steve reich’s “the cave”

i saw a performance of this work on saturday–the ny times had a great review (free registration required). according to reich, it’s a “documentary video opera”. sounds dense, you say?

it’s not. and it was surprisingly engaging and enjoyable.

kirk was the assistant stage manager for touring “cave” performances for a while, so he was familiar with the piece (though until saturday, he’d never seen it from an audience perspective). he’s been going on about it for a while, so when it came to nyc as part of steve reich’s 70th birthday celebration, we got tickets.

the three-part “opera” asks (in turn) jews, muslims, and americans/christians five questions: who is abraham? who is sarah? who is isaac, who is ishmael? who is hagar? the answers go a long way toward explaining why there’s still so much tension in the middle east.

there are five video screens showing snips and clips of interviewees’ responses, and there’s an orchestra, singers, and a performer “playing” a computer keyboard that puts relevant bits of scripture (the torah, the koran, and the bible) up on the screen, underpinning the answers. the answers aren’t linear–the responses are edited down to one or two words–and the meaning comes from the repetition, and your assemblage of the clips, the chanting, the scripture, and the music into a narrative thread in your mind.

i admit to a large degree of complete ignorance on this subject. i barely even knew the basic story, so i learned quite a bit of fascinating info from this piece. i won’t bore you with vast detail, but here are some very salient points:

abraham’s first wife was sarah, and his first-born son ishmael was born not of sarah, but of her handmaid (sarah couldn’t conceive). isaac, abraham’s son with sarah, came later (guess she could after all). this is oversimplifying matters, but jews descend from isaac and muslims from ishmael. four thousand years later, jews and muslims are still fighting battles over holy sites (such as the site of the cave where abraham, isaac, sarah et al. are buried) because of the complications that ensue. jews claim primacy because sarah was the first (and legitimate) wife. muslims claim primacy because ishmael was the first born son.

reich’s piece underscores how immediate this still is for jews and muslims–for them, the four thousand years might as well be yesterday. most westerners can’t imagine this concept, a point which the third act makes.

and to complicate matters, there’s the story in scripture of abraham’s abortive sacrifice of his son on an altar at god’s bidding. the torah says that this son was isaac. the koran says that this son was ishmael.

it’s no wonder there’s so much conflict. but “the cave” itself makes you really understand how sticky and intractable this situation really is.

i can’t stop thinking about it. “the cave” is presented intermittently, and is well worth seeing if you get the chance.