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Though my worldview is secular, Jewish history and traditions are a strong part of my identity. In the mid-90s, I heard a talk by a Jewish feminist biblical scholar on the social and economic pressures on women at the time of the Book of Ruth. It stayed with me ever since.
In 2001, Joel O’Brien and I (we knew each other in high school) were very fortunate to re-meet, fall in love, and get married. We were very happy. He passed away three years later. It is from this love and loss that the opera started to emerge.
My bond with my mother deepened my understanding of the love between Ruth and Naomi, as much mother and daughter as mother and daughter-in-law. I am deeply grateful that my mother was able to read and hear what I’d been done so far on the opera before she passed away in 2008.
"Ruth and Naomi" is a story about a story: a feminist, magical take on the Book of Ruth. It is above all an exploration of love and grief. Grief motivates both Ruth and Naomi, in the biblical story and also in the opera’s story. We know that time and memory influence love and grief. In the opera, it is also the other way around: love and grief impinge on time and memory.
Story SynopsisACT I, Scene 1
Ruth's present-day New York apartment. She and her mother-in-law Naomi light a yarzheit candle on the 1st anniversary of Mel's death-- Ruth's husband, Naomi's son. The women share their grief, love, respect, and appreciation of each other.
Naomi announces she needs to return to her homeland. Ruth wants to go with her. Naomi, saying she must go alone, states that she and her late husband were not actually from modern Israel but from Bethlehem in Canaan, 3,000 years ago.
Ruth is incredulous but Naomi insists it's the truth, though she doesn't even know if she can return. Ruth concludes, "If against all reason, what you say is true, anywhere you go I will go with you."
ACT I, Scene 2
Ruth and Naomi enter biblical Bethlehem, circa 1100 BCE. Naomi is overjoyed, Ruth is astonished, wonders if she's dreaming. Then sees that her wedding ring is gone. Two old friends, Sara and Miriam, greet Naomi. Ruth understands their language, and can speak it too. Naomi's old friends ask about Moab. Naomi says the loss of her husband and her son would have left her bitter, "but for the love of my daughter-in-law."
ACT I, Scene 3
Naomi's old dwelling. Ruth says Naomi's talk of Moab was "quite a cover story." Naomi is offended. She doesn't remember New York, which distresses Ruth, and Naomi is distressed that Ruth doesn't remember Moab. Each thinks the other is unhinged. But the bond between them remains.
ACT I, Scene 4
In the fields, Ruth joins in as young men and women harvest barley. This is Boaz' field, the largest one. Boaz meets Ruth. Naomi is Boaz' kin. He will give them a goat and grain.
ACT I, Scene 5
Sara and Miriam are visiting Ruth and Naomi. Stressing the economic and social pressures on women, they insist that Ruth must remarry for her and Naomi's welfare: "husband, children." Ruth strongly disagrees. Persisting, the friends say Ruth should go to Boaz in the threshing room that night, where he will be guarding the harvest. Ruth has a high regard for Boaz, but adamantly refuses. Naomi begs her. Ruth agrees to go, but only for Naomi's sake. She will not remarry, and "nothing good can come of this."
ACT II, Scene 1
In the threshing room, Ruth wakes Boaz, explains she's there at Naomi's urging. Boaz says he and Ruth will marry. His emerging love for her underlies his societal obligation to marry a widowed relative. But Ruth refuses his offer - she's still in love with her husband. Tenderly, Boaz says, "'Should your heart change, please do tell me."
Two days later, Boaz confronts Ruth. A traveler from Moab has said he remembers Naomi and her husband, but the couple was barren, and he'd never heard of Ruth. Ruth struggles to understand: so Naomi really was in Moab, yet remembers Ruth and Mel. Time runs second to the bonds of family. Boaz demands that Ruth explain where she is from. She wants to explain, but he'll never believe her. He insists, or "all of Bethlehem will turn against you, and turn suspicious of Naomi."
Ruth explains. Naomi did have a son, not in Moab, but in the future, thousands of miles and years away. Boaz says she lies, goes to question Naomi, who says, "It must be God's doing." Boaz accuses Naomi of blasphemy, for claiming God supports deception. "I'm through with both of you." He leaves.
ACT II, Scene 3
Catching up with him, Ruth beseeches Boaz, "Don't turn your back on Naomi." And since Ruth has so deeply offended him, she will leave Bethlehem.
Out of nowhere, her wedding ring reappears on her hand. Boaz is both suspicious and curious. She answers all his questions - eg how can it be gold if it's so pale? - in terms of the future. Boaz scoffs and mocks her repeatedly, but finally he believes her, not just because of the ring but also because of her steadfastness.
Everything has fallen into place for Ruth. She explains she's there "to make a story come to pass," (the story in the Book of Ruth,) which couldn't happen as written because Naomi and her husband were barren in Moab. Instead they found themselves having a son in the future ("maybe through better nutrition, who knows"), who married Ruth, who when widowed went with Naomi to Bethlehem and married Boaz. But there was a hitch - she would not, could not, marry him. "Until you told me you believe me, and my heart changed." They will marry.
Many years later. Naomi is on her deathbed. Ruth and Boaz tell her their son Obed's wife has just had a baby boy - Naomi is a great-grandmother. Naomi says to name him Jesse. Now everything is clear for Naomi too: "Boaz begot Obed, and Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David." And finally she remembers New York. Then she dies.
ACT II, Scene 5
Ruth finds herself back in her NY apartment, hoping Mel is there. But the yarzheit candle is burning at exactly the height she last saw it - no time has elapsed. Was everything a dream? But Naomi isn't there. Is there an explanation? "Love and grief," Ruth concludes, "impinge on time and memory. My love's been so entwined with grief, but now the strands are shifting. Death runs second to love."
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