Piping Hot

New Israeli rock opera travels to the stage.

311_ ori amir (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_ ori amir
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It has not only refused to die, it’s actually still gathering steam. Like a teetering dinosaur learning to adapt to a new environment, that pretentious invention of 1960s popular culture, the rock opera, is still going strong.
Forty years after Pete Townshend popularized the term with Tommy, The Who’s first foray into the rock opera field, which in turned spawned the Andrew Lloyd Webber industry beginning with Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the genre – more accurately described as “concept album” – has made periodical comebacks. Most recently, such vehemently anti-progressive rock bands as The Decemberists and Green Day scored hits with rock operas The Hazards of Love and 21st Century Breakdown, respectively, Breakdown being the second for Green Day after 2004’s American Idiot.
So it seems like a good time for Israelis to get in on the act too. But amateur musician/writer Joseph Ida is no Johnny-come-lately to the rock opera scene.
His creation, The Beholder of Fire – which will have its world premier on July 1 in Tel Aviv – was actually written more than 20 years ago.
The long and winding road that saw businessman Ida convert his rough draft for a complex rock opera into a finished album featuring 20 musicians and the voices of Danny Litani and Yoel Lerner of The Sixties could have been a rock opera itself, said the project’s musical arranger and producer Ori Amir.
“Joe came to me with the basic songs a couple of years ago, and I started working on it with him to finish it,” said Amir, who has his own home recording studio, Original Music, where The Beholder of Fire was recorded and mixed.
Ida had written the first draft of the rock opera in 1987, during a six-month trip through Europe and the US with his wife. He then recorded it quickly in London with buskers he found playing in subway stations. Then it languished, as Ida concentrated on raising a family and on his day job, receiving a BA in economy from Tel Aviv University and eventually becoming an executive at Newpan LTD, one of Israel’s largest trade companies.
Then, two years ago, Amir entered the picture, taking the rock opera and bringing it to life.
“It was a small project that kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “It took around two years to get the arrangements together. Initially, he came to me with a small budget, but I got into it and it became a labor of love for me too – it became my project as well.”
THE PLOT of The Beholder of Fire sounds like something in between a heavy-metal fantasy and a Dr. Phil episode. In short, Amir described it as a story of growing up, presenting an emotional conflict in the life of a teenager.
Lerner plays the teen, a rejected child from a problem home whose wild and vigorous side attracts a following of other youth. Along the way, Lerner meets his heavenly equal – the beholder of fire – the proverbial fallen angel (played by Litani), whose volatile nature matches Lerner’s. He shows the boy how all his negative traits are really positive, presenting wildness as vitality, manipulation as flexibility, forcefulness as persistence.
“Basically, what the show is saying is that there’s no absolute good or bad, so there’s no closure or conclusion at the end,” said Amir. “The storyteller’s last words are ‘The pure and the evil are the known and the strange.’” It’s no more convoluted or far-fetched than most of the rock operas that have glutted the market over the years. Amir admitted that during the two years he and Ida spent on the musical arrangements, trying to get them aligned with the messages the lyrics were trying to transmit, there were plenty of disagreements.
“As an arranger, I’m familiar with writing for big productions. When you’re taking on the work of somebody else and trying to do your own interpretation, it’s a big responsibility, especially working with someone who’s not a real musician,” said Amir.
“There were times when we disagreed – in fact, it happened a lot. But we had lots of discussions and suggested ideas to each other. More than once, there was a stalemate for a week or two until one of us convinced the other which way to go. But in the end, we were both satisfied with the finished product.”
THAT’S PROBABLY due, in part, to the stellar musical talent that Amir recruited to transform Ida’s ideas into reality. Litani, an Israeli rock veteran, was so taken with the project that he donated his time.
“I met Danny a few years ago and we said that one day we would do something together,” said Amir, who received a Masters in composition in the US in 2002 before returning to Israel to launch his career in music. “When Joseph came to me, and we discussed who would be fitting for the lead character, I suggested Danny. We called him and he agreed. He did a great job and it was a real honor to work with him. And Yoel is one of my favorite singers – he’s the lead singer of The Sixties, and has been singing on the scene for more than 20 years.”
With the album completed, Amir and Ida were ready to take the next step – performing the rock opera in public. Featuring 15 musicians, including a string section and woodwinds, five vocalists and a group of backup singers, the debut of The Beholder of Fire is taking place on July 1 at Hangar 1 at the Tel Aviv port.
“It’s going to be somewhere in between a play and a concert,” said Amir.“The venue is not really built for a concert – there’s not central stage that the audience sits in front of. The players are going to be around the crowd, not in front of them. So the audience will get 360 degrees of music.”
There will also be a video screen featuring the visual images and videos of Gadi Politi, who designed all of the characters for the artwork of the CD jacket.
And, as an extra visual element, Litani will be singing for most of the show from the video screen.
“Danny, because his character is somewhere in between human and not human, is going to sing via the video screen,” said Amir. “Only on the last song will he appear on the stage. It’s an effect that we thought would be interesting.”
The most avid fans at the performance are likely to be Amir and Ida, who put up money for the production out of his own pocket.
“This show is for us; Joseph said he doesn’t care how much it cost to produce,” said Amir. “We made this with a lot of love. I think there’s a big 1970s Andrew Lloyd Webber influence to the show, and also from the concept albums that we grew up with, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“We don’t really know how the audience will react, or if there will be more performances in the future. But we hope people will love it.” And if they don’t, they can always blame Pete Townshend for starting the whole thing.