Alan Dershowitz: Making a Case for Opera
Alan Dershowitz has been known to wear many hats—as a Harvard law professor, a civil libertarian, and the author of nearly 30 best-selling books on law and public policy. As a prominent attorney, he defended O.J. Simpson in his criminal trial, and his client list includes Claus von Bülow, Mike Tyson, and Patty Hearst. And he often makes headlines for his views on controversial subjects such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the morality of torture.
But what many don't know is that Dershowitz has made music an ongoing part of his life. So much so that he's now writing an opera.
"I think writing an opera overstates it," Dershowitz says. "I'm playing the piano with one finger, coming up with some melodies, and I'm writing the libretto."
The subject of Dershowitz's opera is the life of the famous Jewish cantor Gershon Sirota. Dershowitz says it has all the trappings of grand opera.
"The story is simple, like opera stories should be. Melodramatic, as they should be. Sirota was world-renowned, and he was in the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazis, because he was so famous, gave him the opportunity to leave. And he had to make this excruciatingly difficult decision—stay with [his] people and probably die, or come to America? And he remained, and of course did die with his people."
Sirota's voice can still be heard in a few historic recordings on various labels. It's a remarkably strong, yet flexible, instrument that produces a rich tone evenly throughout the various registers. Sirota was sometimes called the "Jewish Caruso," referring to the famous early-20th-century opera star Enrico Caruso.
"Sirota was greatest cantor in the world," Dershowitz says. "He actually recorded in the same studio as Caruso." Sirota and many of the other Jewish cantors in the early 20th century were superstars.
"These were the rock stars," Dershowitz says. "In my neighborhood, everyone had an opinion on the local cantor. You didn't go to a synagogue to listen to the rabbi's sermon. You went to listen to the cantor. It was like a concert."
Dershowitz's musical interests date back to his childhood. He was a choirboy in temple, and later in college wrote a paper on the influence of both Tin Pan Alley and Jewish cantorial music in the songs of George Gershwin. These days, he can be found in regular attendance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts.
It's been reported that Dershowitz's opera-in-progress is his retirement project.
"It's something that I do slowly," the 69-year-old lawyer says. "I have no deadline. All of my other projects have publishers and clients breathing down my neck. With this, I can just sit and luxuriate and not care. I just have to outlive the project. That's the only goal."
Copyright 2008 WNYC Radio