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THE JERUSALEM Opera has provided Jerusalemites, and opera lovers from further afield, with a wide range of quality productions over the past eight years..(Photo by: ELAD ZAGMAN)
On a wing, song and a prayer
"This opera has never been performed in Israel before," Omer Arieli states. "It hasn't really been performed a lot around the world."
It's not easy getting a cultural enterprise off the ground. State support is generally forthcoming only after the new venture has proven its durability, by managing without official help for two years – a strange state of affairs by any count. That financial conundrum becomes even more challenging when the project in question is a definitively expensive undertaking.

That certainly applies to the operatic field, which, in general, is dominated by the well-appointed facility on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard in Tel Aviv. But, for the past seven years, there has been a pretty impressive operative endeavor on offer at the other of Route One, courtesy of the Jerusalem Opera company.

The venture is about to embark on its ninth season, and has upped the show frequency ante by several notches.
"Next year will be our 10th season," Omer Arieli notes proudly. Arieli is the principal mover and shaker behind the organization that, as the website has it, set out to present "opera productions of the highest quality in Jerusalem, and providing a platform for the promotion of Jerusalem and Israeli artists, new olim and especially young artists." The company's repertoire to date features eight full operatic productions of Mozart's Servant of Two Masters, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Not bad going for a venture that works on a shoestring budget, with little in the way of official support, and – horror of horrors! – performs beyond the Tel Aviv opera pale.

Undaunted by trying logistics and finances, the Jerusalem artistic enterprise is about to launch its new offerings, with three productions in the pipeline. The 2019-20 season kicks off next month with two performances on Gounod's La Colombe, at Beit Shmuel, on September 19 and 21. Arieli will wield his baton in the specific direction of the Jerusalem Opera Orchestra with Belgian soprano Liesbeth Devos front and center, and with bass-baritone Yuri Kissin and promising young Israeli Ofer Gross adding their vocal gifts to the proceedings. Noemi Schlosser directs and Italian baritone Gabriele Ribis acting as artistic advisor.
Arieli, in plain and unambiguous terms, says it hasn't been easy.

He asks with a smile, "You see these grey hairs? They weren't here the last time we met." That was around eight years ago, when the Jerusalem Opera was still a relatively fresh undertaking.

The "mature look" might be the result of sleepless nights worrying about the future of opera in the capital, and trying to find a way through the morass of bureaucratic webs, and following endless highways and byways to financial salvation, but Arieli and his comrades in artistic, administrative and fundraising arms seem to be gaining momentum. La Colombe will be followed by three airings of Verdi's Rigoletto, at the Jerusalem Theater on December 5 and 7, with an extramural offering on December 9 at the Performing Arts Center in Ashdod.

The season denouement, with Donizetti's ever-popular L'elisir d'amore, will also take the company southward for a collaborative outing with the Beersheba Symphonette, at the Negev city's Performing Arts Center on February 22, with a second showing taking place at the Jerusalem Theater on February 24.

ARIELI SAYS that, between working on scores and ensuring personnel and props are attended to, he and his cohorts have to keep the financial wheels turning efficiently, come what may.

"We are a nonprofit. We have to keep tabs on every shekel we lay out, and do that in a controlled manner, and to spend everything we have by the end of each year."

It is, he says, a matter of balancing the books but also keeping at least one eye on the approaching horizon, and to try to see beyond it.

"We also want to plan for the year ahead. We have to fight everyone. We have to come through all the scrapes in one piece, all the budgetary challenges. We are proud of ourselves that, with a lot of hard work, emotional friction and disappointments, we have arrived at our ninth season."

Arieli is not looking just to survive. He wants to keep the venture growing.

"We started out with one production a year. Then we added a small project on the side. Three years ago, we got to two productions a year, and last year we added a small performance to that. Now we're putting on three productions, three large-scale professional productions."

And not just any old productions. Arieli is clearly an adventurous type eager to push the boat out just as far as he can, quotidian challenges notwithstanding.

"The first production is pretty daring," he notes. "It is a relatively little known work. But it is a nice entertaining work."
In addition to the opera staying below the radar line here all these years, it will be presented in a novel way.

"The director, Noemi Schlosser, came up with an innovative interesting concept which is completely divorced from the era in which the piece was written. But it, of course, preserves the original base material."

It's been done before, with other operas.

"You know, they take [The Marriage of] Figaro and they bring it into the current day; the director brought the story into a very different historical framework."

The work was first unveiled in 1859, while Schlosser has set the events in Monte Carlo of the 1920s.

Arieli and his Jerusalemite and Jerusalem-affiliated colleagues will happily put on the country's premiere of La Colombe.

"This opera has never been performed in Israel before," he states. "It hasn't really been performed a lot around the world."
That may be down to a degree of snobbery.

"The opera is considered a bit light," Arieli posits, adding that he enjoys a bit of sleuthing, and digging into little known seams. "I like plowing through storage facilities, libraries and the jungles of sheet music. For instance, I used to spend hours at [venerable sheet music repository] Doblinger in Vienna," he recalls. "I loved doing that in places in Italy, too, where I grew up."

THE CHOICE of a rarely presented opera has its advantages and disadvantages. While pleasing the local authority, naturally Arieli and his cohorts may have to work a little harder to bring the public in to something they may have never previously encountered.
"The Jerusalem Municipality is always telling us they want us to do something completely different from Tel Aviv [Israeli Opera]. I hope they will be pleased with La Colombe. They, at the municipality, say that we can't justify having an opera house here, in Jerusalem, because there is already one in Tel Aviv."

That, say the local powers that be, is down to the challenging bottom line.

"They argue that opera is far more expensive than having a symphonic orchestra, or a chamber music festival or anything else."
Arieli says his cause is not helped by the absence of official guidelines in the field.

"Since the creation of the state, until now, 2019, there have never been specific regulations and criteria for establishing an opera house."

That is not just Jerusalem-specific.

"There are no regulations for doing that anywhere in the country. There are criteria for opening a business, getting married, getting a degree – but not for this."

Looks like Arieli et al have their work cut out for them. For now, nine years on from starting out on the pioneering – some might say foolhardy – venture, they are still very much with us, and looking to keep the Jerusalem operatic ship afloat and plying a steady and proactively creative course.

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