BOSTON — For composer Walter Robinson, America truly is a melting pot of cultures.
But as he sees it, it's not so much the notion of immigrant traditions becoming diluted and submerged into a indistinguishable whole. Instead, he likes the idea of cross-fertilization, with cultures learning from and growing with one another. A key is finding common threads of experience.
In his new gospel opera, "Moses," which had its world premire in Boston March 7, Mr. Robinson explores the heritage of struggle, perseverance, and faith shared by the Jewish and African-American communities in the 3,000-year-old story of Moses leading his people out of slavery into the Promised Land.
"The African-American experience in America is almost a replication of the Hebrews in Egypt, with some major exceptions," Robinson says. "And Moses, for the African-American slaves, was a very popular figure. You see it in the African-American spiritual literature."
Robinson was commissioned to write the opera after his folk opera on slave revolutionary Denmark Vesey, "Look What a Wonder," was presented a 1993 African-American-Jewish seder in Boston. Leonard Zakim, the director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, thought Robinson would be a perfect choice to create a work about Moses, whose triumph over oppression has universal appeal.
Reaching out with arts
Robinson has spent three years working on "Moses" during a residency sponsored by Meet the Composer and The Moses Project, a coalition of nonprofit organizations - including community groups, a gospel choir, and the Anti-Defamation League of New England - committed to using the arts as a venue for improving relationships between communities.
Over the past few years, parts of the opera have been performed all over the Boston area, from schools and synagogues to Symphony Hall. The recent performance was its first full-length presentation, albeit in a concert, rather than fully staged, format.
Even so, it is an impressive undertaking. During its 90 minutes, nearly 200 performers are seen and heard: nine narrators (they included rabbis, African-American ministers, and community leaders); gospel choirs; jazz vocalists; a 100-voice Black-Jewish children's choir; a classical choir; and a variety of dancers.
The gospel numbers have a rousing energy and passion, from the traditional "Go Down Moses," which opens the opera, to original songs such as "He Has Become a Deliverance," in which a soulful soloist growls and the audience claps its hands. Musical director George Russell powered these numbers by the Divine Harmony Gospel Choir with dynamic, beautifully inflected piano playing.
Other tunes showcase Robinson's stylistic range. "I Feel Love Here," as sung in Boston by the expressive Don Corey Washington as Moses and Emily Browder as Zipporah, is the kind of heartfelt melodic duet that stops shows on Broadway.
"Unto Thy Care" is a gorgeous lyrical trio of plangent harmonies. "Bring Your Gold" is a lively jazz quartet in the style of Manhattan Transfer.
Diverse groups united
The collaboration needed to produce the massive work has had a huge impact, says Nancy Kaufman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, that will resonate long after the performance. "This represents the epitome of what it means to bring diverse groups together in a partnership and work together on something that unites," she says.
"It's not just about dialogue [between religious and ethnic groups], but about doing something together. And in the doing of something as meaningful as this, ... you realize there is so much more that unites us than divides us."
Participants in The Moses Project hope to establish "Moses" as an annual pre-Easter-Passover tradition in a number of cities. In addition, the group has approached the film studio DreamWorks ("Prince of Egypt") and a foundation set up by director Steven Spielberg, which gave a substantial grant toward the work's creation, about support for a national tour. It would travel with the lead performers only and add local talent at each stop.
"That would help to keep the participatory nature of the piece, the community interaction in each place," Robinson says.
"One of the things so important to me in doing this piece was that out of this there comes a mutual respect for another face. Not only do we see the things we have in common, but we develop an appreciation and tolerance of the differences.... Music cuts through the barriers of mere words and connects to people's hearts."