When the first notes of the opera Ainadamar carried across the Academy of Music on its opening night of Feb. 7, it marked a homecoming for its composer, Osvaldo Golijov. Although born and raised in La Plata, a city some 36 miles to the south of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, Golijov went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s to study with the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, George Crumb.
His time in Philadelphia “was an incredible experience, and it gets better as time goes by,” Golijov, 53, says. He chose to study with Crumb after an undergraduate career at Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music and Dance because, he says, “in the Jewish tradition, you don’t go to a great rabbi to hear him talk; you go to watch him tie his shoes. With Crumb, it was the same way. He was a man of very few words.”
Evidently, Crumb was able to get his point across: Ainadamar, with a libretto by the playwright David Henry Hwang, earned Golijov a 2007 Grammy for Best Opera Recording. (He has been nominated two other times, for his 2003 work, Yiddishbbuk, and his 2006 recording, Ayre.) Ainadamar tells the story of the Spanish actress, Margarita Xirdu, as she prepares to take the stage in a theater in Uruguay, consumed by the memories of her relationship with the murdered poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca. The name of the opera comes from the place where Lorca is alleged to have been killed — Ainadamar, the “Fountain of Tears” in Arabic — by Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Ever since the 2000 premiere of his first composition, La Pasíon Según San Marcos (“The Passion According to Saint Mark”), Golijov has frequently been mentioned as one of the leading forces to expand the scope and appeal of opera in the 21st century.
He may be a world away, both figuratively and literally, from the Argentina of his youth, but the impact of growing up in a small Jewish community in an overwhelmingly Catholic country can be heard in virtually all of his work. The chamber music of Yiddishbbuk is inspired by the child artists of the infamous Terezin ghetto; The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, a quintet inspired by the medieval Italian Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, features klezmer-inflected clarinet work; and even a piece as deeply rooted in the Christian canon as La Pasíon Según San Marcos is brought to a moving climax by Golijov’s use of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Golijov says he comes by this need for inclusion naturally, even going so far as to say he has been more influenced by the liturgical music of his youth than by classical music. He connects his varying styles of music, voices and instruments — all vying for the listener’s attention at the same time — with his synagogue experiences. “The synagogues I attended in Argentina and Jerusalem are much more chaotic” than what most Americans are used to, he explains. “They allow for conflicting behaviors. You can have somebody screaming, somebody meditating, somebody mumbling. It can become a unifying force, like watching a flight of birds — one moment disorganized, and the next organized.”
It is this approach to opera, this willingness to incorporate disparate musical genres like klezmer, tango, flamenco — even traditional Sephardic rhythms that he picked up during his three years in Israel — that makes Golijov’s music so compelling. The basic foundations of opera are still visible in his compositions, but they have been transformed into a sinuously polyglot chimera that commands attention, if for no other reason than you can’t wait to see what style will appear next.
Golijov readily espouses the theory that his otherness is a crucial part of what has led to his acclaim. “I didn't grow up with opera, but I grew to love it. I grew up with Jewish music, with chamber music; opera was something I grew into. Sometimes, not knowing what you are doing helps — people can hear something fresh.”
Golijov’s affinity for music at a young age — he says he began composing “ditties” by age 10 — is thanks primarily to his mother, who was a music professor and an accomplished pianist. “My mother’s family came to Argentina in the 1920s as part of the Jewish gaucho program of Baron de Hirsch.” De Hirsch, the Jewish French industrialist, established the program to bring Jews out of the anti-Semitic environment surrounding them in Russia at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and into the Argentine countryside to become ranchers and farmers. His father was a doctor, and Golijov says he had a happy childhood, until the “Dirty War” of the 1960s and 1970s.
The campaign of terrorism committed by the country’s ruling junta resulted in the killing and disappearance of tens of thousands of Argentinians. The Dirty War targeted political dissidents, leftist guerrillas, socialists and anyone else the government wanted to eliminate. To a disproportionate degree, this included the country’s Jewish population. “Jews had been singled out, and there was a much higher rate of Jewish disappeared” during that time, he recalls. “I felt I wouldn’t like to be a second-class citizen. I wanted to preserve my Jewish identity and feel like a first-class citizen.” So he made aliyah in 1982 at the age of 22, when he decided to matriculate at Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy.
Today, Golijov lives with his wife in the Boston suburb of Brookline. “There are so many Jews here that I feel less pressed to go to the synagogue,” he jokes. They have two grown daughters and a son.
And once again, Golijov has found himself surrounded by Catholics, although this time it is by choice. He is a music professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “When I was growing up in Argentina, I was fearful of the Catholic Church —certain factions of the Church were allied with the military” during the Dirty War.”
In contrast, teaching by choice at Holy Cross, he says, “has only been a blessing.”
IF YOU GO
Feb. 14 and 16
Academy of Music
240 S. Broad St., Philadelphia