New opera ‘Ruth’ plumbs biblical depths of despair


The new one-act opera “Ruth” begins with a sequence of three jarring, dissonant chords from the ensemble, marking the three deaths that start off the biblical book of the same name.

“It couldn’t be bleaker,” said Richard Pressley, composer of the opera and assistant professor of music theory at Charleston Southern University.

Looking to work with a scriptural narrative that hasn’t gotten an operatic treatment as prominent as “Samson and Delilah,” Pressley and librettists Jack and Carolyn Simons picked an Old Testament story with a heavy-hearted theme. The libretto begins with the Moabite woman Naomi (soprano Taryn Wetherington) and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth (soprano Lauryn Kay) and Orpah (alto Tierhanne Huff), lamenting the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons.

“Three widows doomed to poverty’s distress,” they sing. “Husbands lost, lost, lost! Oh fateful decree!”

As Pressley sat down to compose last year, hunched over a piano and a thick stack of staff paper, he sought to capture the unmitigated darkness at the center of the story. The resulting piece is at times jarring, but at other times it soars with cinematic sweep and grandeur — no small feat for the modestly sized ensemble.

“What I like about the narrative is that it’s very realistic. When really tragic things happen like that, you feel the despair,” Pressley said. “The interesting thing is God is almost not mentioned in the book, never in an active sense ... but they recognize his provision and his sort of behind-the-scenes action.”

“Ruth” is Pressley’s first opera score, and it marks a departure from his previous works. After touring in rock and punk bands growing up in Indiana, Pressley attended music school and took an interest in the avant-garde. Some of his best-known works are angular and modern, but for “Ruth,” he stayed out of the deep end of the pool occupied by minimalist opera composer Philip Glass.

“It’s pretty traditional. It’s an opera that’s very deliberately aware of its history,” Pressley said.

Pressley borrowed a handful of the Romantic techniques from classic operas that he teaches students in music theory classes at CSU. The score employs borrowed chords, which are minor-key chords carried over to the major key and vice versa. Taking a note from the theories of 18th-century German composer Christian Schubart, the piece starts in the key of F minor — signifying deep depression and “longing for the grave,” in Schubart’s estimation — and ends in F major, Schubart’s key of “complaisance and calm.”

Pressley said he was fully aware that many American audiences only interact with classical music through video game and movie soundtracks. With first-time opera listeners in mind, he wrote the opera to be catchy and short (it clocks in around 35 minutes), with a strong backbone of percussion at times.

“I tried to make it singable, and I tried to make it as memorable as possible,” Pressley said. It has “just enough dissonance in there to have some overlap with music that they’re already familiar with.”

Building from its gloomy introduction, the opera tells the tale of Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi, her boldness in providing for their household, and the decision of their kinsman Boaz (baritone Daniel Megli) to marry Ruth and buy Naomi’s land.

It ends on a note of triumph at the wedding of Ruth and Boaz, who, the Bible notes, went on to give birth to the grandfather of King David, the ancestor of Christ.

In writing the score, Pressley was keenly aware of this context, hoping it would not be lost on a Christian audience.

“Jesus says the world will make you suffer, ‘when you encounter tribulation of various kinds,’ so I think one of the things that makes Ruth so beloved is here’s about as low as you can get,” Pressley said. “Those women were widows, and that meant you had really no social standing at the time. You were basically hopeless ... But God is big enough. He can take our frustration, he can take our complaints.”

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