Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Opera 'Parables' asks big religious questionsby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — Do people who are Muslims, Jews or Christians ever think about the other religion's God? That's one of the questions posed in "Parables," which opens tonight at the University of Minnesota.
The piece was commissioned a few years ago to address tolerance and reconciliation among adherents of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein told Minnesota Sounds and Voices reporter Dan Olson they didn't find much of either in the sacred texts.
Douglas and Andrew Reeves, who commissioned the work in appreciation of their parents, will attend the Minneapolis performances and bring their 90 year old mother for one of them.
Aldridge is the son of a Presbyterian minister and he says creating "Parables" renewed questions he had about his own beliefs: "Christianity is such a beautiful faith, but why is Jesus the Savior and no one else the savior, why is this the only way?"
Aldridge asked his longtime collaborator Garfein, who is Jewish, to write the story for "Parables." Garfein says he immersed himself in the Torah, Koran and Bible to find examples of religious tolerance and was taken aback at what he discovered.
"I couldn't find too many [examples] at all. I thought I was going to find quite a lot and really there are very, very few," he says. Instead, Garfein says what he found among the sacred texts was religious triumphalism: "'Our religion is clearly better than yours. We hold nothing against yours. But someday eventually you'll see the light, and we'll all be saved under my terms and not your terms.' And of course that's not really religious tolerance."
Parables premiered in Topeka, Kan., in 2010 with chorus, soloists and orchestra. The University of Minnesota production is even larger. The U's Opera Theater Director David Walsh has added acting, costumes, dancers and lighting effects.
The production also has a community component. Most of the performers are U faculty and students, but because the production is so big -- more than 200 people -- some performers are from local outside groups. The scene at a recent "Parables" rehearsal at the U's Ted Mann Hall reflects the scale of the undertaking. Chorus members just out of class or work filter in. High school dancers from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts arrive, perch and wait for instructions.
Walsh, Garfein and Aldridge also participated in a forum on religious tolerance for 120 Twin Cities high school as the production was being rehearsed.
Anyone expecting to hear answers to the big questions posed by the opera will leave empty-handed; parables isn't a story or morality tale with a plot and conclusion. The work takes elements from the Koran, the Torah and the Bible and puts them to music. Soloists and the chorus pose the religious ideas as statements and questions. The closest it comes to preaching is the assertion by the chorus that, "When faith is stripped of triumph we will hear the God of others speak."
Garfein says "Parables" lays out some ideas and encourages people to ask questions.
"One god. One god. One god. It's a massive utterance, but of course it's very ambigious," Garfein says. "Is it a cry for there to be only one god? It's rather unclear. And it's meant to be."
The dramatic orchestral settings set the tone for the audience's experience.
"We want to unsettle people first before we settle them," Garfein said. "One of the somewhat devious motivations of artists is to destabilize sometimes before you stabilize because you want to shake people into, 'OK, this is not what you've heard before, this is not what's been said before.'"
If you go: "Parables" runs through Sunday at Ted Mann Hall in Minneapolis. Click here to visit the Ted Mann Hall website for details.
- All Things Considered, 04/19/2012, 5:54 p.m.