Arguably the most feted member of the Israeli classical music fraternity, Gil Shohat undeniably has a high international and domestic profile and plenty of mainstream media exposure. On closer inspection, however, there appears to be something of an eclectic - not to say equivocal - ethos about the composer-conductor-pianist.
On the one hand he prefers to do his business from here, lucrative job offers from abroad notwithstanding, but he also says he feeds off definitively foreign energies too. "Music has distanced me from a lot of the elements of Israeliness and Jewishness. Take a look at me. Do I look like an Israeli? And I'm not talking about the suit I'm wearing. I think I'm more relaxed than most Israelis."
Nonetheless, after lengthy academic and professional sojourns in England, France (earlier this year France conferred on him the title of Chevalier des arts et des lettres) and Italy, Shohat says he is becoming more attuned to the in-your-face Middle Eastern attitude, and has somewhat reverted to type. "Until a few years ago, you would have had to work very hard to irk me, but I'm not quite as calm as I used to be. There's simply no choice, you have to be tougher."
And we're not just talking about getting on with Yossi Cohen on the street. "That goes, in particular, for the world of Israeli opera too," Shohat continues, "and for the Israeli classical community in general."
He attributes part of the jungle effect to breadwinning constraints. "There's only one opera company in Israel, and there are loads of highly talented composers and musicians here. So when you get someone who is successful and good at what he does, you get a lot of malice." Then again, Shohat admits that part of that may be his own doing. "Look, I could have been less outspoken, reined myself in and been less colorful. But, it's not that I don't want to, I simply can't do that. That's never been my way."
Still shy of his 36th birthday, Shohat's oeuvre to date includes nine symphonies, 12 concerti, oratorios, cantatas, a large number of chamber works and four operas. He also earns some of his bread as artistic director and chief conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and there's the small matter of overseeing the musical content of six festivals around the globe. Shohat's latest opera, The Child Dreams, based on Hanoch Levin's 1993 play of that name, will premiere at the Tel Aviv Opera House on January 18.
Despite his packed schedule, Shohat says over espresso at the opera house between rehearsals for the new production, "I'm never too busy. Ever since I can remember I've been told I'm doing too much, but I always have the feeling that I'm not getting enough done. That I'm lazy."
That's not exactly an epithet that springs to mind with this man. Ever the paragon of European culture, Shohat moves the conversation neatly into a Western religion context. "I am a Jew but I think there's something of the Christian guilt complex in my essence." That, it seems, might be a side effect of his daytime job. "Maybe it also has something to do with the music which consumes me from morning till night. Besides my own music I am constantly immersed in the works of the great composers - Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and the earlier composers like [Baroque composer Dietrich] Buxtehude and [16th century Italian composer Jacopo] Peri. Most of the texts I deal with are Christian. Let's face it, we owe a lot more to the church than to Judaism for the development of music. Maybe something in that music engendered some sense of guilt in me."
SHOHAT GIVES off an impressive air. His talent is unquestionable; he is forthright, streetwise and eloquent. He also appears to have a firm opinion on almost any issue. As the conversation meandered around musical topics, we strayed into greener areas. "I don't have a car because I want to pollute as little as possible," he declares. "I was probably the first person in this country to say no to storekeepers when offered a plastic bag. I'd bring my own from home. And if it were up to me, I'd close the whole of downtown Tel Aviv to cars, and just have trains - overland and subways - and bicycles."
Shohat's childhood two-wheeler was not only an efficient means of transport, it also allowed him some quality music time. "When I was a kid, I lived in Ramat Gan and I'd cycle to Stricker [to attend the music conservatory in North Tel Aviv] and to Tel Aviv University in Ramat Aviv for science activities for gifted children. At the age of seven I'd get on my bike, put my Walkman on and listen to works by Bach and Beethoven. I got to know a lot of classical music that way."
When you think of a seven year old with a penchant for "grooving" to classical works, it certainly conjures up an impressive image. On the other hand, surely there must have been some more commercial and child-oriented music around in the early 1980s that might have caught little Gil's ear. "Not for me," declares Shohat. "If you put on a song by Led Zeppelin or Arik Einstein for me just once, I could play it for you, and improvise on it, on the piano immediately. But my life revolves around Beethoven quartets, Mozart's sonatas and Puccini operas."
