International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv

On Monday started the annual International Opera Summer Program, aka International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, aka (as they call it in Hebrew) International Opera Workshop in Tel-Aviv. Yes, they’re having a hard time deciding on a name, and keeping the same name in all the publications, in both English and Hebrew.

This program has been going on for 19 years now. The moving force behind the program is the amazing Joan Dornemann from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For all these years she manages to arrange and bring a great team of singers, musicians and choreographers, who give a series of public master-classes, and raise several arias concerts and operas. The student singers who perform, and take the master-classes, come both from Israel, and from many other countries, and are usually very good, and right before (or during) embarking on actual performance careers.

The city of Tel-Aviv is partially funding the program, and ticket prices are lower than the excessive amounts one need to pay to see an actual opera production. Despite that over the years the prices have climbed pretty high. Originally (Not when the program started, but when I started going, about 12 or so years ago, give or take a few years) they took prices which were about a third of the current ones. Still, 45 ILS for a master-class, and 90 ILS for an opera production (even if the music is usually adapted for a single piano), are relatively not expensive these days.

Over the last several years, as in this year, the first two weeks are master-classes, and the last two are arias concerts and operas.

Sadly as time goes by less and less people seem willing to come here to give master-classes, and Joan herself carries more of the burden. This isn’t that bad, because Joan is quite amazing. She’s interesting, entertaining, and very nice. While she does wonders with the student singers, and seem to be able to give ideas for improvement for each one, she is well aware that she is appearing in front of an audience, and fills the master-class with explanations, stories, background information, and even opera gossip.

And yet, less artists who give master-classes directly translates to less master-classes. Overall I enjoy these, and certainly learn from these, a lot more than the actual operatic productions they make. Plus, this becomes less and less of a way to get exposed to artists I would normally not get to ever see and hear, even if they’re not singing themselves on the master-class. Like for example this one year she managed to bring here the incredible Federico Devia, on the year before he died.

I’m booked for several master-classes this year, as well as one opera and one concert. I’d have gone to more, but finding people to go with to the opera is difficult. As it is, there are very rarely any people in the crowd in my own age group, not including other student singers on the program who come to see the others perform. The crowd is mostly comprised of people around their 80s, and some people around their late 50s. So I can go to a few master-classes with my father, but his work hours overlap most shows (19:30 on the evening of workdays. That’s way too early). Occasionally I manage to drag a friend for one of the evenings, but most years that’s a problem, and even when I do it’s not many.

One of the master-classes I did book was the first one, on the opening night.

That 19:30 hours is also a problem, since it’s high traffic time in the Tel-Aviv area. I had to leave work early to make sure I have enough time. Happily the roads were not very crowded on this specific day, though I still have some more to go, which statistically would be. But as things were, I didn’t need all the spare time I allocated for the drive, and I arrived about half an hour early, as did my father

Before entering into the hall we saw in the crowd a local well-known actor, Moni Moshonov. The guy looked… horrible. Baggy pants, T-Shirt with a large print, in desperate need of a haircut, and bloodshot eyes. I myself don’t ever go as far out as to wear a proper suit and tie, but I’d still never would have gone to a cultural event like that looking even half as bedraggled as he did. It took me a while, and several repeated looks, to make sure it’s really him. But I suppose actors and artists make their own rules, eh?

His presence may have been explained by the fact that one of the student singers on the master-class was named Alma Moshonov. True, there are more Moshonovs in the country than him, but the name isn’t very common. So I assume a relative. But I may be mistaken, maybe he just likes opera. Or maybe he was there for a different reason, the hall was one belonging to a conservatorium, after all. [update: She's his daughter. Plus, her mother's brother is an opera singer himself, Gabby Sade]

The hall itself was jam-packed. It looked like there were only two unfilled seats on the entire place (and that hall can contain about 500 people, by my own rough estimate), just on our two sides. Yes, really. Hardly an empty chairs, except nobody sat near us. One has to love these little ironies. In any case the extra elbow space was welcome, since the chairs are slightly too small, and this provided us with some more room.

As the master-class started, and Joan started to speak, the sounds of shutting-down cellphones started. For some obscure reason many of the cellphones refuse to shut down quietly, and must chime to let everyone know. Mine does so as well, but if I want to shut it down quietly I just pull out the battery. Some people didn’t think of that, though. Heck, those same people didn’t think to maybe turn the phone off before the show started, instead of waiting until it’s too late. So Joan stopped, and repeatedly asked everyone to turn their cellphones off. In her way she did it very nicely, making a joke of the thing, but it was obvious the phones should be turned off. This, though, did not stop a phone from starting to ring later on while one of the singers were singing their aria. Sadly, we do not have anything like the death penalty in this country, not even to idiots who keep their phones open during a performance.

