Cultural food for kids

The Israeli Opera’s forthcoming Opera for all the Family summer season proves that there’s no reason to dumb down a production for children.

Opera 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Opera 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In this post-modern, virtual, high-density, high-speed, anything-goes 3D global village of ours, where our offspring are bombarded with commercials, movies and information of all types and degrees of subtlety, we adults sometimes tend to forget that our children are, well, just children.
That is a view to which Dudi Zeba wholeheartedly subscribes , and he is putting his money, and artistic talents, firmly where his mouth is as a driving force behind the Israeli Opera’s forthcoming Opera for all the Family summer season.
Besides earning his keep as a composer and conductor, Zeba is also a father, and he has evidently put his parental experiences to good use in his daytime job, too. While embracing the idea that children should be provided with appropriate entertainment, Zeba also believes there is no need to serve the younger generation with bland, patently nonchallenging sterilized material either.
“I have two kids – one nine and the other 11 – and I have been going to kids’ shows for years now,” he says.
“There have been many times when I have left a show I have been to with my kids feeling embarrassed about the garbage I saw on the stage.
“There’s absolutely no reason to dumb down when you’re putting on a production for kids.”
As far as Zeba is concerned, it is very much a matter of the GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) ethos.
“If you feed children hamburgers and ice cream instead of nutritional food, everyone suffers the consequences.
We’ve got to offer children a healthier cultural diet, too.”
The Opera for all the Family season, taking place at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, the Jerusalem Theater and other locations throughout the country, features Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Rossini’s Cinderella, but the season’s pièce de résistance is a new opera based on Alice in Wonderland, the music and libretto written by Zeba.
ZEBA IS understandably excited about the world premiere of his new work.
Alice in Wonderland is tailor-made for children, and for adults. There are all those wonderful bizarre characters and that great story, and all that imagery and fantasy.
You can’t really go wrong if you feed off the original story. It is a story just begging to be produced, on stage, for children.”
With that in mind, Zeba is less enthusiastic about the recent Johnny Depp-led film rendition of the original Lewis Carroll tale.
“They had the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat as pensioners and didn’t show respect for the original book,” he declares. “I am a great admirer of Johnny Depp’s work, but this was not to my liking at all.”
Much of the reasoning behind the three-pronged Opera for all the Family season is to address what Zeba feels has been a hitherto neglected cultural consumer hinterland.
“We are offering children’s subscriptions, instead of kids just tagging along with their parents, or not going to opera at all. We want to expose kids to the genre’s incredible riches.”
That means offering the aforesaid children-oriented material in a fully professional format.
“We haven’t stinted on anything in the children’s season.
We have used the best consumer designers and scenery makers around. The music will be performed to the highest standards, and we have top-quality directors on board.”
The verbal presentation will also adhere to that concept.
“There is absolutely no need to speak to children in monosyllabic words. That’s talking down to them,” Zeba continues. “Yes, there may be some words they’ll miss, but they will understand the context and the next time they hear the same words, in a different context, they will understand them.”
There may also be some subtleties that will fly over the kids’ heads.
“The children won’t get absolutely all the meanings and inferences in the operas, and I can visualize parents nodding to each other in understanding when they sit in the audience on either side of their child. But that’s okay, too.
“There’s a great production of Utz Li Gutz Li on at the Cameri Theater right now. They have good texts and music, and the Hebrew is quite difficult in parts – there are no compromises there – and it is a hit with the kids.
That’s the sort of standard we are aiming for.”
The idea for the new opera had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time before it took tangible form, Zeba says.
“I had been pondering the idea of writing an opera specifically for children, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, and what the storyline should be. One day, I arrived at the Opera House [in Tel Aviv] and told [the general director] Hannah Munitz that I wanted to do a children’s opera. She simply said: ‘OK, do something on Alice in Wonderland.’ That was the ideal choice, and all this would definitely not have happened without her idea.” Fittingly, Zeba has put a lot of drawing-board effort into preparing the performances of the opera, which take place in Tel Aviv between August 12 and 18, and in Jerusalem on August 22.
“I read the book many times, and I saw lots of versions based on it. It is important to realize that the Lewis Carroll book was written for people of all ages, not just children. There are lots of double and triple meanings in there, parodies on songs of the time [the mid-19th century], and characters whom Carroll knew personally.”
Naturally, not all of that can be faithfully portrayed in the new opera.
“There are some things you simply cannot transpose from one culture to another,” Zeba continues, “but I tried to relate to almost all the aspects, and added references to different ways in which language is used, from Shakespeare to Bialik. There are also plenty of insights in the story which the parents will probably understand; the children may get some.
“But we’re not looking to force-feed the kids pearls of wisdom,” Zeba adds. “They will get everything over time. I’m sure of that.”
Despite his decidedly non-coercive take, Zeba says that putting on a children’s opera also means getting some kind of educational message across, subtle or otherwise.
He says he has learned to be less delicate in his own approach.
“I once argued with a director about performing Hansel and Gretl for kids – the kids have no food, then there’s a child-eating witch; then they push her into an oven. It’s terrible.
“But the director said that every child has nightmares, and if you take these and, instead of repressing them, put them on the stage and say it’s OK to dream about those terrible things, the children see the people on stage are all actors, and that everything is OK in the end.
“That’s a sort of educational value, a sort of therapy. It’s also important to show kids that not everything in life is serious, that it’s OK to go right and call it left, and it’s fine to break molds and be different.”