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IN THE BEGINNING

Local composer stages a showdown between the two women of Eden

for The Brooklyn Paper
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For Brooklyn native Deborah Drattell - whose first full-length opera, "Lilith," receives its world premiere at New York City Opera on Nov. 11 - telling stories through music has always been part of her personal style, even before she began composing vocal music.

"My orchestral and chamber music always told a story," says the 45-year-old Drattell during an exclusive interview with The Brooklyn Papers at City Opera’s offices, where she was overseeing rehearsals. "Then, one day, I finally woke up and said, ’You know, I can actually use texts.’ Then, when I started writing vocal music, I found it very liberating and once I started, I couldn’t stop."

"Lilith" is the latest fruit of those liberating labors. Based on the apocryphal tale about the mythical woman who was said to be married to Adam before he became Eve’s mate, Drattell’s opera is her second to be staged at City Opera. (The first, 1999’s "Festival of Regrets," one of three short operas under the rubric "Central Park," had a libretto by playwright Wendy Wasserstein.)

Drattell, who grew up in Manhattan Beach and lived in Brooklyn Heights for eight years before moving to her current home in the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush, has been intrigued by the story for quite some time, as she readily admits.

"It started out as an 11-minute, purely orchestral piece for the Denver Symphony that I wrote several years ago," she explains. "But her story just stayed with me, and I eventually wanted to make an opera out of it." She did just that, thanks to a commission by the Meet the Composer series.

Drattell’s initial interest in the Lilith tale made her dig deeper to find out more.

"There’s only a little bit written about Lilith, and I found out a lot more about her story through a woman in Israel who specializes in studying women in the Kabbalah and the Torah," she says. "After that, I knew I wanted to start the opera at the grave of Adam, which to me is an amazing way to begin, but I also wanted it to have a credible dramatic progression, not just seem like some crazy made-up story."

When "Lilith" had its first performance in a concert version at Glimmerglass Opera near Cooperstown, NY, in the summer of 1998, it was done as a chamber opera, with relatively few musicians in the orchestra.

"That was a concert version that I’d done for chamber ensemble, about 13 players," Drattell says. "I always work from full score [writing out the music for each instrumental section], which is a little bit backwards from how most composers do it, so I ended up taking away instruments to arrive at that version for the first concert performance. What’s going to be performed at City Opera will be a full-length opera with a full orchestra."

"Lilith" will feature the City Opera’s reigning diva - and one of America’s current superstar sopranos - Lauren Flanigan. But she will not be performing the title role, which may surprise her legions of faithful fans.

"I always envisioned the role of Eve for Lauren Flanigan," says Drattell. "Some people thought she’d be better as Lilith, but I always thought of her as Eve. I really wanted to see her as the mother and the nurturer, even though people might have expected her to play Lilith. Also, Eve always was written as a soprano, and Lilith as a mezzo."

But what Drattell says next should sate Flanigan fanatics: "Vocally, Eve is actually a larger role - Lilith [played by mezzo Beth Clayton] doesn’t even appear until the end of the first act."

As Drattell showed in "Festival of Regrets," her vocal music is utterly contemporary, but accessible. But when asked to describe her style, she treads lightly.

"I think it’s hard for a composer to categorize herself," she states. "While there are things in common throughout all my pieces, the vocal writing is quite different from the instrumental writing. I use a lot of modality, both Jewish music and Middle Eastern music are an influence, and I even use minimalist techniques as a base. I mix lots of different styles together."

As befits her gregarious personality, Drattell has much more coming up after she sees "Lilith" staged for the first time. On the docket, she says, is another operatic collaboration with Wasserstein: "She was a dream to work with. We’re working together on another opera, a full-length one this time, a contemporary story based on the Clare Booth Luce play ’The Women’ [which is also getting a Broadway revival starting this month]."

And that’s not all. "I’ve just finished another opera, on commission from the L.A. Opera and Placido Domingo, called ’Nicholas and Alexandra’ [about Russia’s final czar]," she says. "And I’m also developing another, more contemporary Lilith story."

With all that, for Deborah Drattell, there can be nothing more satisfying than composing operas. Smiling, she adds, "It’s what I really want to do."

 

Deborah Drattell’s "Lilith" premieres at New York City Opera, New York State Theater, 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan on Nov. 11 at 1:30 pm, with additional performances Nov. 15 and Nov. 17. Tickets are $25-$98. For more information, go to www.nycopera.org on the Web or call (212) 870-5630.

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