Carmen. Photo by Yossi Zwecker
Art,Entertainment,Life,Music,Pop Culture

Israeli ‘Carmen’ is a hot ticket in the desert

The Israeli Opera returns to Masada this week with a majestic production of Bizet’s Carmen. On the backdrop of the stunning ancient fortress at the lowest point on Earth, the five open-air concerts will draw some 50,000 opera newcomers and devotees.

Since first staging Nabucco in 2010 and then Aida in 2011, the Israeli Opera has made it a tradition to stage a grand production annually at this magical setting.

Carmen. Photo by Yossi Zwecker

Carmen. Photo by Yossi Zwecker

And while there are many aspects of the show to write about, Israeli opera fans should remember this name: Na’ama Goldman.

The 26-year-old mezzo soprano was the talk of the General Rehearsal last night.

Listed briefly in the program as a cover for the roles of Mercedes and Carmen, Goldman was given the chance of a lifetime last night after Canarian Nancy Fabiola Herrera – who has performed the title role of Carmen all over the world — and Italian mezzo soprano Anna Malavasi – also meant to perform the title role – both called in sick (one fell and sprained her shoulder; the other had sinusitis).

Naama Goldman. Photo from Israeli Opera website

Naama Goldman. Photo from Israeli Opera website

Most of the audience had no idea that Goldman’s performance was the first time she was performing it on this stage. The young Israeli did a magnificent job and deserves the standing ovation she received when conductor Daniel Oren put his baton down.

Herrera was meant to take on the title role for the premiere. She performed the first two acts but then gave way to Goldman mid-show, citing a sore throat. Some critics said Goldman’s voice lacked maturity while others were blown away by the clarity. There was no denying the exceptional baptism-by-fire performances she gave.

It was Romanian soprano Brigitta Kele (Micaela), who happened to be sitting to my right, who told me about Goldman’s feat. Kele – who sported a hospital mask halfway through the opera – explained that for many of the international performers, the desert production was proving to be a strain on their voices.

The sand blown by the wind coupled with the desert heat had caused a number of the artists to suffer sore throats and stuffy noses.

Still, Kele said, she and her fellow visiting performers were only too happy to be in Israel. Kele – who is making her Israeli Opera debut with Carmen – raved about Tel Aviv (where first rehearsals were held) and said the desert setting really was exceptional.

Altogether, Carmen comprised 450 international performers, including 32 Spanish flamenco dancers.

The Israeli Opera regularly attracts an international cast. Artistic administrator Michael Ajzenstadt told ISRAEL21c last year that foreign singers, conductors and directors enjoy coming here for professional reasons. “There are hundreds of opera houses, but we’re an important house with prestigious connections around the world,” he said.

Of the three productions to take place at the foot of Masada, Carmen was being hailed as the most challenging to date.

Organizers said there were some 2,500 workers involved in creating the site — a 3,500 meter stage with 30 tons of lighting and sound fixtures and a reception area, parking and seating venue built from scratch and set to be completely dismantled the morning after the last show.

Add to that 3,000 magnificent costumes, 10 horses, seven donkeys, over 200 security personnel, the Rishon Lezion Symphony Orchestra, the Israeli Opera Choir, the Encore Youth Choir, the Tel Aviv Philharmonic choir and 25 marquees (which contained dressing rooms, make-up areas and dining services).

While impressive, it was the ‘who?’ that everyone asked about at the start of the production when the cast change was first announced, that turned out to be the most talked about aspect of the evening.

And, of course, that next year’s grand-scale opera at this spot will be Turandot – and that work on the production is already underway.

A New Reality,Blogging,Education,Life

Onliners do it for Israel online

Meet Pascaline Wagemans from Belgium, Simon Baaske from Austria and Danielle Gershon from the United States. All of them are studying at Israeli universities this year.

Why did they decide to attend college in Israel and what do they think about life here? They’re explaining all that in Onliners, a new vlog produced by Students For Israel, a group of 23 diverse college students under the banner of the National Union of Israeli Students.

