The artist and his public

A pioneer in the arts, few have attempted what he has succeeded in doing.

Gil Shohat's opera (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gil Shohat's opera
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When discussing influential artists like Matisse, Picasso, Mozart and Chopin, the notion of the artist’s public inevitably arises. The audience plays a major role in almost every artist’s development, in the acceptance or criticism of his or her work.
The public is part of everyday life for composer, conductor and performer Gil Shohat. Living and working in Israel, he comes into contact with his fans and spectators wherever he wanders. In fact, it is this public that keeps him rooted in his homeland, able to stave off the magnetic pull to other cities in other countries.
Shohat is perhaps Israel’s most active conductor and composer today. He serves as the artistic director for countless festivals in Israel and abroad, is the classical music adviser for the Israel Festival and is the initiator of a host of music programs around the country. In addition, he is a pioneer in the Hebrew opera field. Few have attempted what he has succeeded in doing, which is adding a new language to the operatic lexicon.
In the coming weeks, two of Shohat’s operas will be presented abroad, marking a huge step for Hebrew opera and a major acceleration in his career.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Shohat spoke openly about his life, his work and his hopes for the future.
“Two of my piece are going abroad,” he beams as he gazes at the Mediterranean.
He is referring to The Child Dreams, which has been invited to the prestigious festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Alpha and Omega, which will be performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic. Seated at his favorite spot in Tel Aviv, Manta Ray, Shohat is bombarded by his public, which comes in the form of waiters and managers of the local hot spot. After all, he has been present in the public eye for more than two decades.
He began his musical training at the age of seven. At 12, he began composing original works. In 1991, Shohat presented his first orchestral composition, The Nightingale and the Rose. He was 18 at the time. He completed his first and second degrees at Tel Aviv University and went on to earn two post-graduate diplomas, the first at the National Academy in Rome, the second at Cambridge University in England.
In 2001, he unveiled Alpha and Omega, which remains the largest staged opera in Israel’s history. Nine years later, he once again wowed audiences with his adaptation of Hanoch Levin’s The Child Dreams.
“Levin gave me the rights to this work while he was still alive. Today, he is being compared to Shakespeare and Chekhov,” he says.
As Hebrew is a minority language in the opera community, Shohat has often been asked to transfer his pages into more commonly spoken tongues.
“I don’t believe that the German or Japanese audiences speak Hebrew,” he says. “They asked me if I could translate my operas and I said no. One of my demands for these tours was that they be kept in Hebrew. It’s not because I’m Zionist and not even because I’m Israeli. I don’t believe that Hebrew is a better language than any other. The thing is, I wrote these operas in Hebrew. The language influenced the inner harmony and structure of the work. Hebrew has its own musicality and it demands specific composition.”
Shohat, like many composers at his level, speaks and works with many languages.
His music has been presented in Italian, French, German and Latin, among others. However, Hebrew remains the language closest to his heart. “You can’t replace your mother tongue,” he says.
“I’ve never been anything other than Israeli. My identity is so rooted in the land and the culture. I do, however, have a complex dialogue with myself as an Israeli citizen. Even though I can be the harshest critic of the country, this is my identity and I’m not going to deny it,” he explains.
LAST YEAR, Shohat celebrated his marriage to American citizen Brian Bolton. At the time, Bolton was working at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. The two met in a chance encounter when Bolton issued Shohat’s visa to the US. Months later, Bolton attended a performance of Shohat’s and later asked the composer out on a date. Only then did they realize that their first meeting had taken place over a pile of papers in a far less romantic environment.
Their ceremony took place in Vermont, surrounded by family.
Now that they are married, Shohat and Bolton have begun to pursue the expansion of their family.
“Having a child as a gay couple is a big effort and a big decision,” says Shohat. “I don’t feel that you can really participate in Israeli society without children. I feel the need to be a father, to do this kind of giving.
That’s a major challenge in my life right now.”
Professionally, he has been tempted over and over again to seek greener pastures abroad. Though his career in Israel has blossomed, the country is small and limited in its resources. “There is a price that my career pays for living here. I am reminded of that every day. I have had to give up many opportunities because I’m loyal to my Israeli public. There are people who have followed me for 20 years. They are loyal to me so I must be loyal to them.”
Shohat’s daily life involves a whirlwind of meetings, managing musicians and maintaining presence on stage. “I perform 250 shows a year. In a perfect world, I would sit and write music all day. Most of my income is made from these performances.
Considering the time and effort it takes me to write an opera, the financial benefit is almost nonexistent,” he says.
“However, I am not writing these operas for materialistic gain. I create from a profound belief that my pieces will remain, regardless of place or time.”
The number of hours that went into each of his operas makes one’s head spin.
“When I was writing these operas, my goal was to complete four pages a day. There are 700 pages in both Alpha and Omega and The Child Dreams. It took me four years to finish the score of The Child Dreams,” he explains. Those four years were only a fraction of the decade it took for him to master the opera.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has not incorporated technology into his practice, which makes for slower work. “I am one of the last Mohicans to use a fountain pen and paper,” he laughs. “I can’t do it any other way. Writing is not a technical or practical issue for me. It’s spiritual and abstract. I connect with places that are higher than me. I am not trying to be efficient when I write. I am trying to be a channel for those spheres; I can’t say what they are. But when I reach the right melody, it hits me like a bolt of lightening.”
For Shohat, those cathartic moments, which usually occur while he is seated at the piano, are worth everything. “I believe with every cell of my body and the existence of my soul, with everything I am and everything I ever will be in this harsh, crude world, that there is a beautiful pearl that lights the entire universe and that is the gift of music. It is the highest form of creation in my eyes,” he muses.
He is currently developing a new television series, which will air on Channel 1.
Entitled Master Key, the program will explore classical music. “I believe that classical music is the next big thing. In the next 50 years the world will experience an amazing change in the approach to classical music. The public will be bored of pop tendencies and look for something profound,” he says.
This is not to say that Shohat is unconnected to other art forms. In fact, it is quite the contrary. He is a self-proclaimed “culture vulture,” a consumer of all things cultural. He has brought his different passions onto the stage by way of collaborations with dancers, choreographers and fellow musicians. Recently, he performed with dance legend Ido Tadmor. He has an ongoing relationship with choreographer Rina Shenfeld and continues to develop new stage productions with her. However, at the end of the day, his reason for being is clear.
“Every single day I think that there is nothing more beautiful than music. What I pass on in my work is more than opera, it is the enthusiasm of this belief.” ■
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