As every self-respecting Monty Python fan knows, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. But does any Jerusalemite really expect to get some quality operatic fare without leaving town or, for that matter, does any Tel Avivite consider they may get a performance of, say, The Marriage of Figaro or Madame Butterfly over towards the eastern end of Route 1?
If you’ve been around the capital at some stage over the past 10 years you may have noticed the odd performance by the Jerusalem Opera company. That’s right, if you hadn’t heard, Jerusalem has had its very own operatic concern since 2011, and is now marking its first decade – hopefully of many – with a production of Verdi’s La traviata. There will be two performances, based on a concert format, at the Jerusalem Theater on November 25 and 27, with a third slot at Hechal Hatarbut in Kfar Saba on November 29 (all 8:30 p.m.). There will be subtitles in English and Hebrew.
The company kicked off in 2012 with Mozart’s Masters and Servants, and put on one concert or a full-blown operatic production, costumes sets and all, each year. In 2017 there were two, rising to three in 2019, the most thus far. Naturally, there was a drop last year with a performance of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore slotted in between lockdowns.
I caught up with the suitably enthused founder, musical director and conductor, Omer Arieli post-rehearsal. We first met 10 years ago, at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance where he still teaches. It was a crisp sunny winter’s day when I arrived but our chat was curtailed after an hour or so after someone alerted Arieli to the fact that the heavens had opened and the roads were quickly accumulating a snowy mantle. It was time for Arieli to skedaddle home, while Route 1 was still passable.
Still, we did manage to talk about his dream of establishing an opera house in Jerusalem, to accommodate the incipient company. While the former has yet to come to physical fruition the conductor can look back on the past decade with some satisfaction. But, did he really believe, back then, that the Jerusalem Opera would still be a going concern? “If you have faith you believe,” he responds a little cryptically. The man is clearly aiming high. “It depends how you look at it. I could say that I dreamed of having a real opera house, a real home for us, with lighting, a stage and all the rest, and that hasn’t yet happened.” Still where there’s life…
“I am delighted we have survived,” he said, eventually taking on a more positive tone. “The fact that we have survived is an enormous achievement, especially getting through some difficult times these past few years. Maybe we are not yet working on a level I fantasized about, but we are putting on good concerts, good performances of operas and we are adding to the cultural life of the city.”
It has been quite a rite of passage for Arieli and the rest of the crew, which includes opera singer, stage director and producer Gabriele Ribis, in the capacity of artistic adviser. The Italian baritone will be on stage at the Jerusalem Theater this week, in the role of Giorgio Germont – Colin Schachat replaces him for the Kfar Saba concert – with American tenor Aaron Blake as Germont’s son Alfredo and Russian-born soprano Olga Senderskaya singing the part of Violetta Valéry.
“We have learned a lot along the way,” he states. “We have made mistakes, and I had some ideas at the beginning that I eventually realized were not practical. But I think we have made good progress. Today we know what we can and can’t do, what we should and shouldn’t do.”
Part of that is down to financial practicalities. Although the company benefits from the ongoing support of the Jerusalem Municipality, and piecemeal assistance from the Culture and Sport Ministry, Arieli says he and the rest of the company members and volunteers have learned to cut their cloth to suit their project-specific apparel. “You know, you always want to put on a full production, with sets, costumes and all those things. That is what opera is. But sometimes you have to scale down on, say, this costume or that, or your rehearsal space.” Or not have any costumes at all, and allow the singers to project the storyline through their vocal abilities, but also with their body language.
At the end of the day, opera is about the score and how it is delivered. “It’s true that opera is a visual art form, but the music is the main and most important element,” Arieli declares. “If you have good singers, a good choir and a good orchestra it is fine. Of course there is the acting component. Even if you don’t have wonderful sets that doesn’t mean you have to forego the acting. You don’t need much for acting. You can just have a mask and express so much.” It is also about teamwork and group dynamics. “The connections between the people on the stage, the relationships between the characters, you can develop all of that without grandiose jewelry and sets.”
Streamlining the company’s output also dictates the repertoire Arieli and co. take on. “We have to balance how much we relate to popular works, and how much we relate to the educational side of things,” he notes, referencing the always sticky conundrum of how to go about introducing the public to hitherto obscure works. “We have to consider what we are capable of doing, but that can lead to good things too, like lesser known [smaller scale] French operettas. And we are thinking of performing Jewish works.”
When we met first, all those years ago, before the snow came down, Arieli excitedly talked about how the creation of an opera company in Jerusalem could help to stem the talent drain. “Students gain a degree here, at the academy, and end up in Berlin or elsewhere because there are so few job opportunities in Israel. We manage to give them the chance to perform with us. We include students and recent graduates in all our productions.”
That also involves trying to entice those who have already relocated offshore to stay in touch with their home base. “We have brought graduates over here, from New York, Berlin and other places, to perform with us,” says Arieli. “That keeps them connected to Israel. And we have grants and competitions with prizes which lead to students working with us. They gain valuable experience and they can get the idea that, maybe, that can develop a career here, and [they] don’t have to leave the country.”
That might be easier said than done, but Arieli and his cohorts are giving it their all. Ten years down the line they have certainly proved their staying power. “We have had peaks, like The Magic Flute production [in 2017]. I keep on hoping that we don’t go downhill after reaching those summits. We all love opera and we all love Jerusalem. We want to keep it going and, hopefully, one day, we’ll have a home of our own in Jerusalem.”
For tickets and more information:
Jerusalem – *6226 and www.bimot.co.il, (03) 915-5632 and CulturAccess.com
Kfar Saba – *6775 and https://ksaba.smarticket.co.il, (03) 915-5632 and CulturAccess.com