A ‘love potion’ for kids called opera

Adi Vaknin enjoys the challenge of directing the production of Donizetti’s ‘L’elisir d’amore’ – aimed at children aged 3 & up.

elixir of love opera_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
elixir of love opera_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the age of 25, Adi Vaknin could hardly be called a senior professional. Then again, she’s certainly paid some of her dues, and the audiences she caters for are not much younger than she is.
Vaknin is currently at the helm of the Israeli Opera’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (Elixir of Love), part of the Opera Time for Children series, aimed at the three-to-eight age group.
The opera tells the story of a poor farmer by the name of Nemorino, who falls hopelessly in love with Adina, a rich girl from the country. When Nemorino’s courting efforts are rejected – particularly after a dashing young army officer appears on the scene – the young man seeks help from an itinerant quack, who sells Nemorino a “love potion” which, in fact, is just cheap wine. The story takes many a twist and turn, but everything works out for Nemorino in the end.
WHILE THE intrigues of a love triangle and unrequited love may be way over the heads of such a young audience, Vaknin believes most of the children will get the plot, helped not a little by the visual aspects of the production.
“Each character appears in a different color, so the kids can differentiate between them,” the young director explains. “The props are in a rustic shade of brown so the bright colors of the characters stand out against the backdrop.”
Vaknin says she also benefits from the original directorial guidelines laid out by Danny Erlich.
“Danny’s directing is highly stylized, not realistic. It is movement-based, so the kids get it, visually, more easily. The character of the shepherd has a more gentle movement, while Adina has a classic look, and the other girl is more flirty.
“The directing also has a solid rhythm to it. Each sentence has a movement that goes with it. There is no improvisation, and it is all carefully choreographed.”
Despite her tender years, Vaknin has a solid grounding in her field.
“I went to the Art School in Tel Aviv, and in fourth grade I got into dance and music. I played jazz flute, but in grade five I had to decide between dance and music, and I went for music.” Vaknin also underwent an initially difficult musical transition which gradually began to bear fruit.
“My teacher pushed me into classical music, which was tough to start with; but I eventually found my place in it. Today, I am completely immersed in the world of classical music.”
After graduating from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, Vaknin spent her army service overseeing all kinds of productions for various IDF bands, and approached her interview for a job with the Opera House with some excellent references from her former IDF superiors.
So, at the age of 20, Vaknin found herself at the bottom of the professional ladder, but quickly moved up through the more menial aspects of the behind-the-scenes world of the opera business to where she is today.
She also brings a strong team-player ethos to her current role, as well as some priceless practical skills and hands-on experience.
“When I was a vocalist at high school, I preferred being in a choir to being the soloist,” she recalls. “I am good at organizing and production, and when I was younger I played flute in all sorts of charity shows. That gave me a good idea about how to make music more approachable for the general public. I also came to opera with a lot of knowledge about music and singers.”
Then again, playing charity shows for adults can be a very different proposition from trying to entertain youngsters. Vaknin believes she has the personal and professional wherewithal to handle that.
“I always had a good approach to children. I have a lot of patience – for small kids, youth and adults too. You have to have patience for people who need to have things explained to them; not so much as a teacher, more as a guide. Also, when you are doing community productions, you have to look out for kids who may not be so talented or strong, and give them another opportunity.”
The director says she finds working with the community and performing for younger audiences particularly satisfying.
“You get so much love from the kids. I never trained in children’s education, but kids are close to my heart, and I get so much back from them, too.”
That said, putting together a production that appeals to three-year-olds as well as to children five years older can be challenging in the extreme.
And Vaknin does not believe that all the kids get the same message from the operas. “The attention span of a three-year-old is very different from that of, say, an eight-year-old,” she says. “Three-year-olds see lots of colors and colorful figures, but may not understand the whole story. The six-year-old discerns the interaction and understands the story, the tension and the interplay between the different characters.
“I have done a production of The Magic Flute, which is more a story based on fantasy, and been told by parents that their three-year-old was transfixed. L’elisir d’amore is a more realistic story. But the kids will understand it their way, according to their age.”
NATURALLY, MOST of the children attend the junior operas with at least one parent in tow, and Vaknin says the production provides entertainment for the whole family.
“Sometimes the parents are more drawn into the story than their kids. There is nothing infantile about this opera. It is an everyday, real-life story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is also a timeless story which incorporates classic elements, but relates equally to contemporary life.”
Vaknin is, of course, keenly aware of the educational advantages offered by such an enterprise.
“It provides children with a good grounding, an introduction to the world of opera, with full scenery and costumes. Serious opera can be off-putting for some people, but I am sure that kids who are exposed to opera at this level will be open to the adult versions later in life.”
The director also sees a palliative property to the junior venture.
“We once went to Acre with a production, and I was told there was a kid in the audience who had been beating other children up for three years. After he saw the opera, I was told that he sang all the arias in the school corridors and became much calmer. I am sure that opera will be close to his heart when he grows up.
“Music has a wonderful therapeutic aspect to it. I believe that being exposed to opera, and to music in general, can lead to a saner generation. Music can do that.”
L’elisir d’amore will be performed at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on February 8 at 5 p.m. and March 15 at 5 p.m. Tickets: (03) 692-7777 or www.israel-opera.co.il