Theater: Wondering about Alice

David Sebba’s take on Alice in Wonderland allows for some tinkering to accommodate a local audience.

Wondering about Alice 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Eyal Landsman)
Wondering about Alice 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Eyal Landsman)
At first glance, exposing young children to the negative influences inherent in Lewis Carroll’s ever-popular Alice in Wonderland might not seem to be the cleverest thing to do. Then again, it really does depend on how you take things.
According to David Sebba, the story is multi-layered, to say the least. And he is so enamored with the tale of the young girl who dropped through a hole in the ground and ended up discovering a fantasy world with all sorts of phantasmagorical creatures that he decided to create an opera based on it, in a language which almost every kid in Israel can understand – Hebrew.
“It is very important that the opera is in Hebrew,” says Sebba, who wrote the music and the libretto for the production, which will be performed at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Sebba has been putting his pen where his mouth is for some time. Thus far he has translated several operas into Hebrew, although he admits that the work has its challenges.
“I never take the easy route in my work,” he declares, “and it certainly can be difficult to produce a libretto in Hebrew and to make sure the lyrics and the music flow together smoothly. But I like a challenge.
Anyway, you know our national language is Hebrew, and this is an Israeli opera which was written in Hebrew for an Israeli audience.”
There will, in fact, be quite a few audiences for the production. Besides the two Opera House performances in Tel Aviv, Sebba and director Moshe Kaptan will take the show on the road, with its nine soloists and nine instrumentalists, to Karmiel (November 3-4) and Ashkelon (December 25).
According to Sebba, there was also a thematic hurdle to be negotiated when he got down to creating his take on the Lewis Carroll story.
“The subject is not Israeli. We’re talking about Alice in Wonderland, which comes from Victorian England, not 21st-century Israel. But I tried to preserve as many ideas as possible from the original story, and the spirit of Carroll’s story, in the Hebrew version.”
He says he also drew on his own cultural and life references. “There are all sorts of things that friends of mine have said, and things from [poet Haim Nahman] Bialik and phrases my schoolteachers said. That added another level to the work.”
Sebba says he had plenty of original elements to draw on, some of which offer an instructional outlet or two.
“Lewis Carroll was not a children’s writer, he was a mathematician, and there is a lot of mathematics in the story, and a lot of logic, and I tried to keep them in my reading of it. For example, when Alice starts falling down into Wonderland she asks herself all sorts of philosophical questions, and also questions connected to physics. She wonders what will happen if she never stops falling, or what would happen is she falls through to the other side of Earth and comes out the other end. These are topics which were addressed by scientists of the time.”
SURELY, HOWEVER, a large percentage of the opera’s audience will be made up of children. Can they really grasp all the finer scientific and philosophical subtleties of Carroll’s script? “I think you should give children everything and anything,” Sebba says. “You shouldn’t make do with just ‘children’s stuff.’ I believe we should give our children the best there is.”
Sebba did his homework before getting down to the business of writing.
“I spoke to child psychologists and to kindergarten teachers and, clearly, you should give children only the things that they can digest, but if you only give kids what they like they’ll end up eating candies all day. Actually, I didn’t bring up my kids on a candy diet.”
If Sebba’s offspring picked up any sweets along the way, they probably earned them.
“My children were full partners in creating this opera,” says the proud dad. “They corrected all sorts of things, and they’d say things like, ‘Dad, that doesn’t sound like a rabbit, it sounds like a lion.’ They were eight and 10 when I wrote the opera, and they drew all the characters on the sheet music.”
Mind you, the Sebba children are not exactly growing up in a “normal” household.
“Because of my line of work, and my wife is an opera singer, they have been listening to [Mozart opera] The Magic Flute and all sorts of other operas since they were two years old. They are not new to this.”
The opera, says the composer-librettist, is designed for all ages. “All children, between the ages of four and 100, can enjoy this.” There is, however, the not insignificant issue of language. Most opera lovers are used to listening to arias in Italian, French, German or even English, but Hebrew and opera do not, at first listen, appear to be cozy bedfellows.
Sebba says some tweaking and tailoring is required to match the two, but believes it can be done well.
“First, I am in love with our language. I think Hebrew is the most beautiful language in the world. However, it is true that sound of Hebrew is not as successful as Italian or French, but there are Italian and French songs with really stupid lyrics, but they work because the sound of the language is so pleasing to the ear. We don’t have that privilege in Hebrew.”
There is something about the division into syllables, the natural meter, of Hebrew that produces a chopped-up, staccato rhythm. That comes across in pop and rock songs, and it is a sonic minefield that must be navigated in opera, too.
“Italian has a far more homogeneous sound to it. You don’t have all those guttural sounds that you have in Hebrew. Italian words just trip along and they all sit in the same part of the mouth, and the ear. With Hebrew, you have different types of music in the same sound.”
So, how does one accommodate those grating Hebraic phonetics and fuse them into operatic textures? “You have to compensate,” says Sebba. “You have to put a lot into the rhymes, and the witticisms, in order to make up for the less appealing sound of the language.”
He says he feeds off the music when translating a libretto into Hebrew, or when writing his own original libretto in Hebrew.
“First, I translate or write the text, and I make sure that there is a logical connection with the storyline, but then I sort of start all over again. I play the melody and I try to listen, to see what words the melody needs. Sometimes the melodic structure demands a certain kind of rhyming, or textural pattern, and I try to go with it. It is a complicated business, but I get a lot of pleasure from it.”
THEN THERE’S Sebba’s take on the aspects of Alice in Wonderland which may not be to every parent’s liking.
“You know, on the face of it, Alice is not a particularly educational tale,” he observes. “It talks about a girl who sees a hole in the ground and, instead of being wary of it, as other more acceptable children’s books would have it, she jumps into the hole. Then there’s a bottle which says ‘Drink Me,’ and she just goes ahead and drinks it. And then she meets all sorts of characters and doesn’t learn anything from them that is good for her. Everything is upside down and mixed up. And don’t forget, there’s a caterpillar that smokes. That’s totally unacceptable, isn’t it?” There’s more.
“What can you say about a story which doesn’t have much of a story line, other than a procession of strange characters? And there’s no moral to it, and nothing educational about it. So what’s so great about Alice in Wonderland?” Sebba believes there is, after all, an important lesson to be learned from Carroll’s masterpiece.
“This work is not written about the top student in the class who always does what the teacher tells him to do, and sits in the front row. It’s about a kid who sits at the back and daydreams about faraway places.
It is about the ability to think outside the box. I think this is the kid that eventually grows up to be Einstein, or Lewis Carroll or Arthur Rubinstein, and not necessarily the obedient bright spark of the class. It is the kid who lets his imagination run free.
He’s the one you should watch out for.
“I’m not saying it’s [not] okay to be a good student, but I think it is important to put something out there, on the stage, by someone who had the guts to think in a different way and to dream.”
Sebba, Kaptan and the rest of the cast may well discover some bright sparks among the younger members of their audiences.
Each show will be followed by a talkback session during which the singers, composer and director will answer the children’s questions and, possibly, even gain some new insight into the opera.
“These session are wonderful,” says Sebba. “You get kids who, instead of just asking a question, they start talking about their own philosophy of life, and the way they see the opera and everything else. It can be very enlightening.” ■
Tickets to the opera will be very competitively priced, thanks to support from the national culture basket, and from Bank Hapoalim. For tickets and more information about the Opera House shows: (03) 692-7777 and