Opera’s House of Di­a­monds

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE YE­HUDA SHAPIRO

‘EV­ERY RE­SPECTABLE house in the world has an opera stu­dio,” says Michael Ajzen­stadt, and the com­pany of which he is artis­tic ad­min­is­tra­tor is no ex­cep­tion. The Tel Aviv-based Is­raeli Opera, like Lon­don’s Royal Opera House or New York’s Metropoli­tan Opera, de­vel­ops young singing tal­ent through a for­mal pro­gramme.

The Meitar Opera Stu­dio, launched 15 years ago, rig­or­ously se­lects singers grad­u­at­ing from Is­rael’s mu­sic con­ser­va­to­ries and at any one time ac­com­mo­dates eight to 10 mem­bers. Over a pe­riod of two years, each of them re­ceives coach­ing in reper­toire, lan­guages and stage­craft, while also tak­ing sup­port­ing roles in full-scale pro­duc­tions (work­ing with singers, con­duc­tors and di­rec­tors from Is­rael and around the world), and star­ring in smaller shows mounted for schools and other sec­tions of the com­mu­nity.

“It’s a struc­tured pro­gramme that some­times has to be­come un­struc­tured,” ex­plains Ajzen­stadt. “We’ll have ev­ery­thing in place and then get a call from an or­ches­tra telling us that they need an ur­gent re­place­ment for a singer who has can­celled. That’s real life for a per­former. There’s no point in mak­ing the Stu­dio into some kind of academy.”

David Sebba — the Stu­dio’s mu­sic di­rec­tor and the com­poser of Alice in Won­der­land, an opera cre­ated es­pe­cially for the pro­gramme’s singers in 2010 — adds: “I’m fa­mil­iar with the tal­ent at the con­ser­va­to­ries in Is­rael, so I know how to look for ‘new di­a­monds’, but the pro­gramme chal­lenges singers in un­ex­pected ways… They’re like in­tern doc­tors in a hos­pi­tal, learn­ing on the job.

“For­mer Stu­dio mem­bers of­ten come back to say that it has pre­pared them for any­thing, even the weird­est sit­u­a­tions that can oc­cur on stage.”

These days, it is not enough for opera singers sim­ply to stand and de­liver. Be­yond be­ing vo­cal ath­letes who can pro­ject their un­am­pli­fied voices into a large au­di­to­rium, they must be ex­pert, ver­sa­tile, mul­ti­lin­gual mu­si­cians who can also con­vince as ac­tors in pro­duc­tions that are of­ten in­tel­lec­tu­ally and phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing.

A de­mand­ing no­madic lifestyle also awaits any singer who, rather than com­mit­ting to a long-term con­tract with a sin­gle com­pany, wants to make an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer as a free­lance per­former. Michael Ajzen­stadt em­pha­sises that “You can make a liv­ing with your voice in Is­rael, but opera is a global genre. In­ter­na­tion­ally, there are lots of good singers com­pet­ing for jobs. One of our aims is to pro­duce a gen­er­a­tion of Is­raeli opera singers who can take their place on the world stage.”

Com­ing from a small coun­try, ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tant from the world’s op­er­atic hotspots and sub­ject to er­ratic arts fund­ing, young Is­raeli singers are up against ris­ing tal­ent from all over the world, par­tic­u­larly the US, for­mer Soviet coun­tries and (a ris­ing force over the past few decades) South Korea.

If the great Span­ish tenor Plá­cido Domingo gained his spurs as a mem­ber of the He­brew Na­tional Opera in the early 1960s, Is­rael has not yet pro­duced a home­grown op­er­atic su­per­star, though mezzo-so­prano Ri­nat Sha­ham, born in Haifa, is one of the world’s reign­ing in­ter­preters of Car­men. She ben­e­fited from stud­ies at one of the top US con­ser­va­to­ries, but — as a grow­ing num­ber of Meitar Opera Stu­dio alumni are prov­ing — a pro­fes­sional train­ing in Is­rael can also now pro­vide the spring­board for an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer.