The idea of such a young boy immersing himself in works that were written decades and centuries before he was born could be misconstrued as emanating from a highly cosseted, nay elitist, upbringing. Shohat immediately scotches that idea. "No one can come up and say, 'He's a rich kid from North Tel Aviv,' because I'm not. No one can come up and say, 'He's a rich kid from an Ashkenazi family, because I'm not.'"
Actually the latter's only half true. While his father comes from Iraq, his mother is of Polish descent. "But it was my father who listened to classical music, and also [Egyptian diva] Oum Kalthoum," Shohat interjects. "I heard the Arabic music my dad listened to - there was an hour of it on the radio every day - but I can't say any of that is part of my world today. When I went to Sarah's kindergarten at the age of five, I discovered a record there of Peter and the Wolf, and the rest is history."
SHOHAT'S ARTISTIC and professional trajectory since finding that LP, and his childhood magical musical bicycle trips, has been unwavering. At no point in his life does there appear to be even a hint of doubt that, just maybe, there may be another way of doing things, or that there are other forms of musical or cultural excellence than his chosen genre. And he has gained a reputation for stacking to his guns.
"I like to keep the opposition guessing," he says. "People have always accused me of belonging to another era, the beginning of the 20th century, in musical terms. I object to avant garde. One of my teachers once said to me: 'You live as if [envelope pushing 20th century German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen and [84-year-old French contemporary classical composer Pierre] Boulez were never born.' That's absolutely true for me. As far as I am concerned, they were never born."
For Shohat, European classical music represents the unquestioned pinnacle of the evolution of mankind. "I believe that if you don't listen to opera music and classical music, you are missing the jewels that culture has to offer. And that goes for people from other cultures too, including Arabs, Indians or whatever."
Is there even the slightest possibility that Shohat might be missing something here, that other cultures may have something to offer that Europe lacks? "Not that I've noticed till now," he declares, "and I used to listen to Oum Kalthoum with my father."
Shohat's hard-and-fast credo also leaves no room for charlatanism, or even a modicum of compromise. "You can't be an artist unless you have an artistic concept. That's one of the areas in which I have a lot of criticism for some of my colleagues. Some of the artists of today are stuck in old-fashioned concepts. They need to stop for a moment, press control-alt-delete, and be truthful with themselves. They have to ask themselves who they really are and this, of course, has a direct bearing on their artistic output. There are so many people who are stuck in unsuitable frameworks. That creates so much frustration that ends up being destructive for them, for those around them and for their work. Creativity can only come from a place that is pure, honest, sincere and devoid of ego. We all have to deal with that."
That sounds like a tall order for mere mortals but, for Shohat, even that is not quite enough. "You have to have a deep knowledge of the history of music and the works that have been written over the centuries and bring them into play when you write the very first note of a new work," he says.
There's more. "You have to unite your soul and your body - which is parallel to style and form. You have to balance the two perfectly. And, again, you have to avoid the ego. That is a poison which will stop you channeling your positive forces into your new work."
That, presumably, also means circumnavigating pandering to popular tastes, or wondering what an audience may make of a new work in progress. "Despite some opinions about me in that regard, I never think about that. And the public generally likes my work, and I get criticized for that. But, the simple truth is that I am in tune with myself. I don't think about the public, or the musicians, or myself when I'm writing. I believe that if I produce a good work, it will survive long after my death, and after the person who commissioned the work is no longer around. For instance, I want The Child Dreams to be played 500 years from now."
NATURALLY, ONLY time will tell whether that works out but, at the very least, in terms of personal commitment the new opera deserves to bring in the crowds and the kudos. Shohat started working on the music back in 1993 after Omri Nitzan, the director of the forthcoming production, approached Levin about giving Shohat a bash at scoring the play.
"Yes, that is a long time to work on something, even intermittently, and I had to put a lot into The Child Dreams," says the composer. "If you read the score, it looks like there are lots of different styles and directions, but I built into it a thematic continuity between all the parts. Every single note was carefully thought out in a contextual sense too."
