A Conversation with Yoav Gal
[Yoav Gal is an Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based composer. His VideOpera Mosheh has been performed at numerous venues, including Merkin Concert Hall, Golden Fleece Opera, Ltd., Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (as part of City Opera’s VOX 2009), and the HERE Arts Center. Through arias, choral singing, dance, and video, Mosheh tells the story of Moses’ upbringing through the eyes of his sister, his wife, his mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter (each of whom have a separate aria). A male/female duo sings the part of God. The Straddler spoke with him in June.]
The whole story of Moses’ growing up is told in half a chapter. It’s less than a page. Each sentence is a little treasure. Take the character of Moses’ sister Miriam. All you have about her are a few sentences in a few different places. When you first hear about her, she’s young, but she’s clever enough that her mother has her watch over baby Moses. Then she’s negotiating with royalty. Later on you hear about her and she’s a priestess. After the Red sea is parted and the Israelis are saved, she leads the song and dance of victory. After that, she commits a sin; she and her brother Aaron complain that Moses is getting too much attention from God. As punishment, she is struck with leprosy. Moses begs God to heal her, and God agrees. So there are these little moments, but they are very rich, and they are enough to create characters with. Archetypical characters.
Mosheh is supposed to be a hallucination, a revelation in real life. The thought is, you go out of your house—and it could just be a streetcorner—and you are struck by something, and that something is also the story you know a little bit. It kind of starts to operate in your life; relating contemporary things to very ancient things and having these complex associations.
The way I like to think about it is through the image of Moses and the burning bush. That sort of relation. Sitting in front of what you’ve discovered, and all of the imagery and all of the stories that are happening around it. I feel like it is me sitting in front of the bush, not in a literal sense, not because I am Moses, but because you open yourself up to an eternal message, or a spiritual presence. Also, he’s a passive figure. That’s an important part of this piece. Usually Moses is the active, operating individual, and here he just sits, everything happens to him.
I mean, it’s a little grandiose to pick Moses. The leader. But there are aspects that I think are universal. The women, for example. I thought it was interesting that all of those women characters had a role in protecting him, and building him up. It didn’t seem accidental that a whole group of them were important.
The funny thing about Moses is that, typically, he is this kind of genius. Either he is a misunderstood artist or great mind who tries to impart wisdom to the people and they are always rebellious and they never understand him, or his wisdom comes from the ancient culture of Egypt. Schoenberg’s opera was based on this first idea, and Phillip Glass’ has a bit of the second. My take—and there is a little bit of rebellion here—is that the story is full of little episodes, and it’s basically folklore. It is the people’s story. So it’s not some external wisdom that got imposed. It is a story that grew up and was told between people, and women are kind of—I don’t want to fall into clichés—but women are kind of the glue. Again, Miriam is the one who sings the song after the Egyptian army is washed away. Just as in other religions, there are many roles for women in the original text. It is only in later generations of religion that women become less and less important and the texts become much more masculine.
I come to religion in a real kind of roundabout way. I grew up completely not religious—if anything, I grew up almost anti-religion because in Israel there is a division between, you know, the founders, who were Zionists and basically anti-religion, and the religious people who always had a very complicated relationship with the whole Zionist entity. But frankly, my sense, since a fairly young age, was that we were missing something. People like my parents would know all the biblical stories, but not in a religious way. Everything was very historical. And then there is this process where things like holiday dinners kind of lose their meaning. The first generation will have its Seder. The second generation, you still have your Seder, but all of the young people are on their cell phones, running out the door when it’s over. I can talk forever about this, but feeling that there is a lack of meaning leads to exploration—you want to know what’s in the books and read them again.
I think being irreligious or agnostic is sort of an active rejection. I don’t think that’s the natural state. I think the world, life, universe, everything is too big and mysterious to really rationally understand. You get to the point where surrendering is the only thing that can work. And then, once you relate it to art, you also understand that art and religion are complementary. Let’s put it this way, if you’re a religious person, you have a story, or a series of stories that inform and sort of structure your life; if you’re an artist, then those stories are your material. That’s what you can work with.
