Cantor revives 1959 opera based on Book of Ruth

“Whither thou goest, I shall go; where thou lodgest, I shall lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

For Steve Richards those were more than just pretty words from the Bible. They were the inspiration for an opera. And now, the retired Walnut Creek cantor is sharing the whole megillah. The megillah, in this case, is the Book of Ruth, and the opera is Richards’ “The Ballad of Ruth,” recorded last summer in Tel Aviv with the Israel Philharmonic.

Though the recording is new, the work dates back to 1959 when Richards and librettist Michael Laurence teamed up to write a work for chamber ensemble. The commission for the then-23-year-old music student came from New York’s Temple Israel. Newly reworked and expanded, “The Ballad of Ruth” is now a full-fledged one-act opera.

“It’s a lot of the same tunes,” says the cantor emeritus of Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah, “but it has a much different feel because of the orchestra. I’ve had works done by the Liverpool Symphony and the Krakow Symphony before, but when something is done by the Israel Philharmonic, that really moved me.”

Richards and Laurence (who died in 1999) took a few liberties with the biblical text. Since they wanted to write for young audiences, some passages, such as the widowed Ruth spending the night with her new love Boaz, were excised along with arcane details of the ancient Judean barley trade. What remains is a simple love story between Ruth the Moabite and Boaz the Hebrew.

The Book of Ruth, like Richard’s opera, is a plea for welcoming the convert into the Jewish fold.

“The book was a protest against the edict against intermarriage,” says Richards. “It was written after the Babylonian exile, when the Persians permitted the Jews to go back to Israel. A lot of intermarriage had gone on, because the Jews were in Babylon 75 years, so some of the prophets and priests put out these edicts. This book was written to show not only that intermarriage was a good thing, but that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David.”

Richards’ interest in Jewish liturgical music came relatively late. The New York native grew up in a culturally rich Jewish home, but religion was given short shrift. However, music was Richards’ passion, and he earned a master’s degree in composition from Columbia. He found work in the theater, and even had the chance to sneak into the original production of “West Side Story” several times (thanks to a friend who worked on the show).

After marrying, Richards sought a more steady line of work. Given his interest in music and Judaism, becoming a cantor made the most sense. After becoming invested through Hebrew Union College, he served as cantor in congregations across the country, from Rochester to Indianapolis to Phoenix.

Throughout his career, he wrote liturgical music for synagogues and professional performing groups.

In the 1990s, with grown children in the Bay Area, Richards moved to Walnut Creek to serve with B’nai Tikvah. He retired a few years ago to devote more time to composition. But one piece of his from years before cried out for renewed attention.

“Over the years [‘The Ballad of Ruth’] had a couple of performances,” says Richards. “My friend Michael Isaacson, a composer/conductor, had for years been saying I should make it into an opera.”

Isaacson arranged for the Israel Philharmonic to come aboard. The recording took place in June 2006, and wrapped just as the Hezbollah War began. Richards and his colleagues dedicated the recording to Israel’s soldiers.

Knowing how expensive it can be to stage an opera, Richards has also created a kind of “karaoke” version of “The Ballad of Ruth,” an instrumental-only CD that can be licensed for small opera companies or ambitious soloists.

Meanwhile, Richards is busy composing a series of piano etudes and preparing for a Friday, Feb. 2 concert of his works at Los Gatos’ Congregation Shir Hadash.

Though the common image persists of the composer scribbling away at the piano, Richards has joined the 21st century, composing strictly via computer.

But one high-tech essential still eludes the retired cantor, who says: “My kids keep telling me to get a Web site.”

Steve Richards’ “The Ballad of Ruth” is available for download at for $10.99, and on CD at for $17.99.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.