February 22, 2020

Orthodox Mother Opens New Opera

File under Incongruities, Major: One of the latest luminaries in the world of grand opera is an Orthodox mother of four from Brooklyn.

In the male-dominated world of opera composition, Deborah Drattell is a rarity, but from childhood she never doubted she would excel in the world of music.

“It was clear from the time I picked up a violin that I would be a musician,” said Drattell, 46, who began playing at 7 as a participant in a program designed to introduce New York schoolchildren to music. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught composition and theory at Tulane University in New Orleans through the 1980s.

A composer since age 19, Drattell began with instrumental works for orchestras and chamber groups but eventually included the voice as an important medium, setting texts ranging from poems by Edgar Allan Poe to writings by Sylvia Plath.

“It’s been a slow process,” she told The Journal. “I realized when I started to write for the voice that in my instrumental works I was telling a story…. I wanted to tell a story, and using words seemed the way into the piece for me.”

Her most recent work, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, will have its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 14, with Mstislav Rostropovich making his Los Angeles Opera debut as conductor and Plácido Domingo in the role of Rasputin.

Opera has occupied most of Drattell’s work time for the past several years.

“I love the collaborative process. It’s the most exciting medium,” said Drattell, who served as composer-in-residence for both the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., from 1998 to 2001.

William Vendice, the Los Angeles Opera’s chorus master, praised Drattell’s music for the voice.

“She obviously has a wonderful ear for how to set the language,” he said. “She has the flow of a singer’s line in mind when she writes music.”

Sascha Goetzel, the assistant conductor for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is just as impressed with Drattell’s writing.

“It’s very deep and powerful music,” he said. “She wonderfully uses the colors of the orchestra.”

Drattell originally wrote the role of Rasputin for a baritone and wanted Domingo to sing Nicholas, but the tenor asked Drattell to rewrite the opera so he could sing the “mad monk” who holds sway over the royal couple. Drattell accommodated his request as a permanent change in the work.

The saga of Nicholas and Alexandra, Russia’s last czar and czarina before the 1917 revolution, is “a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Drattell said, adding that she originally had been intrigued by the story of Anastasia, the self-proclaimed long-lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Even when she shifted away from a story with a clear female protagonist, she kept Alexandra central, as did the librettist, Nicholas von Hoffman.

“It’s Alexandra’s story: her experiences with Rasputin’s power, her son’s hemophilia,” Drattell said. “As a woman, I find it intriguing to write from the point of view of a woman.”

Drattell’s parents grew up Orthodox, and while they were not strictly observant as adults, she grew up attending the Orthodox Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn and cites the music she heard there as one of her earliest artistic influences. She returned to traditional observance through her husband, a gastroenterologist.

Juggling a demanding musical career with the care of four children is challenging but not impossible, as most of her work is done within a reasonable commute from her Brooklyn home.

“I don’t do that much traveling,” she said.

During the rehearsal period for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Drattell’s first extended period away from her family, her husband has taken the kids to visit relatives in Israel.

Drattell said the Los Angeles Opera has made “a really amazing leap” in accommodating her rigorous observance, scheduling the premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra” on a Sunday and slating next week’s dress rehearsal early enough so it will end before Shabbat. “I’ve found Plácido Domingo and the administration here amazingly respectful,” she said.

It’s another milestone in one of serious music’s most idiosyncratic careers.

“I forged my own path,” Drattell said.

The Los Angeles Opera will hold its premiere of
“Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. Other performances will
be Sept. 17, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available
through the Los Angeles Opera at www.losangelesopera.com , by phone at (213) 365-3500 or in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office.