The choice: life or death

The choice: life or death

Choreographer Joan Wagman orchestrates a dance routine with her performers, including Leon Zionts, on right,  during a rehearsal for “The Dybbuk” at the Hillman Center for the Performing Arts. The “bridegroom” puppet is played by 10-year-old Celia Cangiano. (Chronicle photo by Ohad Cadji)
Choreographer Joan Wagman orchestrates a dance routine with her performers, including Leon Zionts, on right, during a rehearsal for “The Dybbuk” at the Hillman Center for the Performing Arts. The “bridegroom” puppet is played by 10-year-old Celia Cangiano. (Chronicle photo by Ohad Cadji)

The 10th annual Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival will be unlike any previous season.

The venue has changed to the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. Also, instead of a series of programs, there will be just one — an adaptation of the “The Dybbuk.”

But what a show it will be.

“The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds,” will be a multimedia presentation. The production, which will have two performances — April 25 and 28 — takes the traditional Yiddish play by S. Ansky and turns it into a chamber opera that includes ballet, video art, choral groups, acting and puppetry.

In fact, the shear size and complexity of the undertaking prompted Aron Zelkowicz, the PJMF’s founder and director, to decide to do just one production this year.

“What people are going to see is a totally unique show; it’s never been done before this way,” Zelkowicz told the Chronicle.

Written by Ansky in 1914, “The Dybbuk” tells the story of Leah, a young woman in a Polish shtetl, near death, who is possessed by her dead lover, Hannan.  Leah must choose between life in an arranged marriage to a man she does not know and death with her beloved.

Dybbuk is a Yiddish word, meaning a malicious or malevolent possessing spirit.

The play — dark, spiritual and kabbalistic — occupies a seminal role in the development of Yiddish theater. It also has been adapted in many ways over the years. Aaron Copeland used it as the basis for a piano trio in 1929; filmmaker Michał Waszynski made it into a Yiddish movie in 1937; Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins turned it into a ballet in 1974.

“Because the scenes are somewhat abstract — they deal with life and death and spirituality — it lends it to many different versions,” Zelkowicz said.

Israeli composer Ofer Ben-Amots, who in 2007 wrote the music used in the PJMF production, said he interpreted the old story in two new ways:

“I wanted to make it a truly chamber opera piece — very small, nothing like Wagnerian opera,” Ben-Amots said in a phone interview from Colorado.

Second “Unlike the original ‘Dybbuk,’ I wanted to put Leah in the center, and put her thoughts and emotions into the center of the piece. In the original play, she’s just a young woman within a very Orthodox society where she doesn’t have much of a say; she’s being told who to marry and why, but she can’t express herself. This is from her perspective.”

Zelkowicz is directing the production while Pittsburgh choreographer Joan Wagman is working with the Texture Contemporary Ballet on the dance scenes.

They have been collaborating on the project for about a year, creating a show that will be half music, half dance — something new for the PJMF.

The cast includes the singers — soprano Yahli Toren who plays Leah, and baritone Guenko Guechev, plays the rabbi who exorcises the dybbuk — and Pittsburgh actor Leon S. Zionts portrays Leah’s father.

Clarinetist Gilad Harel, who, like Toren, is a veteran of past Dybbuk productions, plays music that stands in for the demon possessing Leah.

The bridegroom Leah is obligated to marry has no written role in the opera, which is where the life-size puppet comes in.

“The groom is silent, so we made the artistic decision to have the role portrayed by a silent puppet,” Zelkowicz said.

Celia Cangiano, a fourth-grader at Shady Side Academy, will man the puppet, which was designed by local puppeteer Cheryl Capezzuti.

The Pappert Women’s Chorale will sing a work set to a poem from a Chasidic parable, and the Children’s Festival Chorus also will perform and join in the finale.

The opera will be sung in Hebrew with English subtitles, making it the one operatic version of “The Dybbuk” done in Hebrew.

Zelkowicz had long wanted to collaborate with the PSO on Music for the Spirit.

“I came to the symphony with several options. What they were most interested in was this chamber opera.”

He said the idea gave the symphony a chance to do “something new that is interesting and unusual.”

The Jewish elements of the production will be many.

Wagman said the choreography incorporates Jewish ritual “movement” — the swaying of worshippers when they daven, the wrapping of one’s self in a tallit and the ripping of clothing when mourning.

“The music has a very spiritual quality,” Wagman said. “One thing both ritual and kabbala have in common is a strong appeal to the senses, our individual senses.

She has tried to convey that appeal to her dancers during rehearsals.

“I might have given the image of a sweet smell of a spice box,” she said. “I brought a tallit into rehearsal so the dancers could feel the silkiness.”

They even had a pared down seder, Wagman added.

Wagman, who has taught dance at Chatham University, has wanted to bring dance to the PJMF for some time, Zelkowicz said.

“She actually approached me about making ‘The Dybbuk’ four years ago, but she didn’t even know about this opera,” he said. “She had it in mind to do the Bernstein ballet, but I sensed in her an enthusiasm for the project.”

The stage set is spare. The main prop on stage — a specially designed casket — will morph into a bed, tomb, a table and an aron kodesh (holy ark) depending on the scene.

The rest of the setting will be done through a video installation that runs for most of the 90-minute performance. Video artist Sheri Wills, who has worked on previous presentations of “The Dybbuk,” created the video, which includes a beam of light (representing the dybbuk), a gravestone and a flickering candle and abstract images that convey the emotion of the music.

“Throughout the entire 90 minutes of the work you will see these beautiful, colorful images inspired by this work,” Zelkowicz said. “That fills our need to have an elaborately constructed set. The images you see on the screen will become our set.”

The many moving parts to this staging of “The Dybbuk” may pose something of an artistic “risk,” according to its producers, but it’s one worth taking.

“I don’t mind the risk,” Ben-Amots said. “Any production is like walking a tightrope, the higher the tightrope, the more interesting it is.”


(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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