Alicia Jo Rabins was living in New York in 2008, working on her poems and songs right in the heart of the city's financial district. She says she was especially taken by the story of financier Bernard Madoff, who defrauded investors of tens of billions of dollars.
Her new chamber rock opera is A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. It was developed in conjunction with Boom Arts. The show had its West Coast premier in Feburary, and is in production this weekend at Portland State University.
Using music and spoken word, Rabins explores many of the voices involved in Madoff's world - people who invested with him, investigated him, and picked up the pieces after his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme was revealed.
We spoke with Alicia Jo Rabins over the winter. She says she wanted to steer clear of addressing why Madoff schemed people. Instead, she thought about what led so many people to believe his lies. And what financial and cultural systems allowed Madoff to do what he did.
"One of the amazing things was that his returns were mathematically impossible," Rabins says. "And yet there was a desire to believe - not only among individual investors, the regulator agencies and the systems of Wall Street that should have seen through what he was doing. And many individuals did."
Rabins drew from interviews she conducted with Madoff investors, and sacred texts from Jewish and Buddhist traditions. While the show has many meditative moments, it also involves upbeat music, sometimes juxtaposed with heartbreaking stories of loss. Musically, Rabins says, she didn't want to cast the show entirely in sombre themes.
"One of the things I was trying to walk the line with was giving voice to the tragedy without getting too sappy about it," Rabins says. "I wanted to respect the spirit of survival I saw among many of Madoff's victims."