An opera of two tales

The Israeli Opera presents the dual drama ‘Agnon to Levin.’

An envelope-pushing program, agnon to levin at the israel Opera (photo credit: YOSSY ZWECKER)
An envelope-pushing program, agnon to levin at the israel Opera
(photo credit: YOSSY ZWECKER)
These days, 30 is hardly an age.
But for cultural enterprises to keep going, nay flourishing, for three decades is a commendable feat.
The Israeli Opera is clearly showing no signs of slowing down, as indicated by its decision to opt for an envelope-pushing program to mark its 30th anniversary.
Between July 3 and 10, the opera will host an intriguing world premiere double header called Agnon to Levin. The works by Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon and conventionchallenging playwright Hanoch Levin – The Lady and the Peddler and Schitz – have been set to music by Haim Permont and Yoni Rechter, respectively. The libretto for the Agnon tale was provided by writer and musician Tzruya Lahav, and for the Levin play by editor and translator Muli Meltzer.
The opera company has clearly not cut any corners for its anniversary bash, bringing seasoned theater director Ido Ricklin on board for the project. Ricklin also has a couple of operatic directorial forays under his belt.
At first glance, the two works do not appear to be a natural fit.
Agnon’s story is set in Russia of 1940 and centers on an exiled Jew trying to make his way through life.
Meanwhile, Levin’s entertaining and colorfully emotive play features a bunch of refugee olim trying to find their footing in their new country.
But Ricklin does see a continuum here, even though he had to go some distance to find common ground.
“When I was presented with the idea, one of my first tasks was to find a link, to find how it all connects,” he admits. “That was my main concern.”
In fact, the director did not have to fuse the two works.
“[Israeli Opera general director] Hanna Munitz said to me, ‘Here are the two operas. You can either make them as two separate pieces or you can find links between them,’” he recounts.
Eventually, Ricklin managed to conjoin the creations.
“I read somewhere that The Lady and the Peddler was a metaphor for the Holocaust – about a Jewish person being tempted by the fleshpots, by a Christian lady. Later, he finds out that she tries to kill him and he escapes that, which was interesting,” notes the director. “I also heard people saying that the characters in the Hanoch Levin story Schitz are suffering from something like post-traumatic stress. They are immigrants and have escaped great suffering, and therefore they still have a sense of urgency and survival. Then I realized that both situations are part of the same process of Jewishness.”
There are also some twists along the way. The Agnon story is ostensibly about a Jew finding refuge with a woman who leads a comfortable life. Ricklin also sees the discomfort factor doing a U-turn.
“The lady also feels threatened by the peddler,” he suggests. “She falls a bit in love with him. The peddler is a victim; but if you take the contemporary approach, if a woman lets a man into her home, she also feels imperiled.”
Ricklin notes a reversal of fortunes in the Levin work as well.
“You have these refugees who come to Israel after being persecuted, and they become masters of the land,” he says.
There is also a literal fleshpot aspect to both stories. While the former refugees in the Levin piece gorge themselves on food, it transpires that Agnon’s lady has a history of cannibalism. She has already downed three husbands, and the peddler is the next up on the partner menu.
Ricklin also feels there is much to be learned from the tales, particularly from Schitz and the insatiable appetite the protagonists display.
“I see this as a very tragic cycle. I think that the fear, which is justifiable, that we may not survive as a nation leads us to very difficult places with ourselves, places of violence, and also leads to bestial capitalism. It’s sort of a situation whereby we eat and drink today because we’ll die tomorrow. I think we are in a state of something like post-trauma,” he says.
By now it had become clear that Ricklin has put a lot of effort into getting a handle on all aspects of the anniversary project, including the Permont and Rechter scores. Here, too, there is a seemingly unfathomable divide between the two composers. The former is a celebrated musicologist and classical composer, while Rechter is better known for his pop and Israeli folktinted music offerings.
“I listened to the music many, many times,” says the director.
“These are two very different compositions. I didn’t know either of them before I started with this project,” he says.
It turns out, however, that Ricklin and Permont do have a strong common point of reference, albeit with a significant time lapse.
“I have a very emotional link with Haim,” explains Ricklin. “His late mother-in-law was my childhood mentor. She was a librarian in the place I grew up, and I learned a lot from her.”
Ricklin enlisted the composers’ help with getting to the bottom of their artistic ethos.
“I’d sit with Yoni and Haim, and I’d ask them to explain to me exactly why they wrote this part or that. I am not a musician myself, so I needed to understand how they approached their works,” he says.
Agnon to Levin also offers plenty to feed off on the visual level.
“The opera stage creates a changing and evolving world,” explains Ricklin. “To begin with, you see the forest where the peddler gets lost. It is a forest of crucifixes and gallows, a world of fantastic – possibly Gothic – qualities, but it is a cruel of world of dog eat dog, victims and victimizers. When the world is laid waste, the survivors come to a new world that is devoid of the fantastic and the mythological. However, instead of creating a new world, it echoes the previous world.
Once again, the thug with the power also has the authority.”
Ricklin is delighted that he was able to work with an all- Israeli cast for the opera’s festive event. The Agnon-based opera features soprano Edit Zamir and tenor Guy Mannheim, while the Levin vocalist cast includes baritones Noah Briger and Oded Reich, and sopranos Ira Bertman and Yael Levita. Ethan Schmeisser conducts both works.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and