An area for an aria

A gala event will be the curtain raiser for a concerted effort to establish an opera house in Jerusalem.

Omer Arieli (photo credit: Courtesy)
Omer Arieli
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Think of the world’s most celebrated opera houses – La Scala in Milan, the architecturally iconic Sydney Opera House, London’s Royal Opera House and the Opera de Paris – then try to imagine a similarly magnificent edifice in our own capital city. While Omer Arieli is aware that the Gerard Behar Center doesn’t quite fit that aesthetics bill as yet, at least it’s a start.
Arieli is one of a number of musicians and others on the non-performance side of the profession who are looking to kickstart the opera scene in Jerusalem, hoping to establish the genre as a fixture in the city’s cultural fabric – and eventually find a permanent home for the venture.
For now, he is delighted to have the facilities of the aforesaid venue on Bezalel Street to host a gala evening on March 18, and to have the support of the municipal Culture Department and the Jerusalem Foundation.
MC-ing the event will be Yair Hajdu, a wine consultant who 188440 happens to be the son of 80-year-old Israel Prize recipient, composer and musicologist Andre Hajdu. Hajdu Sr. will provide a “surprising musical item” for the gala show, and the performers will include the Jerusalem Opera Orchestra, conducted by Arieli and with Julia Pevzner in the role of director. There is also an impressive roster of opera singers lined up for the occasion, including Italian baritone Gabriele Ribis, Vienna-based Israeli mezzo-soprano Anna Peshes, and house singers Atalia Tirosh, Eitan Drori, Hemy Levinson, Anastasia Calavan, Yanai Goncherovski and Nitzan Yogev. The Ankor Choir and conductor Dafna Ben-Yohanan will be on hand as well to perform a selection of popular operatic excerpts and songs associated with Jerusalem.
Arieli earned his spurs before taking on the Jerusalem opera venture. He was born in Jerusalem but grew up in Florence, returning here at the age of 18 to do his army service. From 1998 to 2004, he studied conducting at the renowned Hochschule in Vienna and worked as coachconductor at institutions in Germany and Austria.
He is excited about the impending event. “It is a dream,” he states simply, adding that it was an ambition that had been brewing for some time. It also owes something to his strong sense of patriotism.
“I didn’t want to go abroad after studying and doing the army here. I was still fighting it at the airport,” he recalls.
“But [acclaimed conductor] Mendi [Rodan] said that while he saluted my Zionistic feelings, in professional terms it was suicide to stay here. To get a decent position in Israel, you simply have to accumulate some working experience and studies abroad. That’s the way it goes.”
After several years of accruing at least some of the requisite track record in Europe, and just as things were starting to take off for him professionally, Arieli decided he’d had enough of living abroad and returned to these shores.
“That was not a wise professional move,” he admits.
“By doing that, I put my career progress back a few notches, but I felt it was the right thing to do for me.”
He soon started gaining more experience and helping to advance the Jerusalem music scene.
“Soon after I returned, I received a phone call from Manun Weizmann, who is also part of the Jerusalem Opera project,” he recalls. “Manun was on the Laga’at Bemusica [To Touch Music] program [of the Education Ministry], and I worked with her, with schoolchildren, in opera and instrumental music, for three years.”
That gave Arieli a considerable handle on the local musical milieu. “I got a teaching job at the Academy of Music and Dance [of the Hebrew University], and I worked with all sorts of orchestras around the city, including pensioners and students at the high school near the university.”
The turning point came when he met Bentzi Bitran, who soon after took over as director of the Gerard Behar Center.
“I raised the idea, with Bentzi, of doing a show with some of my students,” says Arieli. “Bentzi said he wouldn’t allow me to do one show at the center, but a whole series. That gave me the push to pursue the opera dream.”
The center, he admits, “is not the best auditorium in the world, but it is an auditorium and it’s in the center of town. We also had the singers, and a lot of good instrumentalists, and some of them really loved opera.”
There was a Jerusalem mission in there, too: “There were quite a few opera singers who had worked at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv and, for all sorts of reasons, no longer worked there. But the talent was available, Jerusalemite talent, and I wanted to use them here.”
By “here,” he means not just Jerusalem, but Israel.
“Every year we put out maybe 15 singers [from the academy] and they all go abroad. You know, for example, there are 30,000 Israeli artists – in all art forms – in Berlin alone. And there are plenty more in other places around the world. We are talking about artists here, who simply cannot live without their art. Singing opera, for instance, is not a hobby. It is a way of life for these people. I want the youngsters to stay in Israel, and I want the older ones to come back here.”
That, naturally, means offering them some prospects of gainful employment in Israel, and if the Jerusalem operatic venture takes off, there will be more opportunities going around in this part of the world. And that doesn’t mean opening up the local market only to trained opera singers.
“Once you have an opera house, you need all sorts of professionals, like directors, dressmakers, technicians, lighting people, designers, cameramen and video art people – and we’re talking about top professionals in all these areas. I believe that would give the local scene a tremendous boost.”
For his part, Hajdu Sr. believes there are some deepseated grounds for the new venture.
“For thousands of years, Jerusalem was the preeminent global spiritual and cultural center, and its light shone from east to west,” says the composer. “In the past, and today, Jerusalem has been a melting pot, a crossroads, and a symbol and beacon for most of humankind, [as well as] a source of inspiration and creativity for the three major religions and thousands of others around the world.”
Arieli feels that having a permanent berth for opera music in Jerusalem would greatly enhance life in the city.
“A friend of mine once said that having an opera house is like having a pet cat,” he says. “It may not be absolutely necessary, but it gives you a lovely feeling, and an anchor. Anyway, I believe we deserve an opera house here.”
He echoes Hajdu’s ethos, noting, “Jerusalem is not like Tel Aviv.
It is a tough place, with lots of contrasts and contrary forces, but it is also a place of cultural richness. There is no place like Jerusalem in the world.”
The conductor is aware that opera may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and may even meet opposition on religious grounds, but he does not see this as a major obstacle.
“I am observant myself, and I often speak to people who are very religious, and despite certain religious aspects, like the problem with listening to women sing, most of them say that they would like to have the possibility of going to the opera in Jerusalem. That is particularly true of people from Anglo countries, who absorbed some of this culture before they made aliya. I often go to Tel Aviv to see opera, and I get rides with religious Jerusalemites going to Tel Aviv for the same reason.”
There is a saying in Hebrew that “the appetite follows the food,” and Arieli believes that once the opera venture becomes established, demand will ensue.
“Since we started working on this project, I have received loads of phone calls and emails from people – singers and others – who want to know when it’s all happening. Everyone is very excited about this, and everybody working with us is doing it on a voluntary basis. People are chasing me because they want to work with us, and perform, for free. It is very encouraging.”
Naturally he is hoping the gala event will be a resounding success, and he intends to keep the momentum going with a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the near future.
The Jerusalem Opera gala event will take place at the Gerard Behar Center on March 18 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost NIS 150. Discounts available.

For tickets: (02) 623-7000.