Having fun with Offenbach

The Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa is gearing up for the ‘crazy’ operetta ‘Ba-ta-clan’

Ba-ta-clan Operetta (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Ba-ta-clan Operetta
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
They say that music and the arts in general are a universal language. That certainly applies to the upcoming production of Ba-ta-clan at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa, which will be rendered by a commissioned group of performers in an endearing mix of French, Hebrew and plain old gibberish on January 26, 29 and 31 and February 1.
The work is an operetta written by Jacques Offenbach to a French libretto by Ludovic Halévy. It was first performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in Paris on December 29, 1855. It is a dimensionally neat piece of work.
“It was created at a time when scale constraints were placed on operatic works in France,” explains Shirit Lee Weiss, who is directing the new show. “You could have only a maximum of four singers and just one act. That resulted in a whole genre of compact operettas.” 
Physical and temporal limitations notwithstanding, Ba-ta-clan was a resounding box-office success. It was also something of a strident venture, satirizing everything from contemporary politics to grand opera conventions. The restrictions on the scale of operetta productions were lifted in 1858, and Offenbach later expanded the work to a full-length piece with a cast of 11. A music hall called Le Bataclan was opened in Paris in 1864 and is still in use today.
The operetta story line is set in the gardens of Emperor Fè-Ni-Han’s palace, replete with kiosks and pagodas. There is a dastardly plot to dethrone the emperor, but there is far more to the conspiracy and the events surrounding it than meets the eye. It transpires that many of the supposedly Chinese characters are, in fact, French – the emperor included. The ruling head of state at the time, Napoleon III, was the butt of the Offenbach-Halévy satire, but the work pokes fun at all autocratic rulers everywhere and at any stage of human history.
Israeli-born Lee Weiss gained part of her formal education in New York, at Brooklyn College. All told, the director spent nine years in the US and returned here four years ago with a master’s degree, a wealth of street level professional experience and a family. 
“I left Israel single and came back with a husband and a child,” she says, adding that she and her spouse were not entirely strangers to each other. “The funny thing is that we grew up in the same neighborhood in Bat Yam and even went to the same school. And we ended up meeting in New York!”
Sounds like a good story line for an operetta… Lee Weiss says that working in the field of opera gives her the opportunity to bring all the strings of her professional bow to the fore.
“Many directors, particularly opera directors, come from all kinds of disciplines, which all somehow cross in this multi-layered operatic discipline,” she says.
Considering her background, it was natural for her to gravitate toward opera.
“I come from a very musical home. My sister is a concert pianist, my mother is a piano teacher, and my uncle is a violinist,” she explains.
As is the wont of teenagers, Lee Weiss rebelled against the familial musical background and decided to channel her creative energies into another area of the arts. “I studied acting, and I was in the youth group of Habimah Theater,” she recounts.
However, that led her straight back to her musical roots. “I started singing as an actor. Whenever they needed someone to sing something, I took that on. People said I had an operatic voice,” she says.
It was a snug fit.
“Singing and theater, of course, go together, but I was interested solely in theater, not music,” she elaborates.
Still, a career as an opera singer seemed to be in the cards, and Lee Weiss started to work toward a degree at the Music Academy of the University of Tel Aviv. But it soon became clear to her that she wanted to direct rather than be directed.
“I wanted any work I was involved in to be mine. Sometimes there is something very passive about performing on stage,” she notes.
Even so, it took a while for the director in her to come out. After completing a bachelor’s degree in Tel Aviv in opera singing, she continued toward a master’s in the same field in New York. It was there that she began to move behind the scenes.
“Actually, even when I was in Tel Aviv, I was always getting into the directing and production side of all kinds of events,” she recalls. “I really got into it in New York at all sorts of regional theater productions. The urge to direct gestated for a long time, and it never went away. Eventually it took over.”
She maintained her directorial development continuity back here. 
“When I returned to Israel, I directed all sorts of things at the Israeli Opera and other places. This is where I want to be – directing; and we have a lot of fun with Ba-ta-clan. It is a crazy operetta,” she says.
Great effort has gone into ensuring that the show is a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears. That was succinctly demonstrated by the figure on the stage when I arrived at a rehearsal break to interview Lee Weiss. Baritone Gabriel Lowenheim was resplendent in a get-up that would have had Fellini salivating. His upper torso was clad in a navy-blue striped cream colored waistcoat, with lacy suspender-like extensions attached to the lower part of the waistcoat and thigh area of his pants. It made for a fetching, and suitably ridiculous, appearance.
The rest of the singing cast includes soprano Yael Levita and tenors Liran Kopel and Oshri Regev, with Gili Bet Halachmi and Oded Tzadok making up the acting team.
The members of the audience at next week’s shows at the Mandel Cultural Center will get more than they bargained for.
“We will add a few more excerpts from Offenbach’s works to the operetta,” says Lee Weiss. “That’s the great thing with operetta – you can go mad and play around with it.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 6819294/289