An un-diva-ish diva

Sans one leading lady, Israeli soloist Merav Barnea has taken the entire run of ‘Wozzeck’ in her stride.

Opera Wozzeck 370 (photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
Opera Wozzeck 370
(photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
There is a very good reason why opera productions almost always have double casts for their soloists. Vocal chords being vulnerable instruments and operas being marathon performance events, singers usually require a day of rest between shows. As an employer of some of the finest international opera stars, the Israel Opera takes this stipulation quite seriously. However, in show business, one can always expect the unexpected.
The opera house will open its production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck this week, sans one leading lady. Upon hearing the sirens Thursday evening, Swiss soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling did an about-turn and boarded a plane back to European safety. She was meant to play half of the role of Wozzeck’s lover/wife, Marie, with the other half going to Israeli soloist Merav Barnea. With just days to go before opening, the Israel Opera was forced to ask Barnea to forgo her one-day-on-one-day-off status and take on the entire run of Wozzeck, a total of 10 performances.
Barnea is a dazzling woman, with piercing baby blue eyes and a warm smile. She took this change of plans in stride, showing a very un-diva-esque attitude for a diva of her stature.
Wozzeck is challenging but it isn’t long,” she said over a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice in Tel Aviv.
“In this opera, Marie has many breaks, so there is time to rest and to focus on the coming scene. In Alpha and Omega, for example,” she explained, “my character, Omega, stands on stage for an hour and a half and doesn’t shut up. So while performing in all of the Wozzeck shows is a challenge, I think it’s manageable with this opera.”
Wozzeck, which is based on Georg Buchner’s play, is the story of a jealousy-crazed barber who slaughters his partner in a fit of hallucination-driven rage. Considered a modern opera, Wozzeck was Alban Berg’s first opera and was first staged in 1925.
Perhaps one of the reasons Barnea is willing to step up her game for Wozzeck is her intimate knowledge of this opera. Having played Marie in Europe, Barnea’s return to the role seems like a reunion with an old friend.
“I love Marie,” she said. “She’s a hungry woman who is desperate for a fuller life. She’s dependent on a man who can’t fulfill her in any way. There are so many aspects of her that are so relevant today.”
The same morning, as Barnea visited her mother, sirens rang out in Gush Dan. This engagement, which marks Barnea’s return to Israeli stages after nearly a decade of absence, has been filled with unexpected hurdles. And yet, in spite of all current events, Barnea expressed deep joy to be back at home, near her family and in the theaters where her career officially began.
Alpha and Omega, by Israeli conductor and composer Gil Shohat, was Barnea’s breakthrough production.
Staged in 2001, the opera created a splash, which has continued to ripple for over a decade.
Given the leading role, Barnea shined, attracting the attention of critics, directors and producers both in Israel and abroad.
In the years since her Israeli debut, Barnea moved to Germany and gave birth to three little girls. She has taken on complicated roles in operas such as Tanhauser, Elisabeth, Macbeth and Tosca. Though each character has her own distinct qualities, Barnea has been able to pinpoint the common threads in the roles she embodies.
“Do we choose the part or does the part choose us?” she asked. “I’m not a typical opera singer. I enjoy doing roles that give me a rainbow of emotions to work within. I think that in most of the roles I do, the part fulfills a theatrical need that is beyond the musical need of the piece. I think that me and Marie match and that I am doing the parts that I am supposed to be doing.”
At this point in her career, Barnea realizes that she has crossed a certain line with regard to her perspective on performance. Having spent years honing her craft, Barnea was finally able to dispense with her need for technical perfection to make room for fuller expression.
“I always wanted to be a good soldier on stage. Then I grew up and I realized that I’d never be able to do that. There are many opera singers who see themselves as a tool and not as creators themselves. But I am not an instrument, not because I didn’t want to be but because I tried that path and discovered that it wasn’t me. I always wanted to be like everyone else and in the past two or three years I understood that I couldn’t fight myself. My path will never be ‘normal.’”
In Wozzeck, Barnea brings her theatrical charisma into full realization. This is both due to her skills as an actress and to the unique set of circumstances in the production. German director Manfred Beilharz has intentionally left the set design minimal, setting Wozzeck apart from many more visually dazzling productions.
The space left open by props is filled with the emotion of the singers.
“Beilharz wants those big operatic gestures, but because the stage is so clean, there’s room for them. This production really respects the singers and the music. And I believe that the contrast between the somewhat classical costumes and direction with the sparse visual makes it very relevant for today,” said Barnea.
“So many opera productions are full of elements that are meant to make the show more attractive to the audience. Opera directors are obsessed with making the experience of seeing an opera as engaging as a movie. And often, they forget what’s really important. Here, that’s not the case,” she said.
“I am thrilled to be back in Israel, especially for this reason,” she said. “I think this is a beautiful production.”Wozzeck will run at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center from November 27 through December 7. For tickets, visit