When the so­prano Hila Fahima left the Stu­dio five years ago she first went to work at the Deutsche Oper Ber­lin — guest­ing at the Royal Al­bert Hall when the Ger­man com­pany per­formed Wag­ner’s Tannhäuser at the 2013 BBC Proms; she has now spent two years as an ensem­ble mem­ber at the Vi­enna State Opera, in­dis­putably one of the world’s top houses, tak­ing roles such as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigo­letto. “The Stu­dio gave me the chance to dis­cover the world of opera… to work with im­por­tant con­duc­tors, to learn new roles, to cre­ate char­ac­ters and to gain ex­pe­ri­ence on stage,” she says. “I also met peo­ple who re­ally in­flu­enced my ca­reer, in­clud­ing my agent. This pro­fes­sion is chal­leng­ing — and you need to be open in your ap­proach — but I think that Is­rael’s cul­ture en­cour­ages you to work hard to achieve your goals in life, to per­se­vere. Is­rael will al­ways be my home — it’s where my past and fu­ture lie — so I’ve had to make some tough de­ci­sions as I de­velop my ca­reer abroad, but I al­ways try to visit and sing in Is­rael as much as pos­si­ble.”

A so­prano cur­rently fo­cus­ing her ca­reer on Is­rael is Hila Bag­gio, though her CV in­cludes ap­pear­ances with Daniel Baren­boim in Ber­lin and a lead­ing role at the pres­ti­gious Rossini Fes­ti­val in Pe­saro on Italy’s Adri­atic coast. A prime rea­son for this is that runs of op­er­atic per­for­mances abroad would keep her apart from her two young daugh­ters. “Ev­ery­one told me that I could not make a ca­reer liv­ing in Is­rael. For quite a while I thought so too,” she says. “But in the past few years I have found that I can travel and ful­fill my dream with­out giv­ing up life in my home­land and be­ing close to my fam­ily… It is part of who I am as an artist.”

The rolling coun­try­side of East Sus­sex be­came Na’ama Gold­man’s home for a chunk of sum­mer 2015, since she was cov­er­ing (un­der­study­ing) Car­men at the Glyn­de­bourne Fes­ti­val. The se­duc­tive An­dalu­sian gypsy has been good to her: in 2012, the year she left the Meitar Stu­dio, she had to take on the role at a mo­ment’s no­tice when ill­ness caused both the lead singer and her un­der­study to drop out of Is­raeli Opera’s spec­tac­u­lar open-air pro­duc­tion at Masada. As the au­thor­i­ta­tive UK mag­a­zine Opera re­ported, Gold­man “rose tri­umphantly to the chal­lenge”. She then set about de­vel­op­ing her in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, ac­quired a Lon­don­based agent and in 2014 starred at Ire­land’s high-pro­file Wex­ford Fes­ti­val as another tal­ented girl from Is­rael, Salomé. This was not, how­ever, in Richard Strauss’s barn­storm­ing take on the Bib­li­cal story, but in a more dis­creet opera by the French com­poser Au­guste Mar­i­otte.

Gold­man is pleased with the way her ca­reer is go­ing, but she ob­serves that “it’s still un­usual to be an opera singer from Is­rael. Peo­ple out­side Is­rael don’t al­ways know how to con­nect us as a cul­ture. We’re still such a new coun­try — and are we Western or Mid­dle Eastern?” (Gold­man her­self has a fa­ther from Ger­many and a mother from Uze­bek­istan — she cred­its her sen­si­tiv­ity to clas­si­cal mu­sic to the for­mer, her vo­cal tal­ent to the lat­ter.)

“For­tu­nately, Is­raeli mu­si­cians are known as very hard work­ers and I’m very proud of that. We are also very straight­for­ward in the way we ap­proach things, and it’s re­ally im­por­tant to me to bring that into the pro­fes­sion. I grew up with an au­then­tic way of be­ing and it’s im­por­tant to be mu­si­cally and emo­tion­ally hon­est. I al­ways aim to be au­then­tic on stage.”

Au­then­tic: mem­bers of the Tel Aviv-based Is­raeli Opera

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