Like the famous biblical story it draws upon, the oratorio set to premiere Friday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is a story 40 years in the making.
"Journey to Canaan" recounts the ancient Israelites' journey from Egypt to the Holy Land while it explores the internal struggles Moses and his people might have experienced along the way. The 80-minute oratorio, featuring the UNO Chamber Choir, will begin at 8 p.m. in the Strauss Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.
Omaha actor and composer Paul Boesing, who co-wrote "Journey to Canaan" with librettist and former wife Martha Boesing, will lead a pre-concert discussion at 7:30 p.m. on the thought processes behind their version of the Exodus.
They first presented their play as a "musical play" — a stage drama with a few songs, rather than a full-fledge musical — in 1971 at the Academy Theater in Atlanta. In the mid-1990s, Paul Boesing said, he composed additional music and recast the material for eight soloists, piano, harp and percussion. Work on the current oratorio, which adds a chamber vocal ensemble, began last year.
"Journey to Canaan" treats the Exodus primarily as a metaphor, he said, though much of the biblical text is presented through the voice of Moses' sister Miriam. "It's like a spiritual journey in the broadest sense."
In fleeing slavery in Egypt, the Israelites also "throw off their bondage to the idea of themselves and head out into the wilderness," Martha Boesing writes in program notes for the oratorio. They battle temptation in the golden calf, hunger finally satisfied by manna and despair and loneliness during the long years of wandering.
When the pagan Amalekites attack Israel, Paul Boesing said, the music explores "being in battle with our perception of what others think of us." As Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, he added, Moses sings an aria urging the Israelites to realize that "it's really in your own hearts where these laws come from."
The oratorio, like the biblical story, ends with the famous battle of Jericho and the Israelites' conquest of Canaan. By then, Martha Boesing writes, "they are able to abide compassionately with all the parts of themselves and experience themselves as a whole. They wake up, look out, and the walls of their city, our cities, all cities — the walls of Jericho — fall down."
Vocalist and teacher Jennifer Boesing, the daughter of Paul Boesing and Martha Boesing, will sing the part of Miriam in Friday's production. Kirk Vaughn Robinson, soon to be appearing in Opera Omaha's production of "The Mikado," voices Moses. Aaron will be sung by Dan Dressen, a St. Olaf (Minn.) College vocal teacher who originated the role in the 1971 musical play in Atlanta.