Q&A WITH JOSEPH SKIBELL >>

Opera is artistic act of remembrance

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | May 20, 2013

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Emory professor Joseph Skibell. Photo by Jeffrey Allen.

"A Blessing on the Moon," Emory professor Joseph Skibell's first novel, is a deeply personal allegory of the experiences of European Jews during the Holocaust. Fifteen years after first being published, it is being reborn in an opera adaptation from musician Andy Teirstein. Excerpts from the opera will be presented in a workshop performance on Thursday, May 23 at 7 p.m. in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts followed by a panel discussion with the actors and creative team.

The novel follows Chaim Skibelski, a character patterned and named after Skibell's own great-grandfather who perished in the Holocaust, on a journey somewhere between life and death as he wanders among the living searching for the peace that his death should have brought.

"A Blessing on the Moon" received the prestigious Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Skibell, professor of creative writing and English at Emory, discussed the adaptation with Emma Yarbrough for Emory Report:

You are working with musician Andy Teirstein to adapt your novel 'A Blessing on the Moon' into an opera. How does collaboration with an artist from another discipline alter your approach to adapting one of your own works?

Andy Teirstein approached me in 1999 or 2000 about adapting the novel into a contemporary opera and asking me to collaborate with him. At the time, I had no interest in breaking down and rebuilding a piece that had meant so much to me when I wrote it. However, I admired Andy's music — it is simultaneously beautiful, intelligent, lyrical and complex — and I encouraged him to pursue the project. He couldn't find a librettist who could really approximate the tone of the book, so I took pity on him and told him that if I didn't have to sit in a room alone, I'd do it with him, and that's what we did. We spent two weeks together breaking down the book. Andy manned the computer so he was the final editor. This made sense since he'd be the one composing the music. Later. Alone. In a room by himself. It was a pleasure to work together this way. I could problem solve but I didn't have to type: a writer's dream.

Teirstein worked with you on an adaptation for the stage of 'A Blessing on the Moon' for Theater Emory's 2007 Brave New Works playwriting festival. Does this opera continue the work that started then, or have you taken it in a new direction?

That project has nothing really to do with this project. The choreographer's composer on that project dropped out and the choreographer asked me to recommend a composer. I knew three composers and Andy was the one the choreographer chose. The only overlap is that Andy and I enjoyed hanging out and working together and that encouraged both of us to pursue the opera afterwards.

What about this novel in particular compels people to attempt adaptation for the stage?

I'm perfectly happy with it being only a novel. The opera, really, is Andy's vision. That said, I was very moved when, in the performance in Vancouver, the character playing my great-grandfather — he was murdered by the Germans in the Shoah — calls out from the stage in one scene, "I am Chaim Skibelski!" I thought to myself, I'd like actors on stages all over the world to cry out "I am Chaim Skibelski." It felt like an act of artistic resurrection and remembrance.

After the workshop, what's the next step for the opera?

Well, we workshopped and performed the first part in 2012 in New York at Le Poisson Rouge and at an arts fest in Vancouver. The workshop at Emory, sponsored in part by the Goldwasser Fund, the Creative Writing Program, the Center for Ethics and NYU, will give us an opportunity to hear most of the second half. We've had interest in the piece from companies in Germany, Poland, the U.S., Canada and Israel. We're really looking for a producer who can string all these things together and take the project to the performance stage. So far we've had marvelous and generous people working with us on this — singers, musicians, the arts festival producer — and I hope we'll find a producer who will really make the piece his or her own.