The New Israel Opera

From humble beginnings, opera in Israel is now on an international level
The history of opera in Israel began in 1923 with a performance of La Traviata by a company founded by the Russian conductor, Mordechai Golinkin.  There was no appropriate venue and the company performed in cinemas.  In 1945, the American soprano, Edis de Philippe, arrived in Israel and founded the Israel Opera.  This company was firmly established when the state of Israel came into being in 1948 and performed night after night all over Israel.  In the early 1960's, a young tenor spent three years in Israel improving his skills and mastering the repertoire.  His name was Placido Domingo.


Israel Opera production of  La Juive
with Neil Shicoff as Eleazar
(Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

The present company, the New Israel Opera, came into being in 1985 and has just celebrated its 25th anniversary.  The general director is Hanna Munitz and the music director, David Stern.  There are over 18,000 subscribers and the number is continually growing.  There are an average of eight operatic productions each season.  Some are created specifically for the Israel Opera with international directors and set designers.  Well known international as well as prominent local singers are featured.  In addition, as is common practice all over the operatic world today, the Israel Opera often collaborates with other major international opera houses and organizes joint productions.  Some productions are also borrowed.
All operas are sung in the original language with surtitles in Hebrew and English projected from the top of the stage.  In 1994, the state of the art Opera House at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center opened.  This can accommodate an audience of 1500.  The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, is the resident orchestra of the Israel Opera.
The company is very intent on being identified as Israeli and it nurtures young talented Israeli singers.  Many launched their career here and have since performed worldwide.  Since its inception, the Israel Opera has commissioned and performed six operas by Israeli composers.  The last season featured A Child Dreams, based on a play by Hanoch Levin with music composed by Gil Shohat. This in itself is a remarkable achievement considering that the Metropolitan Opera in New York has only hosted 5 world premiers over the last quarter of a century.
The Israel Opera maintains a demanding schedule with about 90 operatic performances a season.  Besides opera, the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center hosts several additional series including classical and symphonic music, popular classics, liturgical music, jazz as well as classical rock.  Last season's master musician series included the eminent conductor Marc Minkowski as well as the singers Neil Shicoff and Paata Burchuladze.  International ballet companies also feature prominently.  Recently the Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Ballet national de Espana graced the stage with their presence.     
Opera in Israel is a relatively new art form without the great European tradition.  The Israel Opera realized early on that as part of their mandate, they had to launch varied educational and outreach activities all over Israel.  Through these innovative programs, thousands of potential future opera buffs have been exposed to their first experience of opera.
In the first place, the company has embarked on a program of traveling abridged opera productions in special Hebrew versions geared specifically for young children.  Thousands of eager youngsters are exposed to these productions which are performed at the Israel Opera as well as in other venues throughout the country.
In addition, there is a highly developed local community program in which the Israel Opera works in close collaboration with a specific community for almost a year.  In this venture, local singers, actors and acrobats join a limited number of professional opera singers and orchestra players in staging full opera productions for citizens of that specific community.  This year-long program also includes educational programs in local schools in the area enabling the youth to get acquainted with the magic of opera.  To date this program has operated most successfully in 8 different outlying communities.  An additional aspect of the outreach teaching and educational program is a special project where young children, high school students, soldiers and members of developing communities are invited to the Opera House and tour the auditorium and back stage.   
Prior to each new operatic production, members of the Israel Opera explain the plot putting it into its historical context and singers present excerpts to increase the audience appreciation.  To further foster opera and bring it to the masses, free open air productions often for audiences of up to 100,000 are staged in venues all over Israel.
The Israel opera has also established an Opera Studio which is a practical study and performance program for young talented singers.  Successful applicants receive a scholarship with lessons and coaching free of charge.  In its 9 years of existence, over 30 singers have graduated from this program.  Many have become leading members of the Israel Opera and five have embarked on international careers.  
To further its profile, the Israel Opera has also undertaken tours to Europe to great critical acclaim and has performed in Berlin and Frankfurt as well as at Finland's Savonlinna and Germany's Wiesbaden Festivals.
Visiting international companies also frequently appear on the stage of the Israel Opera.  In honor of the 100 anniversary of the establishment of the city of Tel Aviv, La Scala of Milan brought Franco Zeffirelli's classical production of Aida to Tel Aviv.  They were accompanied by a powerhouse of soloists including Salvatore Licitra (Radames), Violeta Urmana (Aida), Juan Pons (Amonasro) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Amneris).  Conducting was shared between Daniel Barenboim and the most impressive Israeli conductor Omer Wellber, who despite his young age handled the veteran La Scala orchestra with great aplomb.  The most recent season saw a very creditable performance of Prokofiev's comic opera Betrothal in a Monastery, performed by soloists and choir of the visiting Stanislavsky Opera Company from Moscow.
One of the most memorable productions I attended during the past season was a performance of Fromental Halevy's La Juive.  This grand opera was one of the cornerstones of the French repertory for a century.  It enjoyed considerable international success and was programmed regularly until the 1930s.  More recently there have been several revivals.  Many have featured the American tenor Neil Shicoff, who has made Eleazar one of his signature roles.  The libretto by Eugene Scribe is set in Constance in the middle Ages and culminates with the death of the heroine, Rachel has been brought up by the Jew, Eleazar, as his daughter.  Rachel had fallen in love with Prince Leopold but unknown to her, Leopold was married to Eudoxie, niece of the Emperor.  It turns out that Rachel is in fact the daughter of Cardinal Brogny, the president of the council.  After Rachel had been executed for loving a Christian, Eleazar reveals to Brogny that she was his daughter and Eleazar then goes to his own death.
The current Israeli production by the British director David Pountney and staged by the American Robert Israel, was borrowed from the Zurich Opera.  Shicoff certainly succeeded in bringing out the tragedy and pathos of the character who prefers revenge rather than forgiveness.  His famous aria, "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" when he reflects that God had entrusted Rachel to him and now he was about to hand her over to the executioner was a real tour de force.  Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya, who recently took on the role of Elizabeth in a new production of Don Carlos at the Metropolitan Opera, sang the role of Rebecca to great effect.  Bass Roberto Scandiuzzi also gave an outstanding performance as Cardinal Brogni, The remainder of the impressive cast was most competently filled out by the American tenor, Robert McPherson as Prince Leopold and French soprano Massis Annick as Eudoxie.  The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion was conducted by Daniel Oren who led an impassioned and effective reading of the score and gave the singers effective support. This production was truly one of the highlights of the recent season.