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The idea is to use online social media to present an authentic youthful perspective on the “real” Israel in response to hate materials and misinformation in cyberspace. Onliners isn’t any sort of official hasbara PR shtick. It’s a raw look at Israel for both outsiders and insiders.

As Pascaline says, “People are super-surprised when there is a non-Jew who is not afraid to come to your country.”

The three stars of Onliners are posting a new video every week during the three-month summer semester, featuring their frank and unbiased answers to questions about why they’re here and what they’re experiencing or observing about Israel socially, culturally, academically and economically. The clips get minimal editing before being uploaded weekly to visual platforms including Facebook and YouTube.

In the first episode, which lasts six-and-a-half minutes, the three students introduce themselves and what they hope their project will accomplish.

Says Danielle, “The main goal is to allow the world to see a different image than what the media portrays.”

Simon relates that he applied to Onliners because “I kind of like the idea that someone is here, he’s seeing things, he’s perceiving them and there’s no agenda behind it.”

The project leaders hope to influence mainly those viewers who don’t yet have a concrete opinion about Israel and the Jewish people.

I’ll be blogging about each episode on Israelity, so stay tuned.


Ori at the Beach

I just came across Ori at the Beach, a picture book available in Hebrew/English and Hebrew/French.

The simple and colorful board book written by Delphine Woda and illustrated by Daniel Deroo shows an Israeli boy playing in the sand. On each page Ori is doing something else — playing matkot (beach paddleball, Israel’s unofficial national game), eating watermelon, playing with his pail and shovel.

A few words describe what Ori is doing, Hebrew above the picture and English or French on the bottom. On the side, the words are transliterated into the opposite language.

When we were raising our kids in New Jersey, we certainly wanted them to learn Hebrew and sometimes we read them story books from Israel, especially those by the incomparable Alona Frankel: Sir Ha-Sirim (Once Upon a Potty), Sefer Ha-Laila Tov (The Goodnight Book), Ha-Yom Ha-Raa Shel Tova (“Tova’s Bad Day”), Sefer Ha-Bgadim (The Book of Clothing).

The children also learned Hebrew in their schools. But because they weren’t immersed in the language, and we weren’t good enough Hebrew-speakers to converse in it at home, they didn’t hear Hebrew enough to become fully bilingual. And that’s one of my greatest regrets. Coming to Israel after high school, my kids had to work hard at fluency (the army was a big help). I believe the failure to produce Hebrew-literate Jews is one of the biggest problems in the Diaspora.

Now our oldest son and his wife (also an American immigrant) are raising their two Jerusalemites in an English-speaking household. The children go to Hebrew-speaking nursery schools, so they exist in a completely bilingual universe. I’m so jealous! Their little brains have already absorbed and sorted out more linguistic complexities than mine ever has, and the oldest is just three-and-a-half.

Not that the dichotomy is completely smooth yet. I’m fascinated with the way they mix the two languages in the same sentence (“Ani did it myself!”) and even the same word (“t’come here, Savti!”).

Experts in this field recommend that each person in the child’s life speak only one language exclusively, so as not to cause confusion. Miraculously, by the time they’re in kindergarten they can switch back and forth from one language to another as effortlessly as swatting a ball across the beach. Just like Ori.

Behind the scenes at ISRAEL21c

One ISRAEL21c article spurs inquiries from across the globe

Every day since ISRAEL21c posted a feature on Israel’s new ApiFix implant for correcting severe spinal curvature (“Scoliosis solution,” April 15), founder Uri Arnin has been getting emails seeking information on the medical device still in development.

“I have been getting one email a day from all over the world — the United States, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa; emails in French and Spanish,” Arnin tells us. “I got several emails from physicians whose patients came with the article printed out and asked what the physician thought about the device.”

