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IT’S NOT ev­ery day you see the word “Mamzer’” in an opera ti­tle. Per­haps even more ex­tra­or­di­nary, though, is that the in­flu­ence of Cha­sidic and can­to­rial mu­sic is cen­tral to Mamzer Bas­tard, the new opera by the young Is­raeli com­poser Na’ama Zisser, staged later this month at the Hack­ney Em­pire. It even in­cludes a can­tor, Ne­tanel Her­shtik, from the Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue in New York as part of the cast.

Na’ama Zisser is cur­rently doc­toral com­poser-in-res­i­dence at London’s Guild­hall School of Mu­sic and Drama (GSMD); the opera serves as her the­sis and is a co-com­mis­sion be­tween the Royal Opera and the GSMD in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Hack­ney Em­pire. It’s an ad­ven­tur­ous and pro­duc­tive way to nur­ture young com­posers, and Zisser is only the sec­ond per­son to hold the post. Yet Mamzer Bas­tard is also a fam­ily ef­fort: Na’ama’s two li­bret­tists are her el­der sis­ter, Rachel C. Zisser, and Sa­man­tha New­ton, Rachel’s part­ner in life as well as work.

At the theatre café be­tween in­ten­sive re­hearsals, the Is­raeli­born sis­ters — two of five sib­lings —— could scarcely be more dif­fer­ent from one an­other. They are a decade apart in age, with Rachel, 39, force­ful and forthright while Na’ama, 29, seems qui­eter and deeply in­tu­itive. Still, they share a wry sense of hu­mour, as does Manch­ester-born Sa­man­tha, 35, part of the fam­ily for 13 years and orig­i­nally Roman Catholic (“I wanted to go to Mid­night Mass,” Rachel says, “and Sam said ‘Why’?”). To­gether the three are a force to be reck­oned with. To­day Na’ama is pale, fo­cused, but tired: “This is the big­gest piece I’ve ever writ­ten,” she says — the opera is about an hour and a half, without a break. “I’ve just sent out 400 pages of score!”

Na’ama first be­gan com­pos­ing af­ter she dis­cov­ered, dur­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice as a mu­si­cian, that she loved mak­ing mu­si­cal ar­range­ments. Of­fered op­por­tu­ni­ties to study in London or New York, she chose the for­mer: “I was 20 and my mum said it was nearer home!” she re­mem­bers.

She loves col­lab­o­ra­tion and has writ­ten for con­tem­po­rary dance and var­i­ous in­stal­la­tions as well as opera and in­stru­men­tal works, her com­mis­sions in­clud­ing pieces for the London Sym­phony Orches­tra, London Sin­foni­etta, Grime­born, the Tête-a-Tête Opera Fes­ti­val and the Jerusalem Sym­phony Orches­tra, among oth­ers.

The new piece is Rachel’s first foray into opera, though Na’ama has com­posed smaller-scale op­er­atic works be­fore, in­clud­ing a ‘hor­ror opera’ with Sa­man­tha as

li­bret­tist. Rachel and Sa­man­tha first met at the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute Con­ser­va­tory in Los An­ge­les, where they were both direct­ing fel­lows, and have worked to­gether ever since in film and TV. Their first film, Traces, was pre­sented at the Ber­li­nale and has won nu­mer­ous awards. “Nor­mally,” Sa­man­tha de­clares, “we write hor­ror movies.”

Mamzer Bas­tard is no hor­ror story, but its filmic qual­i­ties are ev­i­dent as Rachel de­scribes it. The ac­tion takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the big­gest black­outs in the city’s his­tory. A young man from the Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity is to get mar­ried the next day. Un­sure that he is ready, he de­cides to es­cape and finds him­self lost in the dark­ened streets of the city, where he is nearly mur­dered. A stranger saves his life, ask­ing in rec­om­pense only that he re­turns to his fam­ily and the wed­ding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he re­alises how lit­tle he knows about him­self.”

“Mamzer” trans­lates al­most as “bas­tard”, but more pre­cisely as a per­son born from a re­la­tion­ship for­bid­den within Jewish re­li­gious law. Ac­cord­ing to Rachel, the story re­lates, tan­gen­tially, to deep roots within the Zisser fam­ily. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been try­ing to write it in one form or an­other ever since,” she re­flects.

“At five or six years old, she was with her fa­ther when he ran into an old friend from be­fore the Holo­caust, who said ‘How nice to see you — and this is your lit­tle daugh­ter?’ He replied, in Yid­dish, think­ing my aunt couldn’t un­der­stand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the orig­i­nal one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted af­ter­wards: ‘Who is the orig­i­nal me?’