Shohat's efforts may have been compounded by Levin's bare bones writing ethos. "There is something about Hanoch's work in general that is almost non-operatic or even anti-operatic. There is a lot of cynicism about him and there's no cynicism in opera. Quite a few of Levin's earlier plays are also satirical and highly political, and opera doesn't like that too much either. On the other hand, his later works offer some of the best operatic material of any Israeli playwright. They became universal and temporally independent, less cynical and more sarcastic and ironic - in a more universal sense. Hanoch Levin of The Child Dreams is not Hanoch Levin of [the highly political 1970 play] Queen of the Bathtub. There's a lot of compassion in The Child Dreams."
Considering the subject matter, compassion would seem to be the order of the day. Levin's inspiration for The Child Dreams came from the 1976 movie Voyage of the Damned, which tells the story of a luxury liner, packed with almost a thousand Jews, which set sail from Germany to Cuba in 1939. Although sanctioned by the Germans, the voyage was, in fact, a Nazi propaganda ploy and the ship was eventually returned to Europe, where more than the half the passengers were to perish in the Holocaust.
Despite the seeming close to home theme, Shohat adheres to the more general Levin line. "I don't see it as a Holocaust story," says the composer. "I've done a lot of presentations for the opera and, everywhere I go, people always see it as a Holocaust-inspired work. I don't see it that way, and I wouldn't do an opera based on that. For me, the Holocaust is not a subject to be presented through art. Its memory is too fresh, and the wound is still too open, for it to be turned into a work of art."
Then again, there's Shohat's third opera, Badenheim, which is based on the Aharon Appelfeld novel Badenheim 1939, set in a primarily Austrian Jewish resort town, on the cusp of World War II, whose hedonistic inhabitants do their best to ignore their impending and inevitable fate. "Yes, but that was about something that happened before the Holocaust, and it was more about Jewish culture of the time than about the Holocaust itself. There's also a strong element of escapism in Badenheim."
Instead, in The Child Dreams Shohat prefers to focus on the more general properties and emotions portrayed in the opera. "There's sublimation and great catharsis in the work. I don't see it as a tragic work at all. There are a lot of extremes in it. There's the innocence of a child, but there's also a lot of violence - murder for murder's sake, pleasure from murder, gross sexuality and very stark visual images. These extremes are good for opera work. But I did take the cynicism out of the play. You can say a lot of things about me, but you can't call me a cynic. I think that's a poison, and it gets in the way of romanticism."
The new opera certainly comes in for some plush treatment. Even with a somewhat pared-down instrumental ensemble, the costumes and sets are a sight for sore eyes, and there's even a circus act thrown in for good measure. Shohat says he been blessed by his captains and deckhands alike. "They've all done an incredible job - Omri [Nitzan], the music director David Stern, Gottfried Helnwein [who designed the sets and the costumes], the choreographer Gregor Seifert and Avi Yona Bueno who did the lighting. And Hanna Munitz, the general director of the Israeli Opera, has done an amazing job too. It's a pleasure to work with these people."
Still, on a wider front, not everything in the local garden is coming up roses. "Support for culture in this country is deplorable," says Shohat. "If we had more people of culture in key positions, in political positions, things would be far better here. There is such little financial support for culture. I recently heard that there are artists who exhibit in major museums without getting paid. That's totally ludicrous."
The Israeli Opera is pulling out all the stops to make sure the public has user-friendly access to the new work. The performances on January 20 (8 p.m.), 22 (1 p.m.), 23 (8 p.m.) and 25 (8 p.m.) will be followed by a panel discussion with some of the artists, and all six performances of The Child Dreams will be preceded by a free lecture on the work one hour before the curtain goes up. Next Saturday morning (11 a.m.) Michael Ajzenstadt will moderate a preliminary panel discussion about the work.
The Child Dreams, which opens the Israeli Opera's 25th season on January 18 (8 p.m.), is supported by the Beracha Foundation and the Marc Rich Foundation.
For more information, go to www.israel-opera.co.il. Bookings can also be made on the Web site or by calling (03) 692-7777.