“Yo-Yo Ma was over the house yesterday … he was begging me to go to the piano and play a few notes and I said I wasn’t ready yet.”
While the renowned composer John Williams could have uttered those words, last week they belonged to Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, who was discussing his first — opera.
“[Yo-Yo] says he loves process, he loves to see how the process works so he wants to talk to me when I am a little further along about how I’m doing.”
In his contemporary ranch-style home in Cambridge, surrounded by a vast and varied collection of art, the legal scholar listened on a recent afternoon to his project’s muse, smiling at the sound of the singer’s resonant voice, despite the age of the recording. Half-conducting along to the music, eyes occasionally closed, Dershowitz was quick to point out the vocal depth and feeling coming from the speakers.
“He wasn’t singing; he was praying. You can hear in his voice, I think — a lot of the passion. You get a sense of the power of his voice.”
The inspiration for Dershowitz’s inaugural opus is the famous Jewish cantor Gershon Sirota. A contemporary of the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, to whom he was often compared, Sirota lived in Poland’s Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation in the 1930s and ’40s. Although at one point he was offered a chance to leave to sing in the United States, the cantor chose to stay and ultimately died at the hands of the Germans.
While listening to a Sirota recording about 15 years ago, Dershowitz read the back of the album cover and discovered this tragic story. Since then he has been on a slow, steady mission to bring the singer’s life to the stage in operatic form, even traveling to Warsaw to see where Sirota performed.
“He had the most magnificent voice you could imagine,” said Dershowitz, adding that Sirota’s story fits well in the opera world. “[It] is a simple but poignant one, which are the best operas.”
To those who know the Harvard professor’s prolific drive, the project probably comes as no surprise. With what seems like an endless supply of energy, Dershowitz has turned out 27 works of nonfiction, two novels, and hundreds of articles over the years, not to mention his long and distinguished legal and teaching career. His most recent book is “Finding Jefferson: A Lost Letter, A Remarkable Discovery, and the First Amendment in an Age of Terrorism” (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007). But this is his first musical endeavor.
Though he says he loves the law, Dershowitz admits music and art are his two real passions.
“My greatest passion is sitting amongst the art listening to music and writing or reading.”
The Brooklyn native’s musical roots run deep and directly back to his hometown. Both his grandfathers were cantors, and his mother loved to sing and inspired in him her own love of music and voice. But some of his most memorable early musical moments revolved around the local cantors.
“I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn in which the rock stars were cantors,” he said. “We had four or five eminent cantors in the neighborhood and we would go from synagogue to synagogue and compare.”
As a young boy, Dershowitz performed in temple choirs. At 14 he attended his first Metropolitan Opera performance for 50 cents. He was allowed in at a discount, he recalled, as were all students who arrived with a copy of the opera’s entire score in tow. He fell in love and has been a regular ever since. Today, he can happily afford to sit where he likes. His favorite spot is the front row, directly behind the conductor, where he can see all the action unfold.
“I love to watch the conductor and I love to watch the orchestra and I like to see the interplay,” he said.
Dershowitz said the model for his score is the Italian opera “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which uses traditional melodies from Sicily as a base for its musical themes. He aims to do something similar, employing traditional sacred Jewish music as his opera’s foundation. His story unfolds in three acts and revolves around three Jewish holidays: Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover.
“[I want to] sketch out what I think are the appropriate traditional melodies with a couple of my own melodies and then, when I’m ready, turn it over to a major [composer] … who would be willing to work with me using my suggestions. I would have a vote but not a veto. The only thing I would insist on is that the music reflect the traditional liturgy.”
For Dershowitz, the composition process is a rudimentary one. He sits at his black, electronic piano, tucked like a musical Cinderella in a tiny corner under the stairwell. He taps out one note at a time with a small pad of paper nearby and captures his melody on an old-style tape recorder, playing it back and singing it out loud. He knows he will need to enlist the help of an accomplished composer to get the complex orchestration down, and he has already had some early interest.
Though he is well-advanced with the libretto, he is thankful there’s no concrete deadline for the project.
“Every book had a deadline, every brief has a deadline, every class,” said Dershowitz. “I just want to do this slowly. … As Yo-Yo said to me yesterday, ‘Enjoy the process.’ And that’s what I really want to do. The process is what’s fun.”