'Song of Songs' for a woman's voice

Composer Ella Sherif will premiere her work, "Dark Am I but Lovely" based on the "The Song of Songs," at the upcoming Israeli Festival.

'According to tradition, "The Song of Songs" was written by King Solomon," says composer Ella Sherif, whose adaptation "Dark Am I but Lovely" based on the beautiful Biblical love poem will premiere in Jerusalem next week as part of the Israeli Festival. "But we," she continues, "saw it differently. We wanted to tell the story as seen through the eyes of a woman. This is a story of a man and a woman who fall in love, make love, and then, when the disillusionment comes in, separate. Then - well, I leave it open, maybe she loses her mind, or maybe she starts a new life." By "we" Sherif is refering to singer Keren Hadar, who initiated the project. "It was Keren who approached me; she had dreamed of a piece based on Song of Songs for years," recollects Sherif. "And she did the first editing of the text, putting the woman in the center of the story." While all the composition's lyrics are taken from the Song of Songs, fragments have been cut and rearranged so as to create a story. "As always in my pieces, there is a drama on stage. There's no acting; the drama comes from the music and from the words," explains Sherif, who wrote the composition for 13 performers - soprano, tenor, counter tenor, bass and an instrumental ensemble of nine musicians. "I wrote it for Keren, for her special voice and special stage personality: she is not only an opera singer but sings light music and even rock'n'roll as well. As for the men, they are not exactly a Greek choir but more like story tellers." The more than hour-long piece consists of three movements and features arias, madrigals (performed by the choir), recitatives and instrumental fragments. Originally, the piece was commissioned in two languages, English and Hebrew. Yet Sherif, who is fluent in four languages and understands many more, says that from the early stages of her work on the new piece she started hearing other languages inside her. "For me, language is just another form of music. For example, in the aria, where the girl describes the beauty of her beloved, I heard Italian. In the fragment which depicts the beauty of the nature of the land of Canaan, it was not only Hebrew, but also Arabic that I heard. The aria in which the girl promises to give herself to the man she loves, I wrote in Portuguese, since in my vision this is the most erotic and romantic language." Israeli-born Sherif, who feels that the Hebrew Song of Songs is part of her identity, says that she was amazed by the beauty of the piece in other languages. "But I really did not know how to deal with it. It was like a Tower of Babel, when everybody spoke his own language and could not create any contact with the neighbor. And then I thought - love is the common language, which everybody understands." Monday, 9 p.m., Henry Crown Hall, Jerusalem Theater