The Sons of Abraham
Abram (Abraham): The chosen of God, the father/leader of many
Sarai (Sarah): Beloved wife of Abraham
Hagar: Egyptian slave of Sarai, mother of Ishmael
Ishmael: First son of Abraham by Hagar, father of the Arabs
Isaac: Second son of Abraham by Sarah, father of the Hebrews
Chorus: The tribe of Abraham
Set Design: All of the scenes take place in the desert with sand dunes, rocks and palm trees that move around in various combinations to create the different scenes, indicating the shifting sands, and a dramatic sky that is constantly changing.
Scene One - Canaan
Set: Desert with only sand and sky, lit very dramatically.
Abram appears from center stage, as if he had climbed up the other side of the dune and come to the rise from behind, but also suggesting that he is rising up from the earth. He stands at the top of a high mound looking out over the audience.
He has led his people through the desert wilderness, and he is seeing for the first time the land promised to him by God. The dramatic lighting in the sky acts as a device to let us know that he is communicating with God and God is speaking back. The music and the lights are the voice for God. Abram sings an aria of struggle, resolve, devotion, faith and triumph.
At the end of this aria we see his followers coming over the rise to join him. The sand dunes shift to show movement until they settle into what seems a secure and pleasing arrangement. The followers of Abram have claimed their home. The tribes-people sing of their weariness, their victory. Their singing evolves into a working song as they erect tents and make a settlement. The night is coming and the lights dim as a bonfire is lit, which gives the feeling of an enclosed intimate space filled by the firelight, producing a warm and homey glow under the stars that appear overhead. The tribes-people settle down from their tasks. Sarai enters the clearing, brings a pot to put on the fire, and warms herself by the flames. She sings a moving aria of her relief to be at the end of the long journey, her hope for a new beginning, and her pleasure in being the wife of Abram, mother of a new tribe. We see her lust for power and her fears that she is infertile played out in this song. In the same way that the sky was singing and responding back to Abram, Sarai is singing to the fire and the flames are dancing with the music in acknowledgement.
Abram joins her on stage, and they sing a duet. He sings to the heavens, and she sings to the flames, bringing together spirit and earth, setting the 'world in place'. They are creating the Garden from which the fruit of separation will grow. At this point the stage is lit only by the illumination from the moon and stars and the glow of the fire. The love duet is hauntingly beautiful and echoes into the vast desert and centuries into the future.
Scene Two - The Well
Set: A well has been dug, and it is the center of the encampment. We see the tent of Abram and Sarai, which is large, and that of Hagar, which is small. It is sunrise.
The entire encampment wakes up and comes to life. All the activity is centered around the well as the company sings about the struggle to survive in the desert, their gratitude for the water of the well and for God's blessing, and the joys of being a tribe. A pregnant girl is the occasion for much celebration, and they sing the praises of fertility and new life.
Sarai directs Hagar to fetch the water and do household chores. They sing in counterpoint - two songs that intertwine. Sarai sings of her need to give birth to a son, and Hagar sings of her need to be free. Their emotions soar in spots and both of them reach a high dramatic note at the same time, emphasizing that regardless of their differences their feelings of longing and pain are the same. They sing as they move to their respective tents.
The scene and lighting shifts so it is later in the day, and the focus is on Sarai and Abram in their tent. They sing a duet about her barrenness. She is distraught, desperate, powerful and fierce. He is resigned, strong and calm. At the same time, the light is still dim on Hagar's tent and she continues to quietly sing her song of freedom that weaves through the duet of Sarai and Abram. At the end of this number, we know that they are going to approach Hagar to bear Abram's child. The lights dim as night falls, and Abram makes his way to Hagar's tent as Sarai sings of her divided emotions.
Scene One - The Separation
Thirteen years later
Set: The center of the encampment is more built up and has an oasis quality from the passage of time. There are decorations for a celebratory ritual.
There is a celebration in camp. Ishmael, son of the tribal leader, is coming of age. There is dancing, feasting and joyous music. Lots of ritualistic chanting is part of this
ceremony. Above this chanting, Hagar, Abram and Ishmael each sing of their exalted feelings on this occasion. But Sarai is standing off to the side, absorbed in her thoughts. At the end of the ritual, Sarai goes to Abram, takes his hand, and bursts forth with the news that she is with child. She sings of her joy, of the miracle of God's blessing, but there is a melancholy to it. The energy of celebration changes to confusion. A subtle separation has just happened and everyone there seems to sense it. Sarai begins to sing a lullaby to the child in her womb. Abram joins in, expressing his joy that God's prophecy to him will be fulfilled: Sarai will bear a child and, as a mark of this covenant, God has declared that they are to be known as Abraham and Sarah and the son to be born will be named Isaac. Then, one by one, the tribes people join in the singing. Hagar stands apart and alone.
Scene Two - Birth of Isaac
Set: It is dusk and the sky is very dramatic with a sunset that is at once ablaze as in war and the lights of jubilant celebration. The tent where the birth is happening is in silhouette.
The midwives sing of new life and the birth of Sarah's son, intermingled with the screams and cries of her labor pains, all mixed together dramatically. We see the shapes of the midwives tending to the birthing as they sing their background song expressing the burden of womanhood and also the rich joy in it.
