Sarah and Hagar, written with librettist Charles Kondek, is an opera in two acts, completed in 2008. The opera, with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, is based on the powerful story in the Book of Genesis about the origins of the Jewish and the Arab peoples, and about the intense personal struggle that goes on in the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar over the birth of their children Ishmael and Isaac.
There were many different reasons that the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael appealed to me as the basis of my first opera. I have always been fascinated with the stories in Genesis, and the idea of creating midrash from these stories. The particular spur to dramatizing this story was the desire to show the “double sacrifice” that Abraham has to make of his two children—that there is a clear parallel, in the way that the story is presented in the Bible, between the banishment and near-death of Ishmael, and the binding and near-death of Isaac.
As Charles Kondek and I worked on developing the libretto, it was clear that there were many choices to be made in telling of the story, which is presented so tersely in the Torah. What is the relationship of Sarah and Hagar before Hagar becomes Abraham’s concubine? What is it that Hagar does when she is pregnant that makes Sarah deal harshly with her? How do Sarah and Avraham regard Ishmael’s status in the years before Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac? What is it that Ishmael does that causes Sarah to ask Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael? These and many other questions were key to shaping the story as it would be presented on stage and in music.
The first act of the opera was presented in concert form in 2005; a recording of that performance, with Elizabeth Shammash, Ilana Davidson, and Robert Gardner in the principal roles, and conducted by Michael Adelson, is available on CD or mp3 by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org, or by download from oySongs.
SARAH AND HAGAR
Opera in two acts
Music by Gerald Cohen
Libretto by Charles Kondek
Cast, in Order of Vocal Appearance
Ishmael (as a boy) mezzo
1st Man tenor
2nd Man baritone
3rd Man bass
Itzhak (as a man) tenor
Ishmael (as a man) baritone
CHORUS: Figures, Elders, Neighbors/Relatives
(Note: The tenor singing 1st Man can double as the adult Itzhak; the baritone singing 2nd Man can double as the adult Ishmael.
Scene: Ancient Canaan
Synopsis of the opera:
Avram and Sarai (who will later be known as Avraham and Sarah) have lived for 15 years in the land of Canaan, where they have been promised to be the ancestors of a new people—however, they are old and childless.
Sarai cries out as she awakes from a recurring nightmare about the generations preceding her, and her barrenness. She is comforted by her handmaid Hagar, with whom she is very close; Hagar speaks of Sarai’s good fortune in having Avram as a loving husband. Together, they sing a lullaby to the child they wish for, and suddenly Sarai has an idea.
Avram reflects on his sadness, in spite of all that is good in his life, of not having a child, and of the as-yet unfulfilled promise from God.
Sarai tells Avram of her solution: she will give Hagar to Avram as a concubine, and Hagar will bear a child for them. Avram at first protests, saying that he is too old, but is convinced by Sarai’s persuasion–both sensuous and generational—and by Hagar’s consent, that indeed this could be the way for all of their lives to be fulfilled.
A crowd gathers and talks of the rumor—Hagar is to have a child, an heir for Avram!
Sarai rushes in to Hagar, and demands to know why Hagar had not told her that she was pregnant. Hagar says that she was waiting, wanting to keep the secret to herself for a while, and sings of her joy in having a life grow within her. Sarai is still angry that she was not told, and when Hagar, provoking, says “I only did what you were unable to do,” Sarai slaps her. The two women, stunned, embrace, and try to mend what has just happened between them.
There is an exuberant party celebrating the birth of Ishmael, Avram and Hagar’s son. Neighbors and relatives dance, and Avram joyously speaks of his child’s great future. When Sarai and Hagar enter, they and Avram have a quiet trio in which Sarai and Hagar each assert to themselves that the child “is mine.” Then we return to the party and its joyous dance—but the final image of the act is Hagar and Sarai staring tensely at each other.
Act II begins thirteen years later, as Sarah and Avraham stand, at dawn, reflecting on their long lives and the joy they have with each other and with Ishmael. Ishmael, now a teenager, is seen in the background, proudly tending the sheep. As the day’s heat arrives, three travellers appear, and announce that Sarah will give birth to a son—Itshak; Avraham and Sarah are at first bewildered, and then dare to believe this news. Hagar has overheard, and is worried what will then happen to her and to Ishmael.
There is once again a joyous party—this time celebrating the weaning of Itshak. At the celebration, Ishmael, in high spirits, dances around with Itshak, proclaiming to all: “Itshak, my brother!” Sarah, angry, is now resolved that she must take action to protect Itshak’s status as heir.
Sarah declares passionately to Avraham that Hagar and Ishmael must be banished. Avraham is deeply pained, but feels that he must follow Sarah’s will. Hagar enters, pleading. After a trio in which each sings of the painful emotions of this moment, Avraham tells Hagar she must leave.
Hagar and Ishmael are walking alone in the desert, and stop to rest; there is no more water. Ishmael, angry, talks of Sarah and Avraham as “monsters,” and Hagar tries to comfort him. Together they sing the earlier lullaby, but Hagar breaks off before the end, lamenting for her son.
The figures, now narrating the words of God, call on Avraham to sacrifice his son Itshak on Mount Moriah. Sarah asks Avraham why he would do such a thing, and he replies that “the world is filled with many whys.” Avraham goes off, leaving Sarah alone to mourn her loss; then we also see Avraham, on the mountain, as he, Sarah and the reciting chorus join in an ensemble leading to Sarah and the chorus calling out, “Avraham! Avraham!”
The final scene moves ahead several decades to show Itshak and Ishmael, as grown men, together at the burial of Avraham, their father—both survived their terrifying episodes of their childhood, but have not seen each other since Ishmael’s banishment. We see an attempt at reconciliation beyond the time of the story itself—as Sarah and Hagar, Itshak and Ishmael, and Avraham as their common bond, reach out to the generations of their descendants.
Performances of excerpts:
June 2006: Center for Jewish History, New York, NY
March 2010: Hebrew Union College, New York, NY
June 2012: Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA
For information on obtaining performance materials (vocal score, full score, parts)
contact Gerald Cohen: email@example.com
Flute, Clarinet in Bb, Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano
Neither Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, nor even the modern-day composer John Adams thought to do it, yet the age-old story was ripe for the plucking, juicy with drama and conflict, tragedy and a complicated love triangle, the thematic lifeblood of opera. But Gerald Cohen, cantor of Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, did. He is composing an opera based on the story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and in doing so, he joins the ranks of American composers contributing to the new opera boom in the United States. The first act of the composer’s opera-in-progress, “Sarah and Hagar.” will be presented in concert form at Shaarei Tikvah on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.