The format of these master-classes is fairly standard. A singer comes on the stage, introduce themselves and the aria they will sing, sings the aria, and then the teacher running the master-class goes with them over it. This can include, depending on the person and the aria, and on how the actual singing went, tips, pointers, explanations, and corrections. Normally the singer will practically sing the aria a second time, but in small pieces, some with repetitions, going over specific aspects and points with the teacher.

This one went like that as well, except that Joan opened up with something slightly different. She had all the six singers appearing that evening in a line, letting them sing a scale, the same scale, one by one. She then turned them around, and had one sing the same scale (She also asked the audience to close their eyes, but you can guess how well that went). She did that a couple of times, asking the audience after each time which of the singers sang the scale, based on how they did it the first time. With some it was fairly easy, since some aspects of their voice and singing were very unique, and with some it was a bit harder. Harder not necessarily because the singer was like another one, none of them exactly were, but because it’s hard to remember six different voices after one hearing, and the similarities are more than the differences. Still, overall the audience did well.

This was of course also a way to show the students that their voices are indeed different enough to separate, to help illustrate the point that they should sing in a way that fits their own voice. You’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that, but tend to assume there is just one way to sing an aria and they have to totally standardise themselves.

For musical accompaniment in the program they usually use a single piano, and all the scores are adapted for piano. The adaptations are usually very good, though. The piano player this time was John Lidal, and I’m afraid I can’t say much more beyond that he sounded quite well, since I was listening to the singers and not the music.

Noa Danon sang an Aria from the opera L’Amico Fritz by Mascagni. She has an amazing voice, and I think could be a great singer once she’ll smooth out her technical problems. Smooth being the key word here, since while her voice is incredibly smooth and flowing, she goes on to smooth everything too much. When the aria needs to flow, this is excellent. But when she needed to make stops and sudden changes, she went smooth instead. And when she needed to exactly pronounce words, she smoothed syllables over. It was very pleasant to hear her sing, but it wasn’t always the way the aria was supposed to sound, and was hard to understand many of the words. She also kept herself a little bit too quiet, on the few times she needed to go louder.

Another problem she had, actually a problem that all the singers that day had to some extent, was on the acting bit. Many people think, entirely wrongly, that singing opera is only about the sound. That it doesn’t matter how you look like, how you act, what you do, and how you move. But acting is a big part of it. A person cannot sing about the love of their life, and look slightly bored. A person shouldn’t lament on their great suffering, and look bland. And those few standard hand gestures that singers like to endlessly repeat while singing about anything, they don’t look even mildly convincing. When you understand the words, seeing improper acting hurts the performance, since things don’t feel natural. When you don’t understand the words, seeing improper acting makes it much harder to understand what is going on. The difference acting can make is huge. But I’ll talk more about this on a future report, on one of the master-classes of John Norris, who is a choreographer for the Met and works with the singers on their acting. Joan herself overall works on about everything, including sometimes acting, but this time focused almost exclusively on the singing (except for one of the singers, on one of those repetitive movements. She went over with her on what is going on in the aria, moving her hand with her saying something like “and you give him the bowl of cherries, and you give him the bowl of cherries, and give him the bowl of cherries. How many times can you give him the same bowl of cherries?”. It was much funnier when she did it, honest).

Moran Abouloff sang the worst version I ever heard of Una voce poco fa, one of the loveliest, and well know, arias from Rossini’s opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). I know, it sounds harsh, but I heard this aria quite a few time, I really like this aria, and yet this performance didn’t to anything to me. Bland voice, screechy high notes, badly mispronounced words, and inappropriate acting. I know it’s not nice to say that, but I really think she needs a lot more work before she’s ready to go on stage. Either that, or she was having a really bad day.

Limor Ilan sang an aria from the opera Roberto Devereux by Donizetti. Nice singing overall. She seemed to had some problem holding her breath. Her main problem, and what Joan mostly worked with her on, was the she sang too slow and static (probably not the right term here, but the best description I have). She held her voice on the same notes and tone instead of letting it flow and revibrate. Joan made her sing the aria again, only while she sings she also had to fastly rotate her hands in circles over each other quickly. It’s a simple movement, but doing it makes you keep going. And again and again Joan stopped her and had her repeat the part, since whenever the went to higher notes, or had to hold a note, she very noticeably slowed down the hand movement. This is actually a very neat trick. When she slowed down her singing, the hands naturally slowed. When she really tried to keep the hands going, her singing went on as well.

Rinnat Moriah sang the first Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). It was very nice singing, enjoyable, but somewhat week. Joan started off by asking her “How old are you, 44?”. All the singers were on the 20-24 range (mostly around 23), so this was a rhetorical question. Rinnat answered that she’s 20. So Joan said something like “come back when you’re 30″. She complimented her on having a low and sweet voice, but said that this aria requires a much more strong, high, and metallic voice to do right. “This is not the dress for you”. For a practical advice she told her that this is a nice aria to do at a party, or a fund raiser, but if she’ll do it now on an audition she doesn’t have a chance. Some of the singers work on several arias, and arrive when they have some sort of either fallback, or some other aria they’re less practised on but can try. When Joan asked her is she has the score of anything else with her, she said she didn’t. So they went over this aria again. Basically Joan tried to make her sing it much louder, even if, as she told her, it would feel to her too loud and coarse. It did sound better like that, and when she was done she looked like she really worked hard.

