This year is awash with tributes to Giuseppe Verdi as opera houses the world over mark the bicentenary of the Italian composer’s birth with performances of his works. The Israeli contribution to the 200th birthday celebrations started in December with a production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller . Friday evening, the Israeli Opera will start a run of 12 performances of La Traviata , ending on June 16.

La Traviata is not only one of Verdi’s most popular works, but it was also the first opera to be performed in pre-state Palestine, in July 1923. According to retired opera professional and painter Shabtai Ben- Arroyo, that initial local production began gestating several years earlier, and in a different part of the world.

“The history of La Traviata begins in post-revolution Russia. There was a bass opera singer there named Feodor Chaliapin, who to this day is considered one of the great opera singers of all time, and he knew a Jewish conductor named Mordechai Golinkin,” Ben-Arroyo explains.

It seems that Golinkin was a true idealist and had an interesting order of priorities.

“His idea was to come to Palestine to establish an opera house,” continues Ben-Arroyo. ”He believed that first you set up an opera, and then you establish an independent state for the Jews.”

However, Golinkin also had some personal professional interest in getting the operatic sector here up and running.

“As a Jew, it was difficult to develop a musical career in Russia,” says Ben- Arroyo. “He was the principal conductor of the opera house in Kharkov from 1910. As a Jew, he couldn’t find work in Moscow or St.Petersburg, and his wife was a singer at the opera in Kharkov.”

Golinkin first set out his quasi- religious plan in Moscow, where he wrote a thesis entitled “The Vision of the Hebrew Art Temple of Opera Work in Palestine.” The project took a positive turn when the famed bass singer finally came on board. The Golinkin-Chaliapin synergy took a while to come to a fruitful boil, but once up and running, the venture really took off.

The lead-in did not look too positive.

“Chaliapin went to Kharkov to perform at the opera house there, with Golinkin as conductor. Golinkin was terrified because Chaliapin was known to be very capricious, and Golinkin thought that if he messed up the performance, that would be the end of his career,” says Ben- Arroyo.

However, it all turned out right on the night.

“After the first act of the opera, at the break, Chaliapin summoned the head of the opera to his room and told him to send the conductor to him. Everyone was apprehensive.

The musical director and all sorts of people were crowded into Chaliapin’s dressing room. Golinkin was petrified and thought it was curtains for him. But when he got there, Chaliapin got up and embraced and kissed him and told everyone there, ‘This is a real conductor,’” Ben-Arroyo recounts.

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which ended 19 years later with Chaliapin’s death.

The two worked together extensively throughout Russia until Golinkin told the singer it was time for him to make his dream a reality.

“Chaliapin thought Golinkin was mad to try to establish an opera house in the desert,” says Ben- Arroyo, “but Golinkin told him he was determined to make it happen.”

Skepticism notwithstanding, the opera star did his bit for his new friend.

“Chaliapin arranged a fundraiser concert in St. Petersburg, and he sang songs in Yiddish, and ‘Hatikva.’ Five thousand people attended the concert,” he says.

That provided the Russian conductor with a tidy start-up sum, and he duly made it over here in 1923 and quickly set about putting his vision into tangible form. But things did not go quite as well as Golinkin would have liked.

“Bialik and many other cultural figures went to greet him when he arrived at Jaffa, and they all promised to help; but he didn’t really get much support,” says Ben-Arroyo.

“Golinkin said he would only put on operas in Hebrew, but he brought some singers with him from Russia who didn’t know a word of Hebrew, and that didn’t pan out.”

Eventually, however, a production of La Traviata was lined up and, as there was no opera-specific venue here, the first opera show in Palestine took place at the Eden Cinema on Tel Aviv’s Lillenblum Street. Naturally, all the local who’s who attended the opener, although one VIP missed the start.

“Golinkin was a stickler for details and punctuality, and he said that anyone who arrived late would have to wait until the end of the first act before they could enter the auditorium,” says Ben- Arroyo, adding that there were absolutely no exceptions to the rule, regardless of public stature.

“Meir Dizengoff, the mayor of Tel Aviv, arrived late and had to wait before he was admitted to the hall,” he recounts.

That was a fine start, but the venture soon began to run out of funds. Four years later, Golinkin went to the US to try to raise funds, but that did not produce the desired returns.

Operatic activity here lapsed for several years until 1940, when Leipzig- trained composer Marc Lavry and conductor George Singer established the Palestine Folk Opera. By 1945, some 16 productions had been staged, among them the first opera in Hebrew, Dan the Guard , composed by Lavry, poet Shin Shalom and writer Max Brod.

Things really took off in the local opera sector with the arrival of celebrated American soprano Edis de Philippe in November 1945. She quickly created the Israel National Opera, which performed night after night all over the country. Ben-Arroyo was De Philippe’s right-hand man for many years, and the company’s success attracted young rising opera performers from all over the world, including tenor Placido Domingo. He spent three years here in the early 1960s before embarking on a glittering international career.

In 1982 the Ministry of Culture and Education decided to end its funding of the Israel National Opera. Three years later, the Council for Arts and Culture created The New Israeli Opera by brokering a partnership between the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv and the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Uri Offer, the then director general of the Cameri, was appointed director general of the New Israeli Opera, a post he held for a decade. Yoav Talmi, who was the music director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, became the opera’s musical director. The New Israeli Opera’s debut show featured Dido and Aeneas by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell, which was performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

Today, the Israeli Opera, under director general Hanna Munitz, puts on about eight productions a season, starring many of the world’s leading opera artists, and has more than 18,000 subscribers.

Theodor Herzl famously said of the future State of Israel: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“I think Golinkin would have gone along with that,” says Ben-Arroyo.

La Traviata will be performed at the Israeli Opera on May 11 at 9 p.m.

Premiere performance on May 12. Until June 6. Conductors David Stern and Daniel Cohen; director Andrejs Zagars. In the role of Violetta – Lana Cox and Mirela Gradinaru. Alfredo – Jean-Francois Borras.

For tickets, (03) 692-7777; www.israel- opera.co.il/Eng

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