piquedame.jpgIsrael Opera production of Pique Dame with Ira Bertman as Liz
(Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

Another notable production was that of Tchaikovsky's melodramatic opera, The Ace of Spades (Pique Dame) based on a tale of Pushkin.  The obsessive gambler, Herman, woos Liza only to gain access to her grandmother, the old countess, who succeeded at gambling in her youth by a winning formula.  Herman is determined to learn the secret and pleads with the Countess to reveal it.  She refuses his threats and dies of fright.  Liza who had been engaged to Prince Yeletsky commits suicide as does Herman.  This production came from the Theater Wielki National Opera, Warsaw, Poland.  Boris Kudlicka's staging reached its full dramatic intensity in the scene with Liza's suicide which showed her on a bridge with menacing birds in the background.  The lighting effects here were particularly effective.
In this performance, pride of place went to the veteran mezzo soprano Anja Silja who portrayed the countess with dignity, elegance and remarkable stage presence.  She was most moving in her great aria when she reminiscences on her past life.  This was without doubt the dramatic and vocal pinnacle of the performance.  The other impressive voice was that of Yeletsky sung by baritone Vladimir Petrov.  He was particularly effective in his dramatic aria, "I love you beyond measure," where he extols his love for Liza.  Ken-Lynn Wilson and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion were worthy partners in this endeavor.


To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Israel Opera also mounted a performance of Verdi's dramatic early opera, Nabucco.  The venue selected was the hallowed mountain fortress of Masada, the site of the final defeat of the Jews by the Romans almost 2000 years ago.  Not a simple undertaking to mount a huge production which included 40 tons of equipment in the desert more than 150 km from Tel Aviv.  To their credit, the management took care of all the formidable logistic details without a hitch.  There were eight performances and 6500 people attended on each occasion.  Some 4000 visitors flew in especially from abroad.  In such a setting, with the magnificent backdrop of the mountain, the emphasis was on spectacle and there was plenty of that.  The dramatic production was directed by Joseph Rochlitz with sets by Nitzan Refaeli.  Camels and horses featured in the procession scenes.  Sound amplification could prove a formidable impediment in the open desert but high marks goes to the sound designer Bryan Grant.  The very effective lighting with spotlights, floodlights and pyrotechnics was by Avi Yona Bueno.
The orchestra was conducted by David Oren who gave an insightful reading of the score.  Particularly impressive was Italian baritone, Alberto Gazale, in the title role.  He succeeded in conveying Nabucco's early imperious arrogant character as well as his pathos and remorse at the opera's end.  Veteran bass Paata Burchuladze was also effective as the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria.  In June 2011, the Israel Opera have promised another grand spectacle, Verdi's Aida in the same venue.
In its first 25 years, the Israel Opera has raked up impressive accomplishments and with its high standards it certainly can hold its own with other major European and American houses.  Remarkably quickly, it has ascended the ladder to become one of Israel's major cultural institutions.


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