Opera’s House of Diamonds
‘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