Hanan Leberman’s musical goal

Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ takes the stage at Beit Shmuel.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Iolanthe (photo credit: PR)
Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Iolanthe
(photo credit: PR)
The members of the English-speaking community of Jerusalem and beyond, especially those with a penchant for witty musical material, are in for a treat next week. The Hirsch Theatre of Beit Shmuel will host the latest production of the Encore! Educational Theatre Company, a typically professionally crafted rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe (December 30 to January 7).
The cast features a number of students of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University, including Encore first-timers such as Amit Hemo in the title role, Lior Inbar as the young shepherd swain Strephon, and bass-baritone Steven Timoner in the role of Private Willis. The roster also features 29-year-old Chicago- born Jerusalemite baritone Hanan Leberman, who is on the cusp of developing a glittering international career.
Leberman, who plays the role of Thomas, Earl of Tolloller in Iolanthe, has appeared in a London production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and has auditioned for roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Although lesser known than other Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Iolanthe is a gem of political wit and melodic mirth, with a serious and sentimental side, as well and a first-class overture that is one of the few that Sullivan actually composed himself. The references to British politics in the 1880s have been intriguingly updated for this production to reflect current issues in the Knesset.
Leberman’s path into the joys and mysteries of musical appreciation started out in an anterior manner.
“I listened to the Beatles. As a young boy, I started loving music because my father was very into classic rock,” explains Leberman. “From my father, I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath and all the prog rock and other things.”
The maternal influence tended towards very different climes, some of which were more akin to Leberman’s current professional pursuit.
“On my mother’s side, it was a mixture of everything, including classical music and jazz,” he says.
When Leberman started exercising his naturally gifted vocal chords, yet another discipline was called into service.
“I started singing with religious music. I went to synagogue, and I loved singing the prayers,” he says.
School also presented opportunities for taking the musical development continuum a few notches further.
“I was in the choir at elementary school, and then I joined the orchestra as a flutist,” Leberman recalls. “I had a great teacher named Dimitri Kasyuk. He was in the Russian army and the Israeli army. He taught me a lot.”
Leberman seems to make a habit of establishing a rapport with his music teachers beyond the confines of music tuition.
“Dimitri and I did a lot of things together, and I get on really well with my current music teacher, Jay Shir. He helps me a lot with my music, and we also go hiking and do other stuff together,” he says.
The youngster may have been inspired by his tough mentor but, after a while, he let his musical endeavors lapse.
“I stopped singing until about 10th grade. My voice was starting to find its place, and I was picked up by the seniors to sing [rock singer] Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train,’” he recounts.
It was quite a challenge.
“It is probably the hardest thing I have ever sung to date. At the time, I think my voice hadn’t yet done the switch, and I was singing this high music, and I wasn’t sure what was happening.”
Then, again, Osbourne is not noted for his sober demeanor.
“I think if you know what’s going on, you’re probably not singing Ozzy Osbourne,” Leberman laughs.
Other than music, Leberman also fed off his British mother’s cultural heritage – soccer. “I was, and still am, a [English Premier League club] West Ham United supporter, and I played football,” he says.
But more serious musical undertakings were afoot.
“After the soccer season was over, I got involved in a high school production of Titanic [musical],” he continues.
It wasn’t just about the music. There were some hormones involved, too.
“I don’t remember what character I was, but I got to kiss a senior. I was very happy about that,” he relates.
In case Leberman needed any encouragement to maintain his musical pursuits, the lip encounter certainly delivered.
“I thought, ‘I like this. I want to stick with this,’” he laughs. “I thought, ‘Football’s great, but this [kissing] is good, too.’” Leberman’s next project took him further along the multidisciplinary learning curve, when his role in the musical 42nd Street required some tap-dancing expertise.
“It came quite naturally to me,” he notes. “I had a sense of rhythm, and I guess you need a lot of passion for that. It was a lot of fun to move and make rhythm.”
Leberman’s artistic die was cast.
“I had the lead role in 42nd Street, and then it just carried on. In my senior year, I was in [the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical] Carousel.”
Leberman could have stayed in New York to further his professional intent, but Zionism intervened. He came to Israel to attend a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem and kept his musical chops in shape by becoming the cantor. He returned to the States to consider his next step and spent a year at Yeshiva University engaging in a seemingly incongruous academic pairing of music and biology.
Israel came calling again.
“Halfway through my university studies, I decided to make aliya. I am an idealist, or was an idealist, and I decided I was going to make aliya and do the Zionist thing and defend Israel,” he explains.
Leberman certainly made good on the latter and served for three years in a crack IDF unit.
“I was only supposed to do two years because I was already 21, but I signed on for another year,” he says.
However, his passion for music eventually overcame his Zionist fervor.
“The army was really something I wanted to do, and I wanted to contribute, but some time during my army service I just fell back into what I really like doing, which is singing,” he says.
And it’s not just a matter of hitting the right notes.
“On the [IDF] base, I was always pushed out there to be the cantor because I make it a moment because I love it,” he says.
Leberman’s active interest in opera was spawned by a marriage of his two greatest loves – music and soccer.
“It began with the Three Tenors. I liked [Italian tenor Luciano] Pavarotti because of the [1990 soccer] World Cup and [the aria] ‘Nessun Dorma’ [from Puccini’s Turandot]. My passion for opera took a big step when I saw the connection between my passion for football and my passion for opera, and I saw Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun Dorma.’” Soccer fans also sing a lot during games.
“I think that when it comes to singing, it comes from the depths, and you also really love your football team and you have this feeling that if you sing, you can help the team,” he reasons.
Leberman’s initial steps in the world of opera also received a significant maternal push.
“My mother and I were driving up north one day when she put on a CD of the Three Tenors, and I just started singing with them,” he recalls. “My mom said that she might be biased but she thought I had a really good voice.”
Mrs. Leberman duly set up a meet for her talented son with her singer daughter’s New York-based voice teacher.
After Leberman went to the US and sang for them, his gift received professional approval.
“They said I had it and that I should come back to them for training when I was ready,” he recounts.
And the rest is history.
He says his military background also comes in useful.
“I did serious service – high adrenalin and high intensity, the whole time. And when I have a concert, I ask myself if I should be nervous. That helps me today. When I have a concert to do, I ask myself if I need to be nervous and if I am going somewhere dangerous. No, I’m going to do something I love. I am going to sing,” he says.
Leberman will be in good company for Iolanthe. In addition to a cast of 52 members, there is a 15-piece orchestra that will be conducted by musical director Paul Salter.
Soccer’s loss is music’s gain.
Iolanthe will be performed at the Hirsch Theatre of Beit Shmuel from December 30 to January 7. For tickets and more information: 054-578-9006 and www.encore-etc.com.