ISRAEL AND ITS OPERA
The early history of opera in Israel is filled with big characters with big dreams. What they had in common was a profound love of this musical form and the determination to play their part in the creation of a nation state for the Jewish people. And their work to realise this goal began years before the founding of the state.
A key early driver was conductor Mordechai Golinkin who lived in Kharkov, which by early 1918 had become the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets. He wrote The Vision of the Hebrew Art Temple of Opera Work in Palestine. Golinkin worked with the Kharkov Opera but would always be held back from promotion to rostrums such as Saint Petersburg or Moscow because he was a Jew. He was caught up in the idea of a Jewish state, with opera sitting at the pinnacle of its cultural life. Naturally, he believed he would be at the helm, conducting. And he was nothing if not persistent. By 1920 he had persuaded Feodor Chaliapin, at the time considered one of the most famous opera singers in the world, to star in a fundraising concert benefitting opera in Palestine. Chaliapin is said, in a letter written by Chaim Weizmann, to have sung to a 6000 strong audience a rendition of the Hatikvah and other Jewish songs.
Golinkin left for Palestine in 1923, determined to bring about his vision. His inaugural opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, was performed in Hebrew by Golinkin’s newly-created Palestine Opera. In the absence of a permanent home, the performance took place in the Eden Cinema on Lillenblum Street. Seventeen productions followed, including Faust and Samson and Delilah. Word of the quality of the conductor and the performances even came to the attention of the League of Nations. Four years later, in the midst of the worldwide financial slowdown, Golinkin was compelled to travel to New York to raise funds to keep his fledgling dream alive. Chaliapin became a mega star, visiting Palestine in 1929 to sing the role of Boris Godunoff.
As fascist anti-Semitism gripped Europe, Riga-born Marc Lavry, who had before 1933 been the Conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, emigrated to Palestine in 1935. He found himself in the company of a stellar group of refugees and became the conductor of the Ohel Theatre Company. In 1940 he founded the Palestine Folk Opera together with the conductor George Singer. Over the next five years they staged sixteen productions. Lavry composed, to acclaim, the first Hebrew and first truly Israeli opera, Dan the Guard, Dan Hashomer. Franz Kafka’s editor and friend, Max Brod, wrote the libretto using a story by Shin Shalom. It debuted at the Mograbi Theatre in 1945.
Edis de Philippe was a popular American soprano who had performed for President Franklin D Roosevelt. She was widely travelled and had made guest appearances with the Palestine Folk Opera. While performing in Paris in 1939, hearing first-hand German and Polish refugees’ stories of persecution, she committed to emigrating to Palestine. However, she got caught up in the war and had to wait. The US government insisted on evacuating American citizens back to the United States, they would not drop anyone off en-route! She finally arrived in British Mandate Palestine in November 1945 determined (a word that informed her life and commitment to Israel) to create what would become the permanent home of opera in Palestine, the Israel National Opera. She began making her mark with nightly performances, described as electrifying, and she worked tirelessly to encourage musical luminaries to visit. Golinkin, now a board member, conducted some of these memorable performances.
De Philippe understood how the powerful medium of music could be used. While everyone held their breath waiting for the outcome of United Nations resolution 181, she presented a concert and production of Thaïs.
With the support of the government of the newly created State of Israel and using every contact she had, as well as her own funds, a permanent opera company became a reality. Its first home came almost a decade later at 1 Allenby Street, which was also the original home of the Knesset.
De Philippe had meanwhile married Simcha Evan-Zohar in 1950 who was Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Histadrut. He focused on the administration, allowing Edis to focus on running the Israel National Opera until her death in 1979.
The next decade was complex, with very real financial challenges that ultimately reached a positive outcome with the forging of a special relationship between the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and the Israel Chamber Orchestra. The offspring, the New Israeli Opera, was born, its first production Dido and Aeneas by Purcell.
Today the Israeli Opera goes from strength to strength under the stewardship of its innovative General Director Zach Granit. It features world class music and performers, presents productions both inside the iconic Yaacov Rechter-designed Tel Aviv Performing Arts Centre, as well as nationally. It is committed to nurturing new talent through the Meitar Studio, presenting dance, jazz and children’s music and presenting opera to as wide an audience as possible.