When she first decided she wanted to compose an opera, Sora Jederan-Shpack made a list of all the topics she thought would make good fodder, specifically excluding anything having to do with religion or politics.
Then she went to sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, hearing the words “Deuteronomy 3” in her head, little did she know she soon would be working on an opera based on both religion and politics.
Jederan-Shpack, a single mother of six, was one of seven students represented at Carnegie Mellon University’s Student Composer Composition Concerts last month. “All the Walls,” her orchestral piece featured at the concert, is thematically connected to her work-in-progress opera, based on the life of King Josiah.
Returning to school full time at age 53, Jederan-Shpack is the embodiment of the “nontraditional student,” said Kristi Ries, communications manager of the Carnegie Mellon School of Music.
That may be an understatement.
Born in New Jersey, and raised in the tradition of Reform Judaism, Jederan-Shpack’s life journey has taken her to Utah as the wife of a Mormon, to Los Angeles as an Orthodox Jew, and to various teaching stints on the East Coast, taking a break from formal religion. She has taught flute and worked as a genealogical research consultant. Her untamed red hair and thrift-store hippy fashion sense belie the fact that she is a grandmother of three.
After her sixth child left the nest, and having recently recovered from a serious illness, Jederan-Shpack decided to finally do what she most wanted to do: compose.
“I went back to what I loved,” said Jederan-Shpack. “I got my flute out. I went to a drumming circle. I got myself into three choirs, then a flute choir. I just plunged myself into what I loved — my music.
“As I did that, I realized I had gained my own personal knowledge of what I wanted to pass on to my children, and to other people,” she said.
After getting some guidance from a composer’s forum at Cornell University while she was living and teaching in Ithaca, N.Y., she decided to get serious about writing an opera.
That’s when she awoke hearing the words “Deuteronomy 3.”
“I had been out of religion long enough that I didn’t know what Deuteronomy 3 was about, so I looked it up,” she said. Using a Judaic site on the Internet, she found that the chapter centered on Moses recounting his life story.
After a lot of research, Jederan-Shpack eventually was able to divide the passage into three sections: war, the inner turmoil of life and encouragement.
With a subject in hand, Jederan-Shpack was now ready to get serious about composing, and, after an audition process, was accepted into the master’s program at the Carnegie Mellon School of Music.
“So, I’m spending $50,000 a year because of one silly dream,” she quipped.
Once at CMU, her research into Deuteronomy led her to King Josiah, who recovered the lost Deuteronomy scroll in the sixth century B.C.E.
Then, she had an epiphany.
“I realized that [the dream about] Deuteronomy 3 was not about Moses, but about Josiah finding the scroll, and what he wanted for his people,” Jederan-Shpack said. “This was immense for me. I had to shift gears. I had to re-write while I was going to school and learning how to compose at a really high level. I switched gears and wrote a new outline for the libretto.”
To learn more about the times of King Josiah, Jederan-Shpack volunteered in the summer of 2009 at the Ramat Rachel Archaeological Excavation in Jerusalem. The excavation site includes the palace of none other than King Josiah.
While there, Jederan-Shpack says she became inspired by the story of King Josiah’s determination to protect his people from occupation by the Egyptians, and sacrificing his own life to do so.
The theme of her opera now began to take shape.
On her last day of work at Ramat Rachel, Israeli president and founder of the Peres Center for Peace, Shimon Peres, visited the site. Jederan-Shpack took the opportunity to speak with him.
“I shook his hand and told him I came here because I was writing an opera about King Josiah,” Jederan-Shpack said. “I told him that my story begins with a statement from the U.N. charter that says that when nations are in conflict, they shall first seek to negotiate. I asked him, ‘So, do you have a statement for my opera?’
“He nodded his head and said, ‘All the walls are only mistakes. Peace is the only hope,’” Jederan-Shpack recalled.
Her orchestral piece, “All the Walls,” inspired in part by the sentiments of Peres, is thematically connected to her opera, which juxtaposes the lives of a contemporary American military family sending a son off to fight in the Middle East with the story of King Josiah.
“In the final ending of the composition, walls come down because we are willing to look at hope,” she said. “Hope has to come first. It’s important to take a second look at how we can live together.”
Jederan-Shpack hopes to have community orchestras perform her work, and to encourage a dialogue about starting a new peace process in the Middle East.
Looking for someone to help her write the libretto for her opera, Jederan-Shpack remembers the advice of her grandfather, a Polish immigrant, about what creates a “great Yiddish play.”
“‘Five handkerchiefs, now that’s a great Yiddish play,’” she recalled him saying.
“It’s important for us to cry,” she continued. “That’s where the healing takes place. Theater and opera bring us there.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)