The ups and downs of opera

Susannah Haberfeld is thrilled to be in Israel to perform in ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’.

Susanna Haberfield 521 (photo credit: Esther Herzog)
Susanna Haberfield 521
(photo credit: Esther Herzog)
Susannah Haberfeld certainly has the right natural ingredients for her daytime job.
The 30-something Zurich-based opera singer has a Welsh mother and a Jewish father – not a bad combination if you’re looking to earn a living from serious vocal music.
“Yes, I think I’m very lucky in that respect,” says Haberfeld. “My father comes from a German, Hungarian and Polish background, and was born Jewish, so I feel very privileged.”
Add to that the fact that Haberfeld’s mother is none other than celebrated opera singer Dame Gwyneth Jones and you get a pretty solid bedrock for launching a successful operatic career.
When we met, Haberfeld was awaiting her turn with the makeup artist before joining a rehearsal of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with music by Kurt Weill to a libretto written by Bertolt Brecht, which began a run of 12 performances at the Opera House in Tel Aviv yesterday, and will close on January 29. The production is being directed by Omri Nitzan and the conductor is David Stern.
Haberfeld grew up in Wales and took an honors degree in music at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. While she was not exactly brought up lighting candles on Friday evening, Haberfeld says that she was very moved by a visit some years ago to Auschwitz, which is located near the town of Chojnow in Poland, where her grandparents lived.
“I felt very Jewish when I went to Auschwitz, and I feel Jewish in Israel too.”
This is Haberfeld’s first foray to this part of the world and she says she is enjoying every minute of it.
“It’s wonderful walking from the apartment where I’m staying in Tel Aviv to the Opera House and seeing oranges and lemons growing on trees,” she notes enthusiastically. “It was also great going to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and visiting the Old City of Jerusalem. And I went to the Dead Sea, and saw a desert for the first time in my life. This is a wonderful experience for me. Mind you, I really should learn some Hebrew. I know two words so far – “toda” [thanks] and “shalosh [three].’” As Haberfeld has around another month here before she returns to wintry Zurich, there is hope that her Hebrew vocabulary may eventually incorporate a whole sentence, or two.
“I actually saw a sign that advertised ‘Hebrew in 10 days.’ That would do it for me.”
Of course, this is primarily a working visit and most of Haberfeld’s time here has, thus far, been taken up with learning and rehearsing her role in the opera, that of brothel-keeper Begbick. She shares the part with USborn singer Tara Venditti. The role of Trinity Moses is also split between two singers, one of whom is Englishman Julien Tovey who was at the Royal Northern College of Music at the same time as Haberfeld, when he studied for a master’s degree in music.
This is Haberfeld’s first slot in the Brecht-Weill work and she says she finds the role enjoyable and challenging in equal measure, not least because of the dark message the opera conveys. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was first performed in 1930 and was a parody of the corruption and inequality that was rife in the Weimar republic of pre-Hitler Germany. It takes a dim view of capitalism and social injustice.
It is also something of an antiopera operatic vehicle. Brecht said that it “attacks the society that needs operas of such a sort,” and Weill noted that it “pays conscious tribute to the irrationality of the operatic form.” That doesn’t seem to bode too well for a positive experience, professional and personable colleagues notwithstanding.
“The cast is wonderful, but this is a tough opera,” admits Haberfeld. “I went to see it in former East Germany a while ago and I came out and thought I would never go to see it again, because there is nothing positive in it. It is negative from beginning to end.”
But she says she got a new angle on it when she was asked to take part in the production here.
“The music is very interesting, and has a sort of jazzy element to it. It takes you a while to get into it and it is quite complicated to sing, but it is quite entertaining, too.”
Besides the unequivocal political and social messages in Mahagonny the opera is also infused with the energy of a special epoch in German history. Twenties Berlin was very bohemian and awash with wildly artistic activity. When it came to entertainment, the prevailing mindset was “anything goes,” and this is parodied in the work. According to Haberfeld, that energy comes across loud and clear in this production.
“Our part is usually sung by someone who is at least 20 years older than we are. I think that’s quite unusual, because I suppose someone who runs a brothel should be a bit older. Maybe having younger singers adds some younger energy, but I don’t really know why the director went for someone of my age. But the production here is sort of young and funky so, in that respect, it makes sense to have younger singers.”
HABERFELD DOES not confine her professional endeavor to operatic activities. She recently acted in a Swiss movie and fronted her own pop band when she was younger, with the improbable name of Susie and the Scruffy Spinach. Far from considering her offspring a rebel, Haberfeld says her opera-singing mother was fine with that.
“She would have been quite happy for me to sing rock or pop. I would probably have made a better living out of that than out of opera,” she laughs.
Even so, Haberfeld gets plenty of maternal support for her current line of work.
“She comes to see me in all my shows, and she’ll be coming to Israel for this one too.”
Haberfeld also puts her theatrical training to good use in various socially oriented projects.
“I worked with prison inmates in former East Germany,” she says. “That was an interesting experience. You know, in prison, it is a very macho environment and if men take part in something like music or theater the others might think they are gay, and that could be very risky.”
Nevertheless, her theater workshop at the prison was well attended, as has been the case with theater workshops she has run for disadvantaged children and youth in Switzerland and Germany.
“Theater is very good socially, because you have to depend on other people when you’re acting. It’s a good thing to learn for people who have problems with, say, interpersonal relations.”
The prison project also gave Haberfeld some insight into East Germany’s approach to the performing arts.
“Before the Berlin Wall came down, the arts and music were very regimented by the authorities. They’d plan ahead and they’d only allow someone, for example, to learn trumpet at a music school if they knew a trumpeter would be retiring from some orchestra in five years’ time.”
That, says Haberfeld, affected the way people from former Soviet bloc countries approached their craft.
“They would be very serious and fixed on their part.”
At the end of the day, Haberfeld believes the audience here will go home with enduring added value from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
“I think people will leave with food for thought, but there are also plenty of attractive things about this production.
There’s ballet in it, there’s a big pink convertible car on the stage, jazzy crossover stuff, but you definitely need an operatic voice in there. This is a big production and it’s great to be a part of it.”
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