Operas can tend to be of a melodramatic ilk. We are treated to lengthy arias suffused with pathos, nigh on unfathomable emotion and not a little tragedy. And then there are the fun comedic works that offer us a seductive mix of glorious musical numbers and high jinks.
Gioacchino Rossini’s La Gazzetta certainly fits the latter bill and will no doubt delight audiences at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv when it debuts there March 29 to April 8.
The Italian composer really let his hair down with this work, which was first performed in 1816 at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples, where it ran for 21 performances. Time lapse notwithstanding, the opera addresses a contemporary theme.
La Gazzetta looks at the world of the media (the English language title is alternately given as The Newspaper, or The Marriage Contest) and satirizes the influence of newspapers on people’s lives.
The opera tells the story of a pretentious Neapolitan, Don Pomponio Storione, who travels the world in search of a man he would consider an acceptable suitor for his daughter. He puts ads in the newspapers of all the places he visits and ends up in a hotel, where he grants audiences to a litany of clearly unsuitable candidates, often suffering bodily harm in the process. Naturally, the daughter, Lisetta, is not exactly thrilled with the paternal pressure but, happily for her, it is a matter of all’s well that ends well.
The production is being presented here by the Royal Opera of Wallonie from Liege, Belgium, and the cast is primarily Belgian, with a couple of Italian singers and one Israeli. The latter is Shiri Hershkowitz, who will share the role of Lisetta with Italian counterpart Cinzia Forte.
Hershkowitz says she was destined to become a professional singer since the day she was born, and possibly even before that.
“My parents recently told me that when I was still in my mother’s tummy, every time there was music around I’d start moving inside her,” says the 31-year-old soprano. “That’s why they called me Shiri [my song].”
Did the prenatal parental music syllabus take in a wide range of genres or did her parents start paving their unborn offspring’s career path from the get-go? “They played a lot of classical music, but I think there were all kinds of music,” Hershkowitz says.
The opera singer in the making was clearly marked for the stage, any stage.
“I always loved singing. I remember I used to perform for my grandparents in their living room. But I used to do lots of Israeli songs and stuff from musicals as well,” she recounts.
Recognizing their daughter’s innate talent, the youngster’s parents soon sent her off for voice training lessons. The practiced professionals discerned the direction Hershkowitz should be taking.
“All my teachers told me I had a classical voice and that I should study opera singing. So in high school, I went more for classical singing, and then I served in the army as an Outstanding Musician,” she says.
The youngster was clearly making progress, but she still wasn’t sure about which way to take her gifts.
“I couldn’t decide between opera and musicals, but I found a great music school in the United States [Boston Conservatory of Music] that had a wonderful opera department but also one of the best departments in the United States for training in musicals,” she relates.
She eventually decided to try the classical route first but leaving the musicals option hanging for a while. That must have been quite a quandary. After all, the two fields require a hugely contrasting use of the vocal chords and vocal techniques.
“They are very different genres,” Hershkowitz admits, “and the way you use your voice is very different for each. But back then, I was less familiar with the classical world. I’d sung a few arias, I’d done some art songs in various languages. But I’d listened to a lot of non-classical music – singers like Barbra Streisand, Achinoam Nini, a lot of singer from the 1960s and jazz, too. I love Ella Fitzgerald,” she elaborates.
It was not just local patriotism that drew Hershkowitz to Nini.
“She has a very flexible voice, very virtuosic. She sings some arias but also never allows a song just to be – she always leaves her own personal imprint on the songs she performs.
She was a great source of inspiration for me,” she says.
Hershkowitz found another, more immediate, mentor in Boston – voice trainer Rebecca Folsom.
“She helped me immerse myself in the world of classical music. It was in Boston that I discovered the riches of classical music, and it was there that I defined my own musical identity,” she explains.
Part of that was down to the fact that she came from foreign parts.
“I was an Israeli there, and I’d had some very different experiences from the Americans at the school. I remember being in a class where we were taught German repertoire, and we were learning a song that referred to war. The teacher asked if anyone in the class had been in a war zone, and I was the only one who raised their hand. I told them about how I’d been in Israeli during the Gulf War at the age of six. Suddenly, there was a different color to what we were doing in the class for the others who hadn’t experienced that,” she recounts.
There are all sorts of shenanigans in La Gazzetta, but nothing in the way of all-out military action. This will be Hershkowitz’s first appearance in the opera, and she says she is fired up and ready to go.
“About a month ago I went to Liege for rehearsals with the company. It was an amazing experience. The director [Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera] and the conductor [Jan Schultsz] are so professional and so dedicated to their work. There aren’t that many soloists in the opera, and we became a very cohesive unit,” she says.
The production also offers Hershkowitz an opportunity to unveil some of her jazzy tendencies.
“There are musical passages that are repetitive, and then you can add vocal ornamentation. That started with the Baroque period, when it was very much about vocal virtuosity,” she says.
The role of Lisetta also offers plenty of leeway for personal expression.
“She is a young girl who wants to enjoy every moment of her life, and she’s capricious. She wears a very short dress and she’s blonde. You could say she’s a bit of a Barbie character,” Hershkowitz reflects with a laugh.
With Rossini’s rich musical textures and Giuseppe Palomba’s entertaining storyline, La Gazzetta should keep the Israeli Opera House audiences riveted and happy.
‘La Gazzetta’ will be performed at the Opera House in Tel Aviv from March 29 to April 8. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il