Love incarnate

Soprano Ira Bertman sings Desdemona in the Israeli Opera’s ‘Othello.’

Othello (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
(photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
Israeli soprano Ira Bertman has some 20 major roles to her credit.
Starting on April 12, she will appear with the Israeli Opera as Desdemona in Verdi’s Othello.
But as a young girl, Bertman never dreamed of having an operatic career. Immigrating to Israel in the early 1990s from Latvia, a Soviet republic at the time, she settled in a kibbutz and planned to become a primary school teacher.
“In my native Riga, I enjoyed singing in an amateur choir and ensembles. In the first years of perestroika, when freedom of national expression was finally permitted in Latvia, as a member of a Jewish choir I also sang songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, but that was not professional, and I didn’t have the slightest idea about opera. I simply did not understand it.” she recounts.
In Israel, by chance she met solfeggio teacher Miryam Meltzer, an encounter that changed her life.
Following Meltzer’s recommendation, Bertman enrolled in the Jerusalem Music Academy.
“I did it mostly out of curiosity,” says Bertman, “and then I slowly immersed myself in what has become the essence of my life.”
Upon graduating from the academy, Bertman was accepted to the three-year course of the Israeli Opera Studio.
She got her first major role in 2002 during the second intifada.
“A German singer who had been cast as Konstanze in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio canceled her participation out of fear of terrorist attacks, and maestro Asher Fisch, the artistic director of the Israeli Opera at the time, decided to give me a chance,” she says.
Since then, Bertman has appeared in various roles, from Kate Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly and the title role in Dvorak’s Rusalka to Pamina in The Magic Flute and Nedda in Pagliacci. Most of her career takes place in Israel, but she has also appeared in operatic productions in Poland, Germany and France.
“Today, it is not that simple to be accepted into a major artists’ agency, so meanwhile I’ve been invited to participate in this or that production. But I believe that my international career is imminent – it’s just a matter of time,” she says.
The singer says that Verdi and Puccini are two of her favorite composers.
“Othello is one of Verdi’s best operas; the music is so rich,” she says. “Desdemona is love incarnate, and believe me it is not easy to sing a character that is so straightforward. I’m looking for facets of Desdemona and hope that the stage director will help me find more aspects and artistic solutions for my character. The two casts feature excellent singers, both international and local soloists. I think this will be a beautiful production,” she says.
The Israeli Opera production of Othello is staged by Italian director Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, the general and artistic director of the Opera Royal de Wallonie in Liege.
The premiere, as well as several other performances, will be led by fiery Omer Meir Wellber, a young Israeli conductor with a growing international career. His promising compatriot Daniel Cohen will alternate with him on the podium.
Othello runs at TAPAC April 12 – 27, with additional activities for opera aficionados such as backstage tours and opera talkbacks. For more details: For reservations: (03) 692-7777.
In the dynamic world of today, there are many people with cultural roots in several places, and soprano Ilona Mataradze, who makes her Israeli Opera debut as Desdemona in the second cast of Verdi’s Othello, is among them.
“Wherever I come to Israel, I present myself as a Georgian,” says Mataradze. “And not only because of my family name,” adds the singer, who appeared in Haifa last summer as Mimi in a semi-staged production of Puccini’s La Boheme.
Born in Georgia to a mixed Georgian/ Russian family, she has left her native Sukhumi 20 years ago, escaping the horrors of the civil war and settling in Moscow at the age of nine.
“My parents’ home was burnt on the very first days of hostilities,” recalls Mataradze. “It was impossible to stay in a war-torn country, so we moved to Moscow.”
Looking at this diminutive, smiling, easy-going woman, one could hardly guess that before reaching 30, she has already pursued several careers, each of them being sufficient to fill one’s life with meaning.
In Moscow, she first attended a Georgian school: “My father wanted me to keep our culture,” she explains.
“There, we studied not only the language but also music and dance.”
Then she moved to a Spanish school. After graduating, she was accepted to two Moscow universities – a linguistic school and a law school, the latter following the request of her lawyer father. This all, of course, never interrupting her vocal studies – first at the Grechaninov Music School, famous for its traditions, and later at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
“I first went to Spain at 18 to practice the language and fell in love with the country, which was so different from the gray Moscow and reminded me of my native Georgia,” she says.
It did not long for her to realize that it was the country she wanted to live in.
After graduating from Moscow University with a diploma in international law, Mataradze moved to Spain, where she worked as an assistant for a leading Spanish lawyer.
“He was one of his country’s famous lawyers, who never lost a case. He was my head and I was his feet, and we got along perfectly together,” she says. “I earned good money and paid for my vocal studies at Barcelona’s Liceo, for master classes and vocal contests, but what I really wanted was to support myself by singing.”
Now that she has become a fulltime freelance opera singer, performing mostly in Spain and other European countries, she does not regret that period of her life.
“To be able to express feelings through voice, an artist has to acquire knowledge of people and of human life, and that is what I learned as a lawyer. My experience of survival in Moscow also contributed to it a lot.”
Keeping Georgia in her heart, Mataradze recently had a chance to return to her native land.
“At Opera Valencia, where I sang Xenia in Godunov, I met prominent Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze, who could not believe that I hadn’t visited my homeland for 20 years. He immediately invited me to participate in a charity concert for his Yavnana Foundation in honor of the patriarch of Georgia. It was an amazing emotional experience! I saw a beautiful modern country, I met many wonderful new friends, and I saw that the traditional Georgian values on which I was raised – such as love thy neighbor, tolerance, respect for all – are still alive there. On my way back to Spain, which serves as my home base, I realized that I want to go back there – and I will,” she asserts.
On the subject of Othello and her role of Desdemona, Mataradze says that in her vision, “Verdi’s later operas are the best. The music is so rich and so narrative; the entire character is there. Desdemona is pure; she is the first love incarnate. I pity those who say that she acted naively and even stupidly. They are unable to understand that she was blessed with a very special gift – the gift of love, which is not encountered very often.”