Ripe for Verdi

For Israeli soprano Ira Bertman, it was worth the wait to play Desdemona in the Israel Opera version of ‘Otello.’

Verdi 370 (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
Verdi 370
(photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
It’s a shame Giuseppe Verdi isn’t around to join the fun. As 2013 rolls on, the number of celebrations to mark the Italian composer’s bicentennial just grows and grows – and his actual birthday isn’t even until October.
The Israeli Opera is certainly doing its bit to keep the Verdi celebratory bandwagon going by putting on a new production of the Italian composer’s Otello between April 17 and April 27. The conducting duties, for the 10 performances, will be split between Omer Welber and Daniel Cohen, with the production directed by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera.
The opera is based on the Shakespearean play, Othello, and is a powerful drama which relates how the eponymous character murders his Venetian wife, Desdemona, in a fit of jealousy stoked by the principal antagonist, Iago. The latter has fought beside Otello and has become his trusted adviser but bears a grudge against his superior after having been passed over for promotion in favor of Michael Cassio. Iago gains his revenge by convincing Otello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.
For Ira Bertman, who shares the leading female role with Ilona Mataradze over the 10-show run, Otello is something of an inauguration.
“I have loved Verdi’s music for a long time, but I am only starting out as a performer of his work,” she says.
“I did Verdi’s Jerusalem, at Sultan’s Pool, but that was the French version so that doesn’t really count. You could say this is my Verdi debut.”
Fortysomething soprano Bertman’s operatic career got somewhat of a late start, and she does not begrudge the fact that it took her a while longer to land her first leading Verdi role.
“It took me 6 years to finish my studies, and I wasn’t in any hurry. I have been performing opera professionally for 13 years, and I am sure I would have approached this role very differently if I had done it, say, 10 years ago,” she declares, adding that maturity offers the prerequisite perspective for taking on the part of Desdemona.
“At first glance the text [of Otello] looks simple and clear, but that’s not really the case at all. There is a lot of depth to the opera, and lots and lots to work on. I think it is a good idea for singers to wait a bit before they take on Verdi. Then they can bring more colors and more variety, and offer the audience everything that Verdi wanted to convey. He had a very tough life and he imparted that through his music.”
The composer’s wife died at the age of 26, and both his children died in infancy.
Bertman attended the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and got the right sort of tuition.
“I studied with a teacher called Miriam Meltzer, who is not an opera music teacher, she teaches baroque and lied [German song], and that sort of thing, but she is an incredible teacher. She not only helped me develop my voice but also to shed all sorts of complexes and to get the most I can out of my voice.”
Bertman says that her teacher was demanding but also helped to bring her along in the healthiest way possible.
“She didn’t ruin me, that’s probably one of the best things I can say. There are teachers who ruin singers. They take young singers, hear they have a good voice, and start bombarding them with learning all sorts of roles, by Puccini and Verdi and so on, and that is not the right thing to do. You have to build up a voice gradually.
That’s what Miriam did with me and I am very grateful to her for that.”
In fact, Bertman she says she did not have her sights set on treading the operatic boards.
“This whole thing of becoming an opera singer came to me as a bit of a surprise. I thought I was going to a primary school music teacher. I didn’t even particularly like or understand opera at the time; I preferred ballet. I didn’t understand why there were all these overweight people on stage screaming. I found it all ludicrous. I still feel that way when I see a poor operatic performance.”
Bertman admits to being smitten with Verdi’s work.
“His music is never boring. I can listen to the overture from La Traviata a million times and never get bored with it, I’ll always find something new in there. He was simply a genius.”
The soprano also feels that Verdi’s operas allow her much room for artistic maneuver.
“He offers so many vocal opportunities, because when he writes for a female singer it is as if the part is for three different voices – the high part is like for a coloratura soprano, the middle is like for a mezzo singer and the lower part if for an alto.”
That, she says, applies to her current role.
“Desdemona has very low notes, as if the part was written for a mezzo, and then you have some very high notes. But it is the same with all Verdi’s operas. That’s why there is the term ‘the Verdian soprano,’ because that is the peak of soprano performance.”
For tickets and more information about Otello: (03) 682-7777 and