JERUSALEM — The interviews all began with the same question: "To you, who is Abraham?" The answers run the gamut from pious to flippant. One deeply religious man said, "He's my father," while a museum curator snapped: "He's a literary figure."
The questions are being asked by minimalist composer Steve Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. They are collaborating professionally for the first time on "The Cave," a multimedia work that will, when finished, have taken more than three years to complete and cost about $1 million.
The title refers to the Cave of Machpela, legendary burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and, according to lore, the secret passage to the Garden of Eden. Today, a cavernous structure built on the site by King Herod in the 1st Century BC still stands.
Reich calls his work a new kind of music theater that will combine his as-yet-uncomposed music with video footage of the cave, its surroundings and the videotaped interviews. "The Cave" will have its world premiere at the 1992-93 season of the Stuttgart Opera. The Reichs' plans call for five 8x10-foot video screens and 18-24 musicians and singers to perform the work. The videotaped interviews explore Muslim-Jewish roots from the time of Abraham and the tensions that exist to this day.
Located in Hebron 25 miles south of Jerusalem on the West Bank, the cave is holy to the devout of both Jews and Muslims, and those of both faiths pray there under an intricate arrangement that seeks to minimize tension. In recent years, though, it has been a flash point of Israeli-Palestinian strife. Over the last few months some of the harshest confrontations between Palestinians and Jewish settlers have taken place there.
Tension around the area forced the Reichs to limit filming at the cave itself to about an hour. Armed Israeli soldiers are on patrol to keep the peace. As a result, the Reichs' access to videotape was limited at the cave.
Last month, the Reichs interviewed Jews in Jerusalem and several West Bank locations. Early next year, the Reichs plan a return visit to Israel. Then they will interview Muslims and the question will be: "To you, who is Ibrahim?" They also plan to research and interview in Cairo.
At that point, they will probably confront an unwillingness to cooperate on the part of many religious leaders. Sheikh Mohamed Ismail Jamal Rifa'i, a high-ranking figure in the Jerusalem Islamic Council, dismissed the notion of speaking for the cameras out of hand.
"My religion forbids us to make a film about this subject," he said. "It is far too holy. If people love the holy places, they should work for peace, not make films."
Preliminary funding has come from the Rockefeller Foundation. 'Cave' co-commissioners include the Stuttgart Opera, Festival d'Automne a Paris, the South Bank Centre in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
Helga Utz, one of the dramaturgs at Stuttgart Opera, said that the Stuttgart Opera was looking forward to premiering "The Cave" because of the quality of the Reichs' work, not because of its specific theme. That the Reichs are Jewish "is not really relevant," she said. Nevertheless, Utz, 30, expressed hope that by premiering on German soil, "The Cave" may contribute to the healing process between the Germans and the Jews.
"The Germans are more sensitive to the Israeli position than any other European country," Utz continued. "It's harder for us to judge them, because of the past."
While he was in Stuttgart last fall, Reich told Stuttgart Opera's chief dramaturg Klaus-Peter Kehr about his plans to work with Korot. Kehr wasted little time in commissioning the project. "I was very interested to do the first music theater piece by Steve Reich," Kehr said. "We try to stay very close to the American scene and we performed several pieces by Phillip Glass last season."
The agreement was reached before Reich and Korot had settled on a subject for their collaboration. Kehr acknowledged that the subject was sensitive in Germany, due to German-Jewish history and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, he said he looks forward to dealing with the subject.
"We are interested in all political situation," he said. "We like to work with political art."
Art cannot repair the damage done under the Third Reich, he said, but it can contribute to Germany's efforts to build a good relationship with Israel and Jews around the world.
"Art can plead for understanding in a very effective way," he said.
Reich and Korot have returned home to New York after spending two weeks last month on location in Jerusalem, Hebron and the surrounding areas.
The Reichs first learned about the cave through their studies of Jewish sources, and they were intrigued by stories calling it a secret passage to the Garden of Eden.
Since embarking on this project, the biblical ancestors have become real-life figures for them. "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Ishmael and Hagar are the stars of our show," Reich said with a laugh.