Song Of Dina, giving a voice to Joseph’s troubling sister

A rehearsal of Song of Dina at JW3 Centre on Finchley Roadwhich supported early development

A rehearsal of Song of Dina at JW3 Centre on Finchley Roadwhich supported early development Harpist Rivka Gottlieb Composer Maurice Chernick conducting - Credit: Archant

We’ve heard of Joseph, his coat of many colours and numerous brothers, but what of Dina his sister whose troubling story has been turned into an opera?

‘Way, way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began.’

So begins Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph which returns to the West End this summer. But what of Joseph’s sister Dina and her troubling tale of violation and exile?

Certainly she’s not mentioned alongside the ‘Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’, but Archway playwright Diane Samuels has been picking away for years at Dina’s unsettling story. And she has teamed up with composer Maurice Chernick to write an opera which gets a public airing next week at St James’ Church in Paddington.

“I read Genesis: Chapter 34, and it’s very troubling because she’s edited out of her own story,” says Samuels, who has written musicals but never an opera.

“At the beginning it says, ‘Dina goes out to meet the women of the land’. She’s in her teens and goes to visit another tribe, which is quite remarkable. But the rest of the story is told from the point of view of the men and what they do as a consequence of her action.”

Instead of meeting the daughters Dina meets Shechem, a Hivite prince who ‘violates her’ then falls in love with her.

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“It says ‘his soul cleaved unto her’.” So how does soul cleaving fit with rape? It’s very mysterious, you don’t know what to make of it. “Then he goes to her father and says he wants to atone for his appalling act and marry her.”

Jacob is keen to use the marriage to reunite their two tribes and agrees, on condition the Hivites are circumcised.

But Dina’s brothers, the same who sell Joseph into slavery, kill all the weakened Hivite men then take their women, livestock and land.

“Jacob says what you have done puts us in danger our neighbours will never trust us, but the brothers reply ‘why should we let our sister be treated like a whore?’ – nowhere in that do we get to know what Dina feels or wants. It’s a challenging story but it’s good to look at things that are not comfortable.

“Joseph has a happy ending, they get reconciled, even though the brothers are dodgy. But her story doesn’t have a happy end.”

Feeling that Dina needed to be given a voice she persuaded former Liverpool youth theatre friend Chernick to write the music.

“My Hebrew name is Dina so I feel a kinship. I thought ‘let’s give Dina who’s never been heard, a voice in the world,” she says. “Singing is the best way to give her one but her story is too big and deep and dark to be musical theatre. It needed to be an opera. You have to find the right form for this story.”

Song of Dina, a concert performance combining sung and spoken word has been developed and rehearsed at JW3 and comes to St James on April 10/11 then the New North London Synagogue in Finchley on June 2.

Nine soloists, 21 musicians and a choir will make a live recording of what Samuels calls an “epic poem set to music”.

“As part of bringing it into the world we wanted to hear what it sounded like with the music and soloists,” says Samuels, who hopes for a full production one day. “It’s primarily sung with some instrumental to convey the rape and slaughter. There are both intimate songs and some reminiscent of operetta.”

Drawing on biblical commentaries, Song of Dina includes events before and after her abduction, such as Jacob’s dream. And imagines her as “an adventurous spirit who goes out to find another way to the way that her family do things.”

The author of modern classic play Kinderstransport says the original idea came during a conversation about Israel and Palestine.

“I wanted to write not about the politics but the stories and mythologies that lie underneath. It’s about looking again at what people think Jews are. Saying maybe there are secrets, things we have written out. Maybe it’s time to look at things a different way.

“It’s not a story just for Jews but for everyone who has had a father or a family.”