Composer Deborah Drattell got turned on to Lilith by a single word: “succuba.”
“Do you know that word?” Drattell asks, excited about the term Webster’s 2nd defines as “a woman demon supposed to descend upon and have intercourse with a man while he sleeps.”
“She was called a succuba and I just thought, ‘What a great word!’ So my first concept of her was really this demon, this she-demon. Also, having been pregnant at the time and thinking of this woman squatting and giving birth to thousands of demonic babies—that was great!”
New York City Opera’s composer-in-residence is markedly cheerful considering she’s discussing one of the darkest figures of Jewish lore. But then again, the tormented, often literary, spirits that haunt Drattell’s compositions don’t seem to get her down. She has composed around works by Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath, and her opera about Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva is entitled A Captive Spirit. The mysteriously disappeared Russian princess Anastasia is the apple of her eye.
“I see myself as a happy person,” says Drattell, laughing at her own two-sided self. “I don’t see myself as a dark person, but it’s what I write, it’s inside me. . . . What attracts me musically are dark things and brooding ideas and churning. Light happy music—I just can’t do it.” One attempt to engage more light-hearted material ended abruptly: “I just started to sweat, I broke out in a panic and just said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t.’. . . I can do one funny character, but I just couldn’t write a funny opera.” (We’ll see how she does in her next project, a collaboration with the unquenchably funny Wendy Wasserstein about a New York lady doing tashlich in Central Park.)
There are no funny characters in Lilith, which will premiere as an unstaged production at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, in August. The drama begins at the newly filled grave of Adam, as Eve and her children confront their loss and the demon-children of Lilith demand their birthright. Explains Eve to her frightened children: “From the past these creatures come/beating on a demon’s drum…. Their torn and twisted souls were born/To the man whom we all mourn.”
Drattell says she had to kill off Adam because “I wanted the opera to be about Eve and Lilith and their confrontation, and how Eve was going to cope with Adam’s death and how she was going to confront the whole concept of Lilith finally. . . . Lilith was always present, even throughout Adam’s union with Eve. What Eve is saying is, ‘I had to contend with you throughout my whole marriage.'”
In Drattell’s fantasies, Eve and Lilith are not so much characters of mythology as our emotional and psychological peers. “I can think of so many people I have known whose husbands have mistresses and they decide, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to close my eyes and not pay attention to it because the other things I have are more important to me,'” she says, explaining Eve. “But then what happens when he’s gone? What happens to all that anger that you’ve repressed over all those years, and all the things you think you didn’t get and how unfulfilled you were?” As for Lilith’s turn toward evil, Drattell is sympathetic: She “was repressed. She asserted herself and then [received] all this condemnation afterwards. So what happens when you suppress somebody and their desires? It kind of goes awry.”
Drattell has a lot of compassion for Eve and Lilith and, with librettist David Steven Cohen, struggled to understand that in this Jewish version of the Madonna-whore syndrome, each role carries its benefits and its burdens “It’s not good versus evil,” Drattell says. “I think the two of them really add up to what we would want to be the ultimate and complete woman. A mother and a nurturer and yet this dark seductress, in-control type of person, so it really adds up to what I think a lot of women strive for today.”
Drattell’s own relationship with this team of women is complicated. On the one hand, she’s the good Orthodox wife, married to the descendant of eight generations of Orthodox rabbis, maintaining a Jewish home, and caring for her four children, ages two, four, six and eight. Her day begins with dressing and feeding her three eldest children, making them lunch, driving them to school, and handing the littlest one off to a babysitter. “And then,” entering her parallel life, “I come back and eat breakfast and I write.” In a room with a piano, where children are not invited, she leaves the can-do world of Jewish mothering for the more secular, distraught material through which, intellectually, she thrives.
“I guess what I identify most with are women,” she tells me, reflecting on her choice of subjects. “I don’t put myself in the same category as these women who’ve struggled . . . but certainly the difficulty of trying to have a career in a man’s world and a man’s profession, and also trying to have a family, being a mother.”
As we make our way through the shopping district of Drattell’s Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, we join a crowd of agitated women doing their last-minute shopping on a Thursday afternoon. On Fridays they cook, Saturdays they rest. But Thursdays this avenue heats up as women squeeze into a tiny vegetable stand and, in the intimate kosher supermarket, elbow their way toward the brisket.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Stollman,” a stock boy says amiably to Drattell, who, negotiating the small grocery space with a cart and her two-year-old child, is gently fretting over the selection of meat. I look at the stock boy, confused. For the past hour, I have been chatting with the composer-in-residence of the New York City Opera, whose work has been characterized by the dark and brooding character at its core. Though she lives in this religious neighborhood, and her four young children have made brief appearances with their babysitter, I have thought of her neither as a mother, nor as Orthodox, and certainly not as a Mrs. Anybody. Surprised at this transformation, I suggest to Drattell/Stollman that despite her very cosmopolitan life in the operatic community, she fits right in here as well.
“Yeah,” she laughs cynically. “I’m wearing my hat, but I have my sandals on and I’m not wearing stockings. I stick out like a sore thumb.”
Though she has made compromises to live here—she doesn’t wear pants in the neighborhood because “it just becomes too much of a statement. People treat your kids differently”—she insists that she’s not going to “squash” her career to conform. “I was brought up in a certain tradition with a certain kind of music that I was brought up to hear and that’s part of who I am and that’s what I want to write, so I’m also not going to not do that because maybe it’s not in vogue.”
Was she afraid that choosing one of Jewish lore’s primary demons might anger or disturb her religious community? “I really don’t weigh things like that. If I did I’d have to sit all day long and think about everything I did, you can imagine, should I do this, should I not do this, can I do this, lelele. I sort of define for myself how I’m going to live and I try to do it the best way I can.”
May the Curse Be Broken
If Lilith, the mythological figure, was cursed, she’s passed that on to her operatic descendant. (Let us only add that not all Lilith’s namesakes have been so fated.) This work, first written as an orchestral piece, was originally scheduled to premiere nine years ago with the Denver Symphony, where Drattell was doing her residency. “The music critic from the Rocky Mountain News called to say the orchestra was going to fold. So I sat there in a state of shock— actually I was pregnant—and I realized, not only was I not going to have this piece, it was not going to be performed, it was not going to be recorded and I was out of a job. So this,” she says laughing at her own misfortune, “was my first Lilith experience.”
The curse, however, continued. The sets had already been designed for Lilith, the opera, rehearsals had been essentially concluded, and The New York Times, in a full-scale feature about Drattell and her opera, announced one Sunday that the piece would open three days hence. Careful readers of the Times, however, might have noticed an item just one day earlier announcing the opera’s cancellation over labor disputes.
The curse, however, appears to be broken: Lilith, the opera, will be performed at the Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, New York, on August 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $8 for students. For tickets, please call (607) 547-2255.