Breathing music into the biblical story

The Profeti della Quinta a cappella ensemble performs the new opera ‘Joseph and His Brothers.’

Profeti della Quinta (photo credit: Courtesy)
Profeti della Quinta
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The five-member vocal ensemble Profeti della Quinta (Quinta Va’hetzi in Hebrew) will perform a production of Joseph and His Brothers , an original biblicalmusical drama in three acts, composed in the spirit of early opera by Elam Rotem, the founder of the ensemble. The work makes its Israeli premiere after receiving praise elsewhere. Rotem is very much interested in the early operas and, accordingly, gave his work an Italian title, Rappresentatione di Giuseppe ei suoi fratelli – Dramma biblico per recitar cantando.

Being a harpsichordist, composer and bass singer, Rotem composed numerous vocal pieces using biblical texts as a high school student while studying composition at the Kibbutz Cabri High School of Arts. Later, upon completion of his studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he specialized in historical performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland.
He is currently living in Basel, dedicating himself to performance and research.
The Profeti della Quinta ensemble, which was founded in the Galilee, is based in Basel, where all its members have studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Specializing in repertoire of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the vocal ensemble aims to create vivid and expressive performances for today’s audiences. With its core of five male singers, the a cappella ensemble also collaborates with instrumentalists and additional singers when required.
They perform throughout Europe and are planning to appear in the US next year.
While current classical music composers use the modern idiom, Rotem turns to the musical language of the past “This is because I don’t come from the world of composition but from performance of early music,” Rotem explains. “For years, we’ve been busy reconstructing early music performance, abandoning an important aspect of the musical skills of the period – improvisation, composition. They called it ‘The science of music,’” he says..
Rotem, who is secular, says that from early childhood he has been fascinated by biblical stories. And Joseph’s story is especially captivating and rich: “There’s a lot of interaction among the characters in this story, so much emotion. I felt that after all my studies, I was ready to breathe music into Joseph’s story, giving it the old form of rappresentazione. And it worked,” he says.
The composer explains that while in the ensemble’s previous performing projects they needed to find and create some interpretation of an existing piece, “this time there is no interpretation because I clearly know the meaning of every sound, and so do my colleagues. This is not a performance – this is the piece itself! It’s like when Monteverdi performed his Orfeo – it was not a performance of Orfeo, it was Orfeo.”
The length of the piece is about two hours, including the intermission.
There is not much theatrical acting “because the biblical text is very concentrated, and things change quickly. Each act in the opera has four scenes, and there are brief instrumental pieces performed in between. It is like a Greek choir: After a compressed and dramatic biblical story, you can enjoy the harmony and contemplate what you’ve seen,” he says.
Speaking of the biblical texts, Rotem adds that the language is part of the story. The Hebrew text for the opera is taken as is, “and that is not simple: this is prose, not poetry, so I had to invent new instruments to deal with the language,” he says.
The world of contemporary music has not attracted Rotem as a composer, which is why he switched to performance. But after his studies in Basel, he felt that he already knew how feelings were expressed in the 16th century. The idea of creating the current piece was born about a year and a half ago, and the work was completed within two months. While composing, Rotem worked with the singers, “exactly as in the days of Monteverdi, who composed his music for specific soloists “ The piece had a successful world premiere in Basel, in the presence of all the teachers of the Schola Cantorum. “The legendary British lutenist Anthony Rooley, who likes us a lot and always supports us, read a prologue that he had written for this occasion. That was very moving,” says Rotem.
Today at 12:30 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theater. Tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. at the Greek Orthodox Church in Haifa.
December 25 at 8 p.m. at the Conservatory in Tel Aviv. For more about the ensemble: