International singers regularly return to the Israeli Opera to soak up some Israeli vitality, hospitality and energy.
On his first visit to Tel Aviv in 2002, Maestro George Pehlivanian knew that his relationship with Israel would be a committed one. The Lebanese-born conductor says the Mediterranean temperament coupled with the professionalism here truly makes him feel at home.
“Artistically, it’s a very exciting place to be,” Pehlivanian tells ISRAEL21c, in an interview at the Israeli Opera. “This is a very professional house. I’m a professional, and I love to be in Tel Aviv and Israel.”
‘I enjoy singing here’
The Israeli Opera regularly attracts an international cast. Artistic administrator Michael Ajzenstadt says 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,” says Ajzenstadt. “Singers are happy to come because they can try new roles here, away from the scrutinizing eyes of opera critics in their home countries.”
Undoubtedly the most famous international singer to have tried out new characters at an Israeli opera company was the then unknown Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo.
Today one of the most popular opera singers of the 20th century, Domingo trained in Israel in the 1960s at the Israeli Opera’s predecessor, the Israel National Opera. Since then, numerous top sopranos, tenors and baritones have belted out some of the greatest arias on the Tel Aviv stage.
“I get to try new roles here,” says Michele Crider, recently in town to perform the part of Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani.
One of today’s preeminent dramatic sopranos, Crider has been heard regularly in the world’s great opera houses. But she always returns to Tel Aviv when the Israeli Opera calls.
“I only work with the best,” Crider says. “The Israeli public is receptive. It’s a wonderful environment here at the opera. I enjoy singing here.”
In the recent Ernani production, Crider was joined on stage by acclaimed international soloists Pierro Giuliacci, Hugh Smith, Paata Burchuladze and Ramaz Chikviladze, as well as Israelis Efrat Ashkenazi, Yifat Weisskopf, Felix Livshitz and Noah Briger.
And though world news reports sometimes make it difficult to attract top talent, Ajzenstadt says the Israeli Opera’s professional name usually overcomes any fears. The latest feather in its cap is Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s announcement that he will sing at the Israeli Opera in June.
Housed in the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, the Israeli Opera – opened to the public in 1994 — includes a spacious stage, state-of-the-art facilities, up-to-date sound and lighting systems, and excellent acoustics.
The elaborate set of the recent Ernani production, in which performers acted on a severely tilted platform, is just one more example of the company’s cutting-edge technical capabilities.
But the beginnings of opera in Israel were very different. In 1917, Jewish-Russian conductor Mordechai Golinkin envisioned an opera theater in the land of Israel. Six years later, his Palestine Opera company mounted a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata in a rundown movie theater in Tel Aviv.
In 1945, the Israel National Opera came into being, and lasted until 1982. The Israeli Opera created in 1985 is flourishing, with more than 18,000 subscribers and a steadily growing audience.
Led by general director Hanna Munitz, the company has proven that despite opera’s modest beginnings in Israel, the art form is an important one in today’s society.
Showcasing Israeli talent
The company also stands out from other opera houses because it features leading opera artists from all over the world side by side with Israeli talent, among them award-winning composer/conductor Gil Shohat, mezzo soprano Yifat Weisskopf, conductor Omer Wellber and soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir.
“Since the first days of its inception, the Israeli Opera had in mind to be an Israeli opera,” says Ajzenstadt. “Since 1995, one of the major aims is to discover Israeli talent. Today, our productions always include Israelis, not because they have Israeli passports but because they’re really good singers. There’s no question we’re an Israeli opera with Israeli talent.”
Hot spot on the opera circuit
On a tour backstage before the final rehearsal of Ernani, a stagehand talks about how funny it is to hear the international singers peppering their speech with Hebrew words.
But as Ajzenstadt says, taking part in an Israeli Opera production is unlike the experience at other opera houses. “We’re a family here,” he explains.
Ajzenstadt notes that the foreign stars take a 40 to 50 percent pay cut when coming to the Israeli Opera, for lack of budget. However, he says the experience of living in Tel Aviv and the camaraderie makes it a hot spot on the opera circuit.
“Sometimes you have to take less to get more. In today’s economy everyone is taking a pay cut,” says Crider, who has performed five roles at the Israeli Opera since 1997. She adds that it’s a comfortable place to work. “You know everyone and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
In town for Ernani, Pehlivanian adds: “I’m very impressed with the people I meet. The people give the city its energy.”
Having conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras — including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Monte-Carlo Philharmonic and Teatro Comunale di Bologna, to name a few — Pehlivanian first came to town in 2002 to work with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Last year, he made a successful Israeli Opera debut with “The Barber of Seville.”
Though he grew up in Beirut, primed his professional career in America, lives with his family in Paris and has traveled the world, Pehlivanian also loves Tel Aviv.
“I brought my children and wife with me on this visit,” says Pehlivanian. “We feel at home here. I think in the future I’ll buy a place here.”