One of these doctors asked when he could meet with Arnin and wanted to know if he was planning a trip to the United States. “It turned out this was a top-10 scoliosis surgeon in the United States,” Arnin says. “We set a meeting for next week when we are both going to be in Europe.”

The ApiFix device, now starting clinical trials in Hungary and Romania, was invented about 18 months ago by Arnin with Dr. Yizhar Floman, a leading Israeli back surgeon. It represents a big advance over current surgical methods for correcting curvature of the spine. However, it’s not yet on the market.

“The sad thing is that I have to answer all of the writers that the product is not commercially available at this time, though we hope it will be by next year. I recommend they consult their physician to see if they can wait.”

So far the buzz generated by the article hasn’t brought in additional investors, who are urgently needed to complete costly clinical trials. “But this gives me the confidence that we are doing something important that patients are waiting for. I can use part of this information to present to investors to show that the market is demanding this product,” says Arnin.

“I must say that [the ISRAEL21c article] did great job of attracting attention to our company.”

Tel Aviv in ’60 Minutes’
A New Reality,Entertainment,History and Culture,Israeliness,Life,Pop Culture

Tel Aviv in ’60 Minutes’

Tel Aviv is the talk of the blogosphere this week, following CBS reporter Bob Simon’s declaration that the White City is “the” place to be. The segment on 60 Minutes fielded thousands of “likes” – and numerous criticisms – for showing off Tel Aviv’s young and hip population, its high-tech creativity, its liberal attitudes and its party scene.

The piece opens with Simon explaining the title of the segment ‘From Fear to Fortune: Tel Aviv’s Attitude.’ According to Simon, this is a city “bordered on all sides by danger” where residents “have learned how not to worry about tomorrow.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai tells Simon that Tel Aviv is “an island of sanity in this country.”

He and the American reporter set off to the beach and bike along the city’s boulevards.

Other talking heads in the piece include deputy mayor Asaf Zamir (interviewed outside a bar with drink in hand), journalist Gideon Levy, high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, actress Noa Tishby and TV personality Gal Uchovsky.

The 60 Minutes piece doesn’t really say anything new about the city. It serves up all the previous cliches with an added time warp back to the late 1990s.

On the plus side, it does show off some of Tel Aviv’s attributes to a wider audience.

In January, Tel Aviv was crowned one of the world’s most creative cities for its high-tech ingenuity. In this report, Vardi tells Simon that the city “has more high-tech startup companies than anywhere outside Silicon Valley. It is so far ahead of the curve, you can barely see the end of it.”

In Simon’s opening monologue about Tel Aviv, the name of the city is featured under a large rainbow. Earlier this year, Tel Aviv was chosen World’s Best Gay City.

And though the almost 12-minute segment focuses on the lighter side of this beach city, the CBS team gets a bit mixed up when politics are added to the mix. Perhaps the funniest line in the piece is when columnist Levy says, “There is no political debate in Israel, there’s no political debate about anything.” The next frame shows him walking around the social protest tents in Tel Aviv’s financial district (which makes me wonder if the film editors thought he was at a regular campsite).

Levy goes on to say that people don’t talk about politics because it “spoils the party.” But anyone who has ever lived in Israel – or even visited – knows that Israelis love talking politics, love a good argument, and wouldn’t call it a party if there was no opinionated debate.

A few other slip-ups: Tel Aviv is not Israel’s largest city, as Simon would have you believe; A majority of Jewish-Israeli mothers (and fathers) do not happily embrace the fact that their children are gay, as Uchovsky and Tishby will have you believe; and not all Israelis are drafted into the army at 18 – that’s what the Tal Law controversy is all about.

Yes, Tel Aviv is a great holiday destination. Yes, Tel Aviv is a fun city. Yes, Tel Aviv has a vibrant arts scene. Yes, Tel Aviv has a booming high-tech community. And yes, Tel Aviv is known as a bubble.

But watching the report, this Tel Aviv resident felt like it was an outsider’s view of the city as he would like it to be. For good and bad.