Young, but not green

At the tender age of 37, Niv Hoffman is the revival director of the Israeli Opera and is putting on a light-hearted interpretation of ‘The Barber of Seville’.

By
March 12, 2010 19:04
A scene from Hoffman's Barber of Seville.

barber of seville 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Doyen of American TV personalities Andy Rooney once purported that “The last birthday that’s any good is 23.” Considering Rooney is close to seven decades past that particular landmark, one might argue that he either knows what he’s talking about or that, as a nonagenarian, he probably doesn’t remember his twenties too clearly.

Niv Hoffman may be a few years past his 23rd birthday too, but at the age of 37 he’s still pretty young to hold the lofty and highly responsible position of revival director of the Israeli Opera (IO).

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Hoffman who, at the time of the interview, was in the throes of getting the Opera’s forthcoming production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville up and running, largely feels comfortable with his chronological progress. “I feel young and I am aware that authority generally comes with age,” he muses, adding that his relative youth can sometimes work to his detriment.

“You get experienced singers who need to see a few grey hairs to treat you with respect; but, mostly, that’s not a problem. Theoretically you can start doing my job at the age of 25, especially in Europe, where people don’t spend three years in the army so they start their careers earlier.”

Then again, there are advantages to being of sound body. “Opera is a physically demanding profession, so it can help to be young, and fit. Anyway, I work in a world of acting, and everyone puts on some kind of act. If you act authoritatively, you normally get the right kind of response.”

Of course, it can help when you’ve got a few productions to show in your CV. Hoffman started working for the Israeli Opera, gaining valuable hands-on experience and working his way up the ladder, from scenery worker to show producer to his present billet. “You could say I’ve paid my dues,” he notes.

Hoffman’s directorial debut was four years ago, when he ran the ship for a performance of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. “It’s only a short opera, and there were only two singers and one actress,” he says almost apologetically, “but it was a great experience.”

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Hoffman is evidently ambitious. He took the proactive route to his current post. “I asked for the position and, happily, they said yes. I felt ready, and that I’d done enough beforehand. I had the passion and the understanding to get the job done. Sometimes you have to take the leap, and I think that if you believe in yourself you can also come across as convincing, and the singers will take you seriously.”

It can help to have had some serious formative experiences along your learning curve, as well as a prestigious name or two in your résumé. Working as assistant director to iconic Italian film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli, on La Traviata, is certainly a job of note. “That was a great honor,” says Hoffman. “The man’s a living legend. I learned a lot from him, just listening to him and seeing how he works with singers, was a great lesson for me. He knows everything there is to know about opera.”

Mind you, that doesn’t mean Hoffman was just a starry-eyed shadow on the La Traviata production; and he is savvy enough to realize that what works for one director, even one as celebrated as Zeffirelli, may not work for another.

“Zeffirelli represents a particular school of thought, which is not entirely mine,” Hoffman states. “But he worked magic with the choirs and the scenery. It was a great privilege to work under him.”

That confluence also opened some doors. “After that I worked in Italy – at the Rome opera house. To tell you the truth, I was scared stiff! Maria Callas worked on that stage. But I think I managed okay.”

A year or so into his current post, Hoffman attended a prestigious summer program at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center in the UK. “That was the best professional experience of my life,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect. There were 12 of us in the group, and I was the only foreigner. We worked from morning till evening, and we got to meet actors, directors, casting directors – professionals right across the spectrum of the performing arts. There were workshops, exercises, discussions, trips and shows. It was a very intensive and highly rewarding course.”

Hoffman says it is also rewarding to work with the likes of the current production’s director, Mariame Clement. “We are blessed with her. She is young, talented and confident, and has so much knowledge. We caught her just before she becomes a really big name, and I will always be happy to be her assistant.”

While Hoffman says this country produces its fair share of operatic talent, he feels there are some areas of the profession which could do with a bit of mindset retuning.

“There needs to be a lot more musical education at schools here,” he declares. “There is a lot of talent that goes to waste and lots of kids with great voices who won’t make it because they don’t get the requisite training at the right age.”

We’re talking about more than just being attentive in class and turning in homework on time here. “There is a general lack of discipline in this country,” Hoffman continues. “In Far Eastern countries, for example, they have tremendous self-discipline. [Israeli Opera singer] Khen Reiss told the young singers in the Opera [young artist program] Studio that there are thousands of singers out there just like them, and that they need to have the will to push themselves, they need to have that iron will and discipline. Without that none of them will make it.”

And it’s not just about exercising their vocal chords. “Young opera artists have to learn singing, they have to keep fit and take care of nutrition, and learn about movement and balance and how to stand on stage. At the Opera, we engage in things like the Alexander Technique and [mind-body technique] Feldenkrais. I believe that every opera singer should learn classic ballet, for posture and balance. And they have to learn languages. If I hadn’t been able to speak Italian, I simply wouldn’t have been able to work on the Rome production, no one would have taken any notice of me. It’s as simple as that.”

According to Hoffman, the acting side is just as important. “There are about two hours a week devoted to acting lessons at schools that teach opera in this country. That’s a joke. But there is more awareness at higher education institutions here – for instance, at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music of Tel Aviv University.”

Meanwhile, back at the Tel Aviv ranch, things were moving along nicely ahead of The Barber of Seville which, says Hoffman, is designed to bring out the best and most appealing side of Rossini. “It’s a young production with a young cast, or a cast that is young in spirit. They understand the energy and the spirit of the production, which is a very physical project. There are acrobatics and lots of movement involved.

“It’s a light comedy and should be treated accordingly. Yes, it’s escapism, and I think Rossini consciously aimed for that. It’s not like Mozart operas, which often have deeper hidden meanings. The Barber of Seville is pure entertainment with fun music, and this production is tailored to that. The audience will leave with a smile on their faces.”

The Tel Aviv Opera production of The Barber of Seville opens tonight and runs until March 27. For more information about shows and other events: www.israel-opera.co.il

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