widmann-Levy completed her Israeli army service in 1993, she and her husband came to the United States, where she had a full scholarship at Cincinnati University's College-Conservatory of Music and her husband did graduate work in engineering. Four years later, degrees in hand, they moved to Silicon Valley where her husband found a job in the high-tech industry, "and I started working with the symphony and opera houses around here. We made it our home."

Widmann-Levy continues to travel but performs more often closer to home, as her children are 17 and 7 and it's more difficult to take them along. In recent years, she has performed with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Carnegie Hall, as well as with the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. She has also recorded for the PBS "Great Performances" series and is currently working on a musical project in Ladino, the language of the Jews who came out of the Iberian Peninsula.

Her own cultural background, however, is Ashkenazi. Her grandparents fled Central and Eastern Europe, where Yiddish was the Jewish lingua franca. Some years ago, she paid homage to those roots, performing in Yiddish in "The Thomashefskys," Tilson Thomas' theater piece based on the lives of his grandparents, prominent performers in the Yiddish theater here and in Europe.

Much of her focus at the JCC, where she became director of arts and culture in 2012, lies in nourishing the art, literature and music of the Jewish world, past, present and future. One of her accomplishments was setting up the JCC's School for Performing Arts, which offers classes and lessons for ages 18 months and up. This fall, the musical theater class will work on "The Sound of Music," culminating in a performance.

Widmann-Levy's goal is to pass on to the next generation the joy she experiences as a musician and as a performer.

"It's great, the gestalt of being onstage, being with others, working with wonderful musicians, the connection you can make with an audience," she said. "That joint experience is almost utopic. It's a great privilege."

Meanwhile, she hopes audiences will have an opportunity to experience the same exhilaration with "The Dybbuk."


What: "The Dybbuk": a multimedia chamber opera

Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m.

Cost: $45 general public, $55 premium, $40 members

Info: Go to paloaltojcc.org.

Freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent can be emailed at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

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