Elijah's Violin - Young People's Opera Review
Opera Review of Elijah’s Violin: A Family Opera in One Act
Music by Meira Warshauer; Libretto by Susan Levi Wallach & Meria Warshauer; Dramaturg, Beth Greenberg
Review by Lynette Pfund
Princess Shulamit (Shula) – mezzo soprano
Prince Raphael (Rafi) – tenor
Mushroom Man/Elijah – bass/baritone
Auntie Malka – mezzo soprano (may double Princess Shulamit)
Zohara – soprano
Demons and other various characters – sopranos/altos, children chorus members
Flute, violin, cello, piano
Fairy tales and folk tales are wonderful for outreach operas. The stories are generally morality tales full of fantasy, adventure, honor, and reconciliation. Audiences of all ages deeply understand life’s obstacles and scary times, but with courage and a pure heart, heroic actions often lead to the freeing of great hidden powers. This is what we find out from the story of Elijah’s Violin.
Though it is not necessary to know the background mythology to understand the plot, Elijah’s Violin is based in Jewish folk lore where the Prophet Elijah is a common heroic character. In the biblical story, Elijah does not die a humanly death, but is carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. As a result, he is thought to have the ability to come back to Earth to help those in need. He often takes on the persona of a poor Jewish wanderer, and only reveals his true self and power to those who are sincerely deserving.*
Picking a targeted audience for this piece is a bit challenging. Fourth grade students though middle school aged students would probably relate best to the story. There are aspects of the piece that may need to be adapted for both the age groups.
The opera should be shortened for younger students. Publicity information for the opera has it at about 50 minutes long. A recent performance of the piece, however, has it at about 55 minutes long from the first note to the last. If you take in consideration an introduction to the piece, bows at the end, and a Q&A session, then you are well over an hour. Sections such as scene 3.2 Auntie, I miss you… and the trio at the end of Scene 5.2 My Own Heart’s Song, could be cut without changing the plot. Scene 4.4, Hold It Close, has a nice interactive moment with the audience that will work with elementary aged students.
For middle school students a couple of changes should be considered. Rafi’s dialogue seems too young at the beginning of the opera. His wording is young, but his music is very mature, especially in comparison to the music of the children’s chorus. His dialogue becomes more like a preteen/young teen as the opera continues, which seems more like his natural character. Then with Scene 4.4 Hold It Close, one might consider skipping the moment that breaks the 4th wall and asks the audience to make sounds to help Zohara find her courage. This might not be comfortable with middle school students.
This show calls for professional musicians, singers, and children’s chorus. The music is in a constant flux of meters and is very modern sounding through most of the opera. This is a show that will take some time to put together. The instrumental parts are a challenge, but interesting. There is a beautiful violin solo when Zohala first plays the violin. In most of the instrumental parts, there is a great range of modern technical playing that young audiences will find interesting and should be studied beforehand so that the fascinating sounds are not upstaged by the drama of the story.
The singing parts have challenges for all the soloists and call for the usage of their full rage. Each of the main characters have arias and some of them have more than one. The arias for Shula and Auntie Malka are quite beautiful. The bass/baritone arias for the Mushroom Man/Elijah are funny and add nice comic relief. Although the three characters, Schula, Rafi, and Zohara, are supposed to be young, their music says otherwise. Rafi and Zohara have emotionally charged music and the greatest dramatic arc.
The chorus is in most of the opera and plays an important part in managing the drama. The music for the chorus is beautiful especially when it splits into parts. The call for a children’s chorus adds a profound sound experience in relation to the professional singers. I am sure that college aged students could be used instead of children, but it would not be as effective.
There are several themes in the opera that could be linked with elementary and middle school curriculums. Fairy tales and folk tales are in many elementary classroom studies, and Elijah’s Violin could extend classroom learning. This opera could also be linked with elementary schools focusing on social emotional training to help their students choose high character values such as gratitude, courage, forgiveness, and active compassion. For middle school students, this opera offers windows for curricular assistance with creative writing, history, cultural studies, and high character reinforcement. Shula, Rafi, and Zohaha are around the same age as middle school students, and each of them deal with their own “coming of age” struggles that are totally relatable to this target audience.
Overall, this project has potential. It has an interesting story that has many appealing characteristics for young audiences. The story jumps quickly from scene to scene with little need for props or set pieces. If this show were done more elaborately (which would be very interesting), then set changes may become an issue, but a creative director would have ideas of how to manage things. There is little need for costume changes, unless a director has a desire for the chorus to change costumes. The chorus is constantly going on and off stage, so there is time to make costume changes. Because of the children’s chorus, it may not be a perfect fit for traveling opera outreach, but again there are creative ways around this with the use of a smaller chorus or a chorus of college students.
*The Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Ausubel, Crown Publishers, New York, 1948, p.447,448.
Lynette Pfund – Reviewer