Alma Moshonov sang Monica’s Waltz from Menotti’s opera The Medium. This one was in English, so the words were much easier to understand. At least for me, that is. I do manage somewhat with Italian operas, since many of the words are similar to English and Latin counterparts, but it’s not nearly as clear as hearing English. And I usually don’t get many words from the German ones, though there are exceptions as well. Still, English is easier to understand, though the amount of good operas in English is much smaller. Family relations notwithstanding, Alma has a good and strong voice. She has some serious potential. On the first run the aria sounded a lot like something from a musical, though, instead of from an Opera. I liked it, since I like musicals, but some of the parts were not like they were supposed to sound. As Joan put it to her, she has a very big voice, and felt like it won’t fit into the aria, so she tried to make it sound more nice and elegant by limiting her voice, causing her to extend her breath too much and making it sound like a Broadway musical. Joan encouraged her to sing it as it’s supposed to be, and stay within her own voice. It did sound much better, which I suppose is the whole point.

Talia Or sang another aria from The Magic Flute. She was simply excellent, good voice and excellent control. The words were well pronounced, and she reacted very well to all the dissonances and jumps in the piece. Her only problematical side was the acting, when during the entire aria she had an expression and pose like my mum would have had if as a small boy I’d have left dirty laundry on the floor. Not appropriate for what she was singing. Still, if I remember correctly, I saw her on master-classes in the opera program two years ago, when she had problems with her acting as well. Her singing is, like I said, excellent. In fact, as she, with Joan’s encouragement, let us know, she was performing for real during the last year. Actual paid jobs, as well as participating in a couple of large contests and getting into very good places there.

This time all the singers were Israelis. I expect there will be variation over time, since they do have other singers.

Overall a good show, and I certainly enjoyed the evening.

5 Responses to “International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv”

  1. Judith Ronat says:

    Please tell me where I can find the schedules for the opera workshop of 2006 on line of by snail mail.

    thank you.
    Judith Ronat

  2. Post author comments:

    It may be too late already for a large part of the days. I sent my own orders almost when they started accepting them, and still they were out of tickets for some.
    But some still have tickets, so depending on the days you want to attend it shouldn’t be a problem.

    Sales are handled by “Hadran”, you can call them and ask them to either fax (or mail, but that’s further delay) it to you, or tell you what days still have tickets. The phone is 03-5215200 .

    For a quick reference: Master-classes start on July 10th for about two weeks, on the 24th they switch to aria concerts (plus one on the 14th), and on the 29th they start with the operas. There’s also a large gala concert on the 5th of August, for which they still have tickets.

    I’m on their mailing list for this program (if you want to attend in future years it’s a good idea to ask them to add you) so I got the program mailed to me before they started to take orders for tickets.

  3. Lennie Maxwell says:

    I am interested in your interest in the Opera summer workshops. You say that you go regularly. Will you be continuing to go this coming year. Do you ever go to the Winter workshops. Are you a singer or have you been trained to be one. I see that some viewers ask you questions about tickets for the Sadna. etc. Perhaps you might like use your web site to offer this information and other styff too to your readers who are interested in Opera. This is an unofficial approach but I am on the Board of IVAI and am always
    looking to improve what we do and how we do it. Perhaps you will Email me.

  4. Beverley says:

    Hi, I shall be singing the Queen of the night,magic flute, in Holland April-July 2008 and am thinking of stopping over in Israel afterwards. When are the master classes taking place. I would like to watch.

    Thanking you,
    Beverley

  5. Post author comments:

    Beverley – That’s a hard role, but very impressive when done right. Good luck with it, and I hope you’d do wonderfully well.
    As for the program here, this year they should be here from July 7th to August 2nd. There’s some information on the IVAI website. Usually the first two weeks (give or take a few days) are master-classes, with the remaining time dedicated to aria concerts and opera productions. As a singer I expect you’d probably find the master-classes more interesting.

    Lennie – I will certainly continue to go. I actually went to a few more master-classes in 2006 that I described/reviewed here, and to a large number in 2007 as well. It’s just that due to, well, basic laziness, I didn’t get to write my notes here. I keep telling my self I should do that before I forget so much that my few written notes won’t bring anything up, we’ll see.

    I’m not a singer, and have no formal education in singing or music. I just enjoy opera, and classical music in general. This is why I don’t consider, or think anyone else should consider, the "reviews" I post here to be professional reviews, but rather just personal opinions and impressions.

    Once the list of this summer’s program will be published (I think they usually get to it around June), I won’t at all mind putting more information here. The same for any information that may be useful to anyone else who is interested in the program. But I really don’t think I should do anything official, or which is formally related to the IVAI.

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