The composer Osvaldo Golijov, who just turned 45, was born and raised in the Argentine town of La Plata, where he was surrounded by a small but vibrant Jewish community and the sounds of liturgical music, klezmer, Israeli song, classical music, and tango. In his 20s, he left for Israel, then settled in the United States, but those early musical influences still infuse his compositions. They can be heard in works ranging from his Grammy-nominated CD Yiddishbbuk to La Pasión Según San Marcos, an oratorio set in contemporary Latin America with text from the Gospels, the Kaddish, and the Psalms, to his latest (also Grammy-nominated) CD, Ayre (“Air”), songs in Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic performed by Dawn Upshaw. Golijov’s opera, Ainadamar (“Fountain of Tears”), just had its premiere at Lincoln Center, which is holding a monthlong festival of his works.
Golijov explains the shofar in Krakow
What about Federico García Lorca inspired you to write an opera?
It was Lorca who said that the greatest tragedy in the history of Spain was the expulsion of the Muslims and the Jews. That made Spain from a great civilization into a petty and chauvinistic little provincial thing.
The image that I had when I started composing the opera was of a floating pomegranate, bleeding melodies of the three civilizations that were in Spain—Jewish, Muslim, Catholic. The Arabs were translating the Greeks, and Maimonides was in touch with Averroes, and all of that. People were having a dialogue. It’s not like it was all rosy, but there was creative tension.
As opposed to a more violent kind of tension today?
Violence and fear, mutual fear.
Also, Ainadamar was so beautiful in the Golden Era. It was a place people went to be in harmony with the world, and the same place, nine centuries later, becomes the witness of a horrible murder. Lorca was assassinated there. It’s about how things don’t necessarily get better.
The idea is that there are rhythms and melodies that come from the soil of Spain. What I did was mostly take them and bend them in a way, to express the history of that place—the pain, the war, and the beauty.
Do you see any of this as a lesson for today?
Wishful thinking. [Laughs] In the opera, Lorca, through one of the characters, says “You love freedom, but I am freedom.” And that to me is the main point. That people who love freedom feel entitled to kill others for that love, but those people who are freedom are actually killed. Like Lorca, just by being freedom, they scare the others. It would be beautiful to arrive at the place where we all are freedom, and do not just love freedom.
How did your grandparents end up in Argentina?
Argentina, believe it or not, was as good as America in terms of promise then. There is still a pretty sizable Jewish population there, but it’s much smaller than when I was growing up. In the 1960s, there were two Yiddish newspapers, a lot of theater in Yiddish. In most homes Yiddish was spoken. When I was younger—well, I forgot everything now, but I was fluent. But with the dictatorship and anti-Semitism, people emigrated, many to Israel. Many assimilated, and several hundred were killed.
You left for Israel. How old were you then?
Twenty-two. I had a very happy childhood in Argentina, but then it got much more difficult with all the violence and I got fed up. And musically, I was not growing. Plus there was always the desire to know Israel, to know Jerusalem.
By the time you got to Israel, you already knew a lot of Jewish music.
Yeah, but I didn’t know all the Sephardic music. It was just incredible to walk down the streets and hear—there are so many little synagogues. And people sing all the time, like the plumber would come to fix something and see the piano and start singing. He didn’t fix the problem, the leak got bigger. But I got a couple of songs out of him, so it was okay.
Do you come from a musical family?
My mom was a very good pianist. My dad was a doctor, an orthopedist. Because of my mother, I studied piano. I loved Bach and still love it, and Schubert and Mozart and Beethoven and all of that. But because we were in a relatively small town, there were no amazing performers coming. The orchestra in my town was pretty bad. My knowledge was mostly from playing scores or listening to records.
So when I was, like, 10, and my mom took me to see Astor Piazzolla, it was a shattering moment in my life because—here is a real, living person, not someone born 200 years ago in Vienna, who integrates all that I loved, from Bach to Bartok. Piazzolla sublimated the sound of the streets of Argentina into music. The way people talk—you know, people who talk to you from the side of their mouth just to show how macho they are? That’s the way the phrasing was. I could hear everything at the same time, Bach and the streets. And that’s something that I still remember with goose bumps.
Is that when you knew you wanted to write your own music?
Oh, that definitely did it. I was already writing little ditties by then.
Since your mother introduced you to music, that must have made her very happy.
Not really. She was scared. I could be anything I wanted, but not a musician. The whole prospect of a starving artist was not very exciting for her. Once it was inevitable and she couldn’t fight my decision anymore, she was incredibly supportive, and she totally believed in me. She always said, “Keep dreaming.” Many times I felt like giving up—when you slowly let go of your wildest dreams—and she was the one who always kept pushing me.
You write a lot for Dawn Upshaw, who is known as a champion of new music. How did you meet her?
She got my name from the Kronos Quartet. She called to ask for a song, seven years ago. Now, I’m a little used to big people calling, but at that moment only AT&T called me to remind me to pay the phone bill. She was given some money to commission a piece, and she decided that rather than call a well-known composer, she wanted somebody she didn’t know. In Dawn, I was able to find somebody with that affective power, that deep truth of expression, but also the possibility of whatever I want because she’s such a huge musician.
There are moments on Ayre when she doesn’t even sound like a soprano—sometimes she even sounds throaty.
Exactly. In Ayre, she’s like seven different voices. [Laughs] I told her: after this record, either they will change the definition of soprano or of Dawn Upshaw.
Does your recent success, especially now with Lincoln Center devoting a month to your music, feel a little strange?
When you are born in La Plata, Argentina, you never lose that wide-eyed feeling, which I think is actually a good thing. It means a lot, but it could also be a freak thing. Obviously I try to do my best all the time, but I don’t have that supreme confidence that I think Mozart or Strauss had.
Mozart was very poor when he died.
Yeah, but he had confidence. He knew he was Mozart. I still don’t know who I am. I think that what I do is truthful, but I also feel that I’m pretty minor. But I’m opening a door. I think I’m John the Baptist, except I never want to end up with my head on a platter. But I am kind of announcing a new era in music, an era in which boundaries will disappear. But I think a much greater composer than me will come soon.