Ofra Haza 248.88.
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The musical drama Ofra, which began a nationwide tour at Tel Aviv's magnificent Opera House (Golda Meir Center) last weekend, is a one-sided, highly opinionated account of Israeli singer Ofra Haza's meteoric rise and tragic demise. But if you are an Ofra Haza fan, it is well worth seeing.
Ofra is based on the popular singer's manager and mentor, Bezalel Aloni's book, Letters to Ofra, published in 2007, seven years after she died of AIDS at the age of 42. It is produced by Kiryat Haim's Te'atron Hatzafon (Theater of the North), has a star cast, and will be performed across the country over the next few months.
Interspersed with memorable songs and scenes from Ofra's life, it tells the fairy tale of the youngest of nine siblings born into a family of Yemenite immigrants, starting from the age of 12, when she began attending Aloni's workshop in Tel Aviv's impoverished Hatikva neighborhood, and tracing her path to international fame. Her marriage to businessman Doron Ashkenazi in 1997, which Aloni considered a fatal mistake, marked Ofra's severing of her relationship with Aloni, and the Haza family has made it clear that they are boycotting what they perceive as a perverted version of her life.
Aloni, who narrates the musical, is played convincingly by veteran actor Gavri Banai, while his talented son, Yuval Banai, plays Ofra's brother. It is he who is famously quoted by Aloni as confronting Ofra with her bad career choices by saying: "Who the hell are you anyway? You're just an unmarried woman with no kids."
But the real stars of the musical are the two exceptional young women who play Ofra - Liel Colette and Liron Sela - singing a broad range of her Hebrew, Yemenite and English hits.
Colette, like Ofra, was a child star, winning an international talent contest by singing an Ofra song, Leorech Hayam (Along the Ocean), at the age of 11 nine years ago.
"Ofra has been with me all the years since I sang that song, and I sing it in all my international performances," she says. "For me, playing Ofra is an exciting closure of a circle."
Sela, a 2006 graduate of the Beit Zvi acting school in Ramat Gan, is also superb, sometimes sounding, chillingly, just like Ofra.
"I play the more private, personal side of Ofra," she says. "I grew up with her songs and I really connect with them, especially the Yemenite ones. There is something about her clear voice that thrills me."
Sela candidly acknowledges, though, that playing Ofra has not helped her "solve the riddle" of the singer's life.
"I think few people really got to know her," she says.
Aloni believes he knew the real Ofra, whom he conveys as a gifted singer insufficiently appreciated in her home country, where her family, the media and fans constantly bug her with the question, "When are you getting married?"
He does not hide his contempt for her eventual choice of a husband, calling him "a bully" with an addiction to drugs and money, and suggesting that his marriage to Ofra signals the beginning of her fall from grace.
Aloni, who not only taught Ofra but wrote and produced many of her songs, and his wife, Ogenia, are seen providing her a warm, loving home and nurturing her career, while her parents and siblings press her to get married and have children.
One of her sisters has gone public with her anger at Aloni's musical for "exploiting Ofra once again to make a profit at the expense of a public that misses her."
"It's high time that Bezalel Aloni get on with his own life and let Ofra rest in peace," the sister is quoted as telling Mako.
Whatever you think of the often crude Aloni, there is no doubt that he and his wife loved Ofra. It is, after all, Aloni who is credited with recognizing and developing Ofra's unique voice.
"It saddens me that Ofra's family doesn't see the musical as an appropriate way to keep her memory alive," he says, blaming Ashkenazi and her family for his separation from Ofra.
In a particular poignant scene, Aloni is allowed to bid farewell to Ofra at Tel Hashomer Hospital, but tells his wife that he will not go to her funeral at the Yarkon Cemetery. "For me, she is dead already," he says bitterly.
Aloni is much more comfortable recalling Ofra's early days.
"When she first came to my workshop at the age of 12 and a half," he recalls fondly, "I asked her, 'What can you do?' and she replied, 'Sing.' And indeed, from the moment she began to sing, I got the chills. I asked her name, and she said: 'Ofra.' 'Ofra who?' I asked, and she replied: 'Ofra Haza.'"
Aloni believes that Ofra's first hit song in Israel, Shir Hafreha (Song of the Slut), tainted her image, but with his constant prodding and encouragement, she gained international recognition, representing Israel at the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest with Hai (Israel is Alive), recording albums with world-renowned singers and performing to packed audiences in the US and around the world, perhaps most memorably at the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, and at Rabin's memorial a year later.
He notes that she also recorded songs for several English films in the 1990s, including Steven Spielberg's 1998 animated movie, The Prince of Egypt.
"For that movie, she sang the theme song Deliver Us in English and no less than 17 other languages, including Hebrew," he says, proudly. "It was the first time a singer sang in so many languages in one film. The peak of her singing career was also its conclusion."
Among the two dozen wonderful Ofra hits acted out and sung in the musical are two in English, Deliver Us and I Want to Fly.
Ofra is portrayed as a pure soul whose only wish is to sing. She is constantly hounded by the media in a sadly satirical scene in several languages, including English.
"But when are you getting married?" the reporter repeats over and over again.
Ofra, in Aloni's view, is like a tragic figure in a Shakespearean play, moving from slum (Hatikva) to scum (Ashkenazi).
Caught in an ugly world, she dies of shame over a disease she never acknowledges. Over the course of her crazy career, though, she becomes an Israeli cultural icon with her marvelous mezzo-soprano voice and melodies, and both her inner and outer beauty shine through in this musical.
Aloni tells the story of how Ofra miraculously survived a Cessna crash on February 3, 1987 without even a scratch, noting that the light plane came down in a place named Bir Ofra on the Israeli-Jordanian border. "How do you explain that?" he asks rhetorically, feeding the cloud of mystery surrounding the singer.
You may neither like nor agree with Aloni's very personal interpretation of Ofra's career, but it comes across as genuine and honest, and leaves one with a real taste of her talent. The Tel Aviv audience certainly seemed appreciative, applauding every song and giving the cast a standing ovation at the end of the premiere.
Ofra will be performed in Ashkelon, Haifa, Herzliya and Beersheba in January, moving to other locations in the country in February, March, April and May.
Details on the performances may be obtained from Theater of the North at 04-8814814.