“When she was 17-18, her fa­ther went to tes­tify at one of the Nurem­burg tri­als. He came back with a doc­u­ment of his tes­ti­mony against one of the Nazis. My grand­mother didn’t want her chil­dren to know that our grand­fa­ther had had an­other fam­ily be­fore the war, so she hid the doc­u­ment — and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daugh­ter and a son be­fore her, so she un­der­stood fi­nally why she was not the first. I think the pres­ence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”

The sis­ters’ late fa­ther, the busi­ness­man Mordechai Zisser, was a cru­cial in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the piece: it is ded­i­cated to him and they feel many of its over­ar­ch­ing themes re­late closely to his life. He was born in Tel Aviv to Cha­sidic Holo­caust sur­vivors from Poland and his pas­sion for can­to­rial mu­sic in­spired Na’ama to ex­plore this as a driv­ing force in her cre­ative process.

Sadly, he died be­fore he could see the project come to fruition, but, says Rachel, “he knew the opera was go­ing to hap­pen. And though we were re­luc­tant to work to­gether at first, he was the per­son who kept telling us it was the right thing to do.”

“He al­ways took own­er­ship of my mu­sic,” says Na’ama, smil­ing. Rachel takes up the story: “Like fa­thers do. And Na’ama would try to es­cape it as much as she could... Fun­nily enough, her first big opera is ex­actly what she was try­ing to es­cape from.”

The idea of a Cha­sidic back­drop for the piece orig­i­nates with the Zis­sers’ back­ground in Strictly Or­tho­dox Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv: “It’s ex­plor­ing our own child­hood, in a way — the sights, sounds and feel of it,” says Na’ama. “Our great­grand­fa­ther was the founder of the city, and over time it got more and more re­li­gious, but we stayed there. I think it’s very present in all of our lives and works. It’s some­thing we ex­plore and try to deal with for­ever.”

Their par­ents were not as bound by tra­di­tion as the rest of the town. “We felt that ev­ery­thing was open to us and that we could do what­ever we wanted to,” says Rachel. “And I think our par­ents’ ap­proach af­fected all their group of friends. I wasn’t sur­prised, when Na’ama started look­ing into can­to­rial mu­sic, that our dad eas­ily man­aged to in­tro­duce her to lots of can­tors who would work with her, many of them very frum, be­cause through his eyes they felt it was some­thing very nat­u­ral.” Na’ama smiles: “Now I have lots of new friends,” she de­clares.

Fit­ting can­to­rial mu­sic into opera was not quite as much of a cul­ture-clash as it might ini­tially sound: “I think it con­tains some sim­i­lar things to opera, but the mech­a­nism is to­tally dif­fer­ent, and I was drawn to the free­dom of it,” Na’ama ex­plains. “That was the start­ing point, and I knew I wanted to in­cor­po­rate ex­ist­ing can­to­rial pieces.” She spent six months im­mers­ing her­self in old can­to­rial record­ings in var­i­ous ar­chives, ab­sorb­ing their mu­si­cal lan­guage.

Now that the opera is fin­ished, though, she says the sounds are still in her head and she has found her­self, of­ten in­ad­ver­tently, con­tin­u­ing to use the char­ac­ter­is­tic lan­guage of the tra­di­tional Jewish modes. “I’m try­ing to for­get it,” she jokes. “But ev­ery piece you write adds an­other layer to your pal­ette.”

As for the story, that lingers too — and ev­ery fam­ily touched by the ab­sences and se­crets of the Holo­caust will recog­nise el­e­ments of it. “I think there’s a lot of art that speaks about sur­vivors,” says Rachel, “but there are other el­e­ments about which peo­ple don’t speak enough. If this is a river, how does it turn into lots of strands? How do these strands af­fect the next, suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions? There was a se­cret in the fam­ily

— how does that af­fect us? And it does af­fect us. It af­fects the way we ex­pe­ri­ence things, though very dif­fer­ently from how it af­fected the first gen­er­a­tion.

“There was a win­dow in time, per­haps through to the 1960s, in which things hap­pened, but then peo­ple put them away in a box,” she adds. “The at­ti­tude was that there was an old life; it fin­ished; and now it’s ‘take two’ and the kids don’t know about it. But it’s not over. Even for the grand­chil­dren who grew up with a grand­fa­ther who had a se­cret, if that se­cret is not in the open, the strug­gle is still there.”

The Royal Opera presents the world pre­miere of Mamzer Bas­tard by doc­toral com­poser-in-res­i­dence Na’ama Zisser, a co-com­mis­sion with the Guild­hall School in as­so­ci­a­tion with Hack­ney Em­pire. June 14, 15, 17 at Hack­ney Em­pire.

Our fa­ther found can­tors to help with re­search

Na’ama Zisser

Rachel Zisser (above) with part­ner Sa­man­tha New­ton (be­low)

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