It is not a bad idea for an artist to gain inspiration from all sorts of ethnic and cultural sources.
That mind-set has been around for millennia, ever since the superpowers of the day decided they’d like to have an empire and set about conquering other countries and cultures – but Daniel Oren’s mixed ethnic baggage did not go down too well in certain quarters in his formative years.
Oren is one of the world’s foremost opera conductors and has just been appointed artistic director of the Israel Opera for the 2014-15 season. He will be ready with baton in hand when this year’s festival kicks off at Masada with four performances of Verdi’s ever-popular La Traviata on June 12, 14, 16 and 17.
As befitting the magnificent historic desert location, the production will be a grand affair with a glittering array of soloists including Romanian-born soprano Elena Mosuc, who will share the lead role with compatriot Aurelia Florian, with Spanish tenor Celso Albelo in the role of Alfredo and Romanian baritone Ionut Pascu as Germont.
Much has been made in the media of Oren’s mixed Jewish-Arab antecedents, but it seems the conductor stuck closely to the Jewish side of the family when he was growing up in Jaffa. His paternal grandfather was an Arab Muslim called Muhammad Siksik who fell in love with a Jewish girl. Ironically, he first set eyes on her when he was doing a house-to-house search, as an Arab soldier, for members of the Stern Group, the Jewish underground movement. Leader Avraham Stern was hiding in the house at the time but love evidently got the better of Siksik, and he decided to leave quietly.
It was love at first sight, and Oren’s Russian-born Jewish grandmother soon became Mrs. Siksik.
Oren’s mixed ethnicity caused the youngster no end of trouble, and he did not imbibe any Arabic culture in his formative years. “My grandparents lived somewhere else and I didn’t have much contact with my grandfather. Today I can say that, back then, I was ashamed of him,” recalls the 57-year-old Paris-based conductor. “The atmosphere in Israel then was so anti- Arab and I suffered from that a lot when I was a kid.
I’d play with other children and their parents would tell them not to play with ‘the Arab.’ That came from the parents, not from the kids. Children are pure; they don’t care about things like that.”
Today, Oren looks back with regret at the wedge the social pressure drove between him and his grandfather.
“I was ashamed that I had an Arab grandfather and I didn’t appreciate the fact that I should have been much closer to him. I couldn’t have known, at that age, just how great Muhammad Siksik was.”
By all accounts, Siksik was quite a character. He was a wealthy man who owned a number of fish shops. “If you had fish shops you were well-to-do,” Oren notes.
He was also well-connected. “He was one of the great Arabs here. He knew the mayor of Tel Aviv well, and no one knows that during the Arab uprising of 1929, he took around 100 Jaffa Jews into a store and bolted the door. He saved their lives.”
Naturally, that did not sit too well with many Arabs, but the heroic act did not enhance his standing with the Jews either. “For the Arabs he was a traitor, and for the Jews he was just an Arab. He couldn’t go back to his fish stores.”
Siksik also took a keen interest in his grandson’s developing musical skills. “He bought me my first cello,” says the conductor. “He used to ask me to play ‘Hatikva’; he liked to hear it. He was a great man and I am sorry I didn’t take the opportunity to spend more time with him, and to learn from him.”
Oren also received plenty of encouragement from his mother. “She wasn’t a musician, but she was artistically inclined and she told me that, even before I was born, she prayed to God that she’d have a son who become a musician and would take his music out into the world. She got what she asked for.”
Mrs. Oren did everything she could to get her talented son off to as early a start as possible. “When I was 13 she decided I should learn to conduct,” recalls Oren. “She went to all the leading conductors in Israel and they all turned her away, and told her that one doesn’t start to learn to be a conductor before the age of 22 or 25. But she persisted and eventually she got to [veteran choir conductor] Eitan Lustig, who agreed to take me on.”
Oren’s mother was just as keen to help her son develop his vocal skills. “When I was 11 or 12 she took me all kinds of voice teachers and they all said she was crazy, and that kids of my age don’t do voice training. They may have been right, but my mom found a teacher who had been a soprano in Hungary before she made aliya. There are some members of our choir, at the Israel Opera, who remember taking lessons with her, together with me. That’s funny and very moving.”
Oren’s maternally propelled incipient musical career did not end there. When the youngster was just 13, legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein was looking for a soloist to sing in a performance of his work Chichester Psalms. “She went to all the music teachers in Israel who were holding auditions for the role and they all emphatically told my mother ‘no’, and said that I didn’t have the right voice. But she kept on going until she got to [Israel Philharmonic Orchestra classical pianist] Ruth Menze, and through her got to Bernstein himself. He heard me sing, and after 30 seconds he said: ‘That’s the boy.’ “My mother helped me all along the way. My father also supported me and paid for all my lessons and trips, even when it was tough for him. He is wonderful, and comes to lots of my rehearsals. I am very grateful to my parents.”
Oren’s international career started in 1975, when he was 18 and won the first Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in Germany – and the rest is history. Oren has conducted opera productions all over the globe, and is recognized as one of the leading interpreters of Italian opera. He is also artistic director of the Verdi Opera House in Salerno, Italy.
Oren is clearly the man to have on the podium at Masada.
■ For tickets and more information about the Israeli Opera Festival: *6226 and www.opera-masada.com, www.ozrothgalil.org.il