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Bible Story of Ruth Propels New Opera

A Jewish composer and African-American cast link up

BORN to Orthodox Jewish parents in Brooklyn, Noa Ain began looking early in life for ways to broaden her experience. Yet when her Polish Catholic fiance asked her to move with him to Warsaw in 1975, she felt her resolve slipping.

''I never wanted to live in Poland,'' says Ain, who had just been cited as the best new composer on Broadway by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). ''I had always thought of it as a cold, anti-Semitic place. But I asked my heart, and my heart said yes.''

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Ain did not take easily to her new environment. Adults called her a gypsy, and children laughed at her. But after a dispiriting first year, she began composing a new work, called ''The Outcast,'' based loosely on the Biblical story of Ruth. Conceived as a jazz opera, it tells of a pagan woman (Ain calls her Ruta) whose marriage to a Jewish man renders her a stranger among both her own tribe and her adopted one. ''I felt that Ruth's journey was very much my own,'' she said at a rehearsal last week.

Opera Ebony, an African-American company based in New York, will perform the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music April 26, 28, and 29. With a classical score that draws heavily on gospel and jazz, ''The Outcast'' suits Opera Ebony well. Many members of the 21-year-old company grew up singing spirituals in black churches before training in operatic voice.

It is also the kind of composition that holds greater popular appeal than most operas. ''Noa's work is refreshingly simple and honest,'' says David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera, which presented an earlier version of ''The Outcast'' last year. ''It gets away from the atonality and orchestral complexity that have characterized much of the modern opera repertory.''

Gockley is not alone in his admiration of Ain's work. She has won 10 ASCAP awards to date, and in 1993 the American Music Theater Festival gave her its annual Stephen Sondheim Award for innovative music-theater work. Such freshness is sorely needed in the world of opera, an art form that Gockley and others believe has alienated much of the American public.

''The Outcast'' breaks solidly from operatic tradition with both its subject matter and musical roots. The tale begins when Ruta (soprano Clare Gormley) convinces her people to spare a family of foreigners from persecution. Ruta later marries one of the strangers, a Jewish man named Gideon (baritone Lawrence Craig), but her mother, the pagan priestess Ar (jazz singer Ebony Jo-Ann), has him murdered.

Alienated by this deadly prejudice, Ruta renounces her heritage and goes with Gideon's mother, Naomi (mezzo-soprano Elvira Green), to live in Bethlehem. There they meet Boaz (bass-baritone Kevin Deas), an Israelite who shelters them from his intolerant and suspicious neighbors.

Ruth's is one of the world's oldest stories, Ain says, but also the most current. ''Cultural conflict is the major problem of our day,'' she says. Indeed, one doesn't have to travel far from the theater to appreciate the relevance of this work. Three subway stops away is the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, where an African-American schoolboy and a Jewish scholar died when racial tensions erupted in violence four summers ago.

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''Noa draws on musical genres that get into our souls,'' says Gockley of the Houston Grand Opera. ''It's not unlike the great opera composers of a century ago, who drew from popular, folk, and vernacular elements of their society.''

Where ''The Outcast'' differs most from traditional opera is in its use of improvisation. Both Ain and Wayne Sanders, Opera Ebony's music director and co-founder, have encouraged the production's 12 singers and six musicians to depart from the score when the spirit moves them.

A distinct voice in the production is that of soprano Clare Gormley. ''Her voice has a creamy, beautiful texture,'' says Gail Robinson, director of the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists Development Program, where Gormley just completed a two-year fellowship.

Ain approaches the story not as a Biblical scholar, but as an observer of society. If ''The Outcast'' has a message, it is the inherent value of cultural interchange. When Ruta converts to Judaism, both are changed for the better: Judaism gains a model of tolerance and Ruta finds a home with Boaz, whom she marries.

Ain's sojourn in Poland turned out to be a sort of homecoming. At first she felt like a stranger, but her outlook changed upon learning that her family had lived in Poland for 500 years. This discovery, she says, led her to conclude that other cultures are not always as foreign as they seem.

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