The story you treat with utmost reverence; what you are irreverent about are whatever religious leaders claim to own it. That’s very important. And that’s kind of a particularly Israeli issue. As an American, you can really love Jesus, and I would not necessarily know that about you. But in Israel, you kind of—it’s melting down a little bit—but the whole rejection of religion kind of makes you what you are. So it’s important to me that people of my general background can own these histories and these traditions. It’s kind of a statement: this is not anyone else’s; this is mine and everyone else’s.
Mosheh is an opera, but I think that opera is a popular art form. The fact that Opera, with a big “O”, is kind of a refined, self-selecting, elitist form is because it has this history. The big opera houses are like museums. They present pieces from other periods, but obviously, when those pieces were written, they were popular art. The Metropolitan Opera does what it does really well, as a museum. If you love it, okay, then it’s great. Then you go to the Met and, at least musically, it’s really well done. But the way things are done—I mean, you have famous singers and famous conductors, and they don’t really rehearse. So the role of the director is really more that of a designer. The director does not really do a lot with the action. There’s no time for rehearsals; it’s such a huge thing to put together, and rehearsal hours are very expensive. So it’s really about the design, and sometimes that’s really successful and the singers don’t really do that much dramatically.
But take Einstein on the Beach. It’s a multimedia piece with poetry and music and movement and design and all that stuff, but when Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson created it, they didn’t think they were creating opera. In fact, they were sort of rejecting it. From what I read, I don’t think they wanted the work to be known as an opera. But what do you know? The opera tradition embraced it. It is an opera. This is exactly how I feel about it; opera is not about the voice or vocal production, and it’s not about the grandiosity of it, and it’s not about everything we associate with it. It’s about the fact that it’s a dramatic work that puts music at the center. And that’s it. And then, really, the door is open. I mean, music videos are another way of doing something operatically—except that you want it to be ambitious artistically to say that, okay, it’s an opera.
There is no reason to dumb down or talk down to anybody, but whatever you create, it’s for other people. Whatever I write, I want people to like it. If it comes out feeling like avant-garde, my hope is that I’ll get an opportunity to have people hear it more and they’ll understand it and enjoy it. But on the basic materials—harmonically and all that—it’s actually very accessible music.
I don’t believe in the demise of music in any way. I mean, people find different ways to be musical; it’s more active or more passive. But even the most ordinary pop recordings that people listen to on their iPods are musically sophisticated. People in the classical world sometimes don’t appreciate that enough. Personally, I did not grow up listening to opera. As a young person, I listened to rock; I listened to what was available. British rock and all those bands. And a lot of them were moving in the direction of opera. The albums would get more thematic, and there were stories. The imagery on the covers of the albums was very imaginary and poetic. And if one’s tendency is to keep searching for something more interesting and more unusual, well…
My experience with Klaus Nomi is a perfect example. Here was this German cabaret artist who died very young and only put out a couple of albums. He’s performing this rock cabaret, but he’s got a few Broadway tunes and some arias on his albums. I didn’t know they were operatic arias, but they are, and they’re fantastic. Or there was this band, Siouxsie and the Banshees. They have a recording of a live show that starts with Stravinsky. So, from not knowing anything, you’re like, “oh, this is fantastic stuff, so what is it?” And then you start opening opera records, and it’s got all that, but it’s even more. The poetry and music are intense. So, for me, there was a feeling of “this is what I should be doing.” It kind of swallowed me. A lot of people think opera is out there, but what I am trying to say is, no, it’s not out there. I try to convey that with my work. I don’t want it to be elitist at all. I am trying to create meaningful work.
Now, how do you know if something is meaningful? Well, if it didn’t give you a reason to replay it again in your mind, that’s a clue for me that it wasn’t very meaningful. Here’s an example off the top of my head; I just rented Slumdog Millionaire. I have never been one to say Hollywood movies are basically bad and shallow, but really, I thought it was mostly a waste of time and it didn’t deserve all those Oscars. But there’s one moment where the bad brother is sitting in a bathtub full of money and he realizes that he is the villain in the story and that his brother needs to leave. And that was a great moment, because all of a sudden it sort of connected to something. All of a sudden, you felt the story had an ethical element. It never happens in real life. Usually, the villains go to their death believing they were right. But that’s a lesson, that’s a meaningful moment—not just because it’s ethical, but also because it’s aesthetic. The story has evolved to that point; the moment is organic. And maybe the next day it pops into your head. If it doesn’t do that—if you just sit through a work and are maybe entertained—there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not very meaningful.