Bizet rebarred

Keren Kamensek will conduct ‘Carmen’, the Israeli Opera’s last production of the season

Bizet’s Carmen performed at the Israeli Opera  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Bizet’s Carmen performed at the Israeli Opera
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
If you’re looking for entertainment of an operatic nature, you don’t have to look much further than Bizet’s Carmen.
The forthcoming rendition of the perennial favorite at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv, which offers 11 shows July 13-28, is nothing short of a blockbuster.
The rendition feeds off of the Metropolitan Opera’s larger-thanlife production, with revival director Gadi Shechter following in the grand footsteps of, possibly, the most spectacular of all operatic renderings of all, after the version crafted by that most expansive and expressive of producers, now 95-year-old Franco Zeffirelli.
The stellar cast features the likes of Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova and her Israeli counterpart Na’ama Goldman in the title role, with tenors Gustavo Porta and Najmiddin Mavlyanov, from Argentinian and Uzbekistan respectively, splitting the role of Don Jose, and Israeli soprano Hila Baggio and Russian-born Alla Vasilevitsky as Micaela.
The staging grandeur doesn’t faze Keren Kamensek, who will be on the conductor’s podium for the entire Israeli Opera House run.
“This my sixth production of Carmen. Most have been revivals and I think I have done two productions of my own,” notes the currently German-based American conductor, when we met in the initial stages of the rehearsal process.
Despite the repeat performances, there is little chance of Kamensek becoming jaded and less than completely interested in the operatic proceedings. “In 2016 I worked with [Galician musician and multi-instrumentalist] Carlos Núñez,” she says. “I hired him to do a Galician evening in Hannover [Germany]. He came with his band and blew the roof off the opera house.” Galicia is a region of northwestern Spain which has roots in the Celtic culture.
In addition to giving the Hannover Opera House crowd their money’s worth and then some, Núñez gave Kamensek something of a wakeup call, helping to galvanize her approach to her work. “I listened to him speaking with my orchestra, a German orchestra, trying to play this [Celtic] music which wasn’t very difficult for them, but was lacking a little flair.”
There is more than one way to up the energy ante. “Flair doesn’t always mean just being more rhythmic,” continues Kamensek.
“Carlos taught me, again, a word I’d forgotten from my music history class, called the anacrusis,” she laughs. “The anacrusis is usually the pickup to the next beat, or for me it can also mean the turning point of a phrase. That can often get taken for granted.”
Taking a leaf out of the Galician musicians’ book can help to solve the get-up-and-go conundrum.
“Celtic musicians love to turn on the crowd. They’ll take one curve and go voom,” says Kamensek, demonstrating the dynamics with a rapid arm swing. “And then the crowd goes ‘yayy!’.”
Kamensek duly took the Celtic continuum on board. “I started incorporating that into my own classical music thing. I thought why does a phrase go dead there? How can we re-energize that? So, part of it is that.”
There was also more familial guidance to be had. “Carlos’s brother Xurxo is a phenomenal percussionist on all kinds of different ethnic instruments, and also the Spanish military drums. I listened to his flair and where the release of the tension is. I started incorporating this in my last production of Carmen.”
That’s one way of keeping the project in hand fresh, and keeping performers and audiences alike – not to mention the lady with the baton – suitably enthused. “Generally, western classical music is very downbeat, first beat, oriented.
Especially with the strings – they want a down bow on the downbeat.
So I’ve turned it around a lot. I’m going to try it out on the orchestra here, and we’ll see how we do.”
Kamensek is not exactly taking a shot in the dark here. She has, successfully, been there and done that. “In Sweden we managed it,” she notes, referring to her last performance of Carmen, in Gothenburg. “Many orchestras play this over and over again, and it gets a little ingrained and a little heavy, and us conductors can get a little bored.
So I took a fresh approach, and looked at it from the folk music perspective.”
Anyone who has perused Kamensek’s bio should not be surprised by her left-field take. Her operatic repertoire takes in works by Britten, Debussy, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, as well as more contemporary material by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and 81-year-old Philip Glass. The latter co-wrote a fascinating work, called Passages, together with late iconic Indian musician and composer Ravi Shankar.
Shankar’s daughter, sitar player Anoushka, also helped to open Kamensek’s eyes and ears to other rhythmic possibilities. “I learned to get rid of the bar lines. I actually rebarred Passages, because it was based on Indian notation. Other works of Ravi Shankar like the Symphony, which I’m doing in London in two years with Anoushka, and the sitar are all written in a kind of Indian notation, so it’s in all in two [tempo]. But, because I’ve done [music by] Phillip Glass, [71-year-old American composer] John Adams and Stravinsky, and that sort of thing, I can see mixed rhythms on the page differently.” Then again, there is a framework anchor to be referenced.
“I thought I couldn’t physically conduct it [Passages] in two[-time].
But, if you see Anoushka playing crazy rhythms, you just see her foot going one-two, one-two. So I thought, that’s OK.”
Kamensek says she has no problem with bridging the seeming cultural and disciplinary gaps. “It’s all just music,” she observes. “It’s like with anacrusis. It’s a matter of going with the flow, and not with the beat.”
Opera regulars should prepare for a Carmen-based trip down memory lane, but with more than a modicum of spice.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-op