She could have stopped with the Almost Human project, which premiered at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in 2006. The centerpiece of the Almost Human album was “I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off Country,” a 12-movement narrative created shortly after World War II by Belgian surrealist writer and artist Henri Michaux. Maya was enthralled by the poem and enlisted Armenian composer Eve Beglarian to create the music.
Michaux’s poem tackled dauntingly large themes. “It’s about a woman who is bearing witness to the world as it’s coming to an end, and she’s telling the story of this society that she’s in,” Beiser says. “There are all these connotations to a very oppressive society, to genocide, to women being raped and to the natural world taking over.”
The Zankel performance was no standard cello recital. Maya intoned Michaux’s verses as she performed on the cello, creating a duet with the instrument she considers to be most like the human voice. Alexandra Montano sung Armenian melodies. Visual artist Shirin Neshat provided a video installation. The house was sold out and the reviews were great, but in the artist’s own words: “It was just not satisfying enough because the text is so elusive and full of meaning and can be interpreted in so many way different ways. And I just felt like it needed a theatrical context.”
That was six years ago. Driven by her sense that “I am Writing You From a Far-Off Country,” was incomplete as an artistic statement, she began exploring with Director Robert Woodruff how to “complete” the original work. More providential than planned, the solution appeared apparition-like during a visit to her Israeli homeland. Driving down to the Dead Sea, she spotted along the roadside a monument-like rock, which the Bedouin guide casually said was Lot’s wife.
Finally, the circle was closing.
Maya conceived of Lot’s wife as a partner across time for the woman in the Michaux poem. Long intrigued by the story of Lot’s wife—this nameless woman who seemed to have been brutally punished—Maya could now explore her own feelings about the predicament of Lot’s wife and connect this biblical figure to the more modern figure in Michaux’s poem. For the new companion piece, Erin Cressida Wilson would provide the text and Missy Mazzoli would craft the new music. Thus was the Cello Opera “Elsewhere” born. The old and the new would be joined together, with the video installations expanded and a dance component added to the mix.
Maya is an original. Born on a kibbutz to an Argentinian father and a French mother (who introduced her to the works of Henri Michaux), she grew up speaking Hebrew, Spanish, some French, and English of course… If this mix of languages provided the narrative foreground for her early life, the background several times a day would be the soulful sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
As a young woman, Maya eventually left the kibbutz and made her way to the United States to study at Yale under Aldo Parisot. This fine professional training would certainly have prepared her for a more conventional career than the one she has chosen. But just as she could not stop with the Almost Human project, so she could never have contented herself with simply offering up her versions of Haydn and Dvorak concertos. By the time she arrived at Yale, she was already imbued with a sense of wonder about her world and outrage with its injustices. This wonder and outrage continue to fuel her creative musical ventures. “Elsewhere” is the latest, but will certainly not be the last.