Out front, Ishmael sings of his excitement to have a brother to love and teach and share things with. He has just become a man, and now he has a brother. It's a beautiful song of pride of manhood and of brotherhood to counter the songs of the women in the tent. He rejoices at the cries of birth with excitement and eagerness. He has no guile or sense of any threat that this birth could pose to him. He sings to his God in the sky, rejoicing in gratitude and love, and the sky responds with subtle changes of shape and color.
When his aria ends and the song of the women softens to a hum, Hagar enters and joins her son. She sings of fear, doubt and jealousy – separation -- and we watch as Ishmael loses his innocence. As she sings of the threat that Isaac poses to their well-being and their position in the tribe, he goes through denial, refusal, anger at his mother, anger with his father, then sadness and tears. This song is as sad and foreboding of doom as his earlier one was joyous and happy to be sharing the garden of love with all. At the end of this song, Ishmael is confused, but he reminds Hagar of God's prophecy that he will be the father of a nation and a great leader of men, and in response to his mother's doubts and fears, he reassures her that they will survive to fulfill their destiny.
Scene One - The Rift
Set: Outside the tent of Sarah and Abraham. The tent has become more elaborate, and some palm trees are growing.
Sarah sings to Abraham about the boys, her concerns that Isaac idolizes Ishmael because he is older, and that it would create a problem if Abraham and Sarah die. Who would be the first born? Who would the people follow? It becomes a duet as Abraham joins in with the voice of love countering her fears. Her voice is high and shrill; his is low and mellow. They vocally spar until he can't stand it anymore, and he goes outside to be alone. He walks up a dune and sings to God. The music seems to be speaking back to him and we feel his acceptance, as if God has given him the answer. He ends his entreaty to God and comes back to the tent where he joins Sarah and gives in to her will. He agrees that Hagar and Ishmael will have to leave. He sings to her about the message from God and that He has reassured Abraham that Ishmael will be a great leader for numberless generations to follow. They sing a great duet about destiny.
Scene Two - The Expulsion
Set: The center of the encampment with the well
The sands shift and the lights go off the tent and come up on Hagar and Ishmael at the well, filling their flasks and preparing for their journey. Abraham joins them, and the three of them sing a heartbreaking song about parting. Hagar sings of her anger and sense of betrayal, Ishmael sings of his sadness and determination to succeed, and Abraham sings of his need to follow God's will and fulfill destiny. As they sing they walk up a rise and away from the encampment. At a certain point, with much pathos all around, Abraham leaves them, promising that he will be with them always. Hagar and Ishmael slowly walk off into the dunes, their song of farewell echoing and fading away.
Scene One - Burial of Abraham
Many years later
Set: Sand dunes and a sky of blue so luminous and clear that it almost balances the sorrow and solemnity and foreboding of centuries of hatred that the scene
playing out onstage represents. There is a large cave opening in the front center stage - the gaping grave of Abraham. The stage is split between the tribe of Ishmael and the tribe of Isaac. The costumes and look of the two tribes suggest the future differences between the Arabs and the Hebrews.
There is a funeral procession. It moves in slow motion. We see each tribe entering from the sides to join in behind Isaac and Ishmael, who appear from behind a dune in the rear of the stage. They are the first of six men carrying on their shoulders the bier with Abraham's covered body. The music is a very deep dirge, with wailing in rage and grief. With this ritual, the last tie that binds is being broken. The tribal innocence
is being buried forever. Everyone senses the loss, and deep down no one wants this to be the truth. This produces a climactic catharsis as we mourn the tragedy that is created through the ages by this separation.
They carry Abraham's body into the yawning abyss of the cave, and as they do so the sky goes wild with aliveness - not a storm, but the awakening of a presence that is gathering in the sky. It is the Spirit of Abraham, watching over the scene.
Isaac sings with sublime pride and arrogance, that he is the chosen one. Ishmael sings of his rights as the first born, and of his shame, jealousy and anger at being sent away and his passion to overcome his rejection. He vows to regain his pride and get back what is his own. The sons sing to the sky - to the spirit of their father and the future. Each of the sons asks his father for forgiveness, to know of his love and for guidance on the path from here on out. The songs of the two sons convey the complex emotion behind the division of our age. Underneath these solos is the steady drone of a requiem for the future, sung by the chorus.
After the final solo there is a very long silence that lasts so long that the audience becomes uncomfortable. Is it over? Finally, out of the silence comes the whisper of a man's voice. It is Abraham's voice, but he is singing as if he is far away, down in the cave or up in heaven. The melody is beautiful and healing, a balm to all the strife that had come before. Everyone is comforted and soothed by the music and the sound of the voice. But the words are the focus.
The spirit of Abraham tells his sons that there is no split. You have made this up. You are both calling for love and I love you both equally. You are brothers - you are the same in God's love and mine. This separation is just an illusion of difference. Forgive this false veil of lies and come together and love one another as one family. God has promised that through my seed all the people of the earth shall be blessed.
As he sings, the sons go through reactions, but at the end of the aria they come together and touch hands. The finale begins as the sons raise their voices to join in with their father and sing of oneness in the love of God.As this song is sung, the procession starts to file out, climbing up a dune and disappearing down the other side. Finally, the sons part ways at the top of the rise and the stage is empty again. They all have disappeared into the sand, which is opposite to the beginning of the opera. The music has a very powerful melody that continues to play as the audience leaves the theater.
The lights come up filling the stage with brilliance. The stage remains this way through all the applause and curtain calls until everyone has left the theater.
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