A Chronology for Opera Music in Israel

A Chronology for Opera Music in Israel
Liran Gurkiewicz


Opera

Opera has acquired a central place in Israeli art music, but the circumstances that led to its establishment in the British Mandate Palestine (Israel) during the 1930s were challenging. There have not yet been any scholarly studies or thorough delineations of the chronology of opera music in Israel. While contributions made by the early pioneers (Chaluzzim) in a variety of fields have been acknowledged and studied, we still know very little about their unique contribution to the field of music, which led to the revival of art music in what had been practically a musical wasteland. A significant part of that contribution was the establishment of an opera house.

From the late nineteenth century – specifically in the 1880s and 1890s, and also later in the first quarter of the twentieth century – different kinds of small-scale productions, including musicals, were staged in Jaffa. These were mainly arranged in improvised venues, such as factories or workshops that were converted for the purpose.[1] Together, the early pioneers would sing the folk and popular songs of the day, and the music of Eastern European composers would later play an important role in the formation of Israeli opera.[2]

From the late nineteenth century – specifically in the 1880s and 1890s, and also later in the first quarter of the twentieth century – different kinds of small-scale productions, including musicals, were staged in Jaffa.

A dramatic change occurred in 1923 when Mordechai Golinkin emigrated to Palestine (Israel) with the intention of forming the Hebrew Opera. Golinkin’s continuing efforts marked a new chapter in Israel’s musical life. The formation of opera in Israel is interlinked with Golinkin’s life and circumstances. It is therefore necessary to take a closer look at Golinkin if we are to properly delineate the narrative that led to the consolidation of Israeli opera.

Starting from 1911 in St.Petersburg, and later from 1918 in Odessa, Golinkin was diligently working towards the establishment of an opera house in Palestine (Israel). He raised funds and met with Odessa’s Zionists, including Chaim Nachman Bialik. Inspired by the Balfour Declaration (1917), Golinkin penned his vision of a “National Hebrew Theater in the Land of Israel”. The article was eventually published in Odessa, but only three years later, in 1920.[3] In his article, Golinkin envisions a unified building that would encompass all the different arts and artists living in it. Although the details of Golinkin’s vision were, frankly, unrealistic, the article captures his drive, his patriotic Zionist zeal, and his ambition to consolidate opera music in the Land of Israel.

In 1921, the Odessan authorities changed their policies and allowed their citizens to emigrate to other countries, which led to a large proportion of the Zionist representatives emigrating to Palestine (Israel). Golinkin’s endeavors to leave did not bear fruit right away – instead, he began a slow process of preparation which lasted for two long years. At the end of March 1923, he arrived at the Tel Aviv Jaffa port to realize his dream of an opera in Palestine.

Golinkin’s initial plan was to establish the opera house in Jerusalem. To that end, he met several officials, including General Ronald Storrs, who was known as someone who made things difficult for the Jewish Community and who was biased in favor of the Arabs.[4] Storrs was willing to lend a helping hand to Golinkin, but on the condition that the productions would be in both Hebrew and Arabic: “I tightened my lips politely and did not answer”, wrote Golinkin, and he immediately left Storrs’ office.[5] Golinkin had better luck with Moshe Hupenko, the Director of the “Shulamit” Conservatory in Tel Aviv. Hupenko permitted Golinkin to use the Conservatory’s building – its rehearsal rooms and musical instruments – free of charge. Israel Brandman’s amateur choir and a few soloists joined the project, and the Eden Cinema in Neve Tszedek was also made available to them.[6]

Surprisingly, Golinkin’s Land of Israel Opera[7] staged the first operatic production in Israel only three months after his arrival to the country, with Verdi’s La Traviata. The premiere on July 24th, 1923, was a huge success. The specific choice of La Traviata was determined by the availability of the different elements required: the right sets, the right dresses, etc. Needless to say, Golinkin had to also recruit stage workers, dressmakers, tailors, and barbers, among others. In its initial period, the opera usually performed in cinemas, as there were no concert halls.

The staging of an opera was a novelty in the small Jewish community: “The residents of Tel Aviv were not accustomed to a fixed hour in the theater, they were always late for the beginning of the performance”, wrote the surprised Golinkin, “and so they had to stand outside in the main hall, behind closed doors, for the entire duration of the first act. Among those who were late were many of the public functionaries, such as Meir Dizzengof.[8] But Golinkin did not give up and insisted on punctuality. He writes that, in Tel Aviv, there were two different timetables: one was the “accepted time”, when people actually showed up for concerts, with no regard to the set time; the other was “Golinkin’s time” – the scheduled start time for the show.[9]

Golinkin stood as the Opera’s Director for four years. His productions were chosen from the standard Western repertoire. The reason why one particular opera or production was favored over another was mainly due to budget and production considerations, and not for any Zionist ideals or ideological reasons. That is why La Traviata ended up being the Opera’s first production – the ready availability of materials. Golinkin’s Opera performed on different stages throughout the country, though mostly in Tel Aviv.[10]

Though Golikin's Opera was committed to public concerts, it was no doubt "only" a semi-professional orchestra – consisting of student players and amateur singers. Nonetheless Opera it was and that in itself was a novely for Palestine (Israel) in the 1920's.

It is important to mention that the operas were performed at the time in Hebrew, and not in their original languages.[11] This is in spite of the fact that immigrants formed a large proportion of the Jewish community. According to census records from 1922 and 1932, 78% of residents claimed that they were fluent in Hebrew.[12] But doubts have been raised about the accuracy of this: for example, Robert Bachi has argued that the census does not properly reflect the true language abilities in the Yishuv and that the interviewees were influenced by social and political expectations that they be fluent in Hebrew. That is why many claimed that they were fluent, when in fact they were not.[13]

Eventually, it was decided that the operas would be sung in the original languages. One possible reason for this was that the diversity of accents created by the different immigrants did not allow the audience to understand what was being sung.

In 1927, the Palestine Opera came face to face with its first economic deficit. At the end of the first season, revenues stood at only 1,000 Palestine pounds, and paychecks for five soloists and a conductor had to be taken from that amount – they were each paid 28 Palestine pounds a month, equivalent to the salary of a local school teacher at the time. The revenues of the Opera did not afford it any kind of stability. Several futile attempts were made to convince audiences that opera was a worthwhile investment. The Jewish community was mostly comprised of small shopkeepers, and it was not realistic to expect small-time business owners to invest whatever meager earnings they had in an opera house or operatic music.[14]

In 1927, the Palestine Opera came face to face with its first economic deficit.

In light of these facts, the Opera members sought their livelihoods in part-time jobs on the side. This of course took its toll on the quality of their playing and performance and therefore on the attendance and interest of the audience.[15] Eventually, financial duress forced Golinkin to lower the curtain on the Opera’s activity, and in 1927 he embarked on a two-year fundraising trip to the USA and Western Europe.

In 1929, with the start of the “Palestine riots”, Golinkin returned to Israel. However, in the meantime, many of the professional musicians had left the country in fear for their safety. In the 1930s, Golinkin tried to organize new productions, this time in the Mugrabi Theater. During the first half of the 1930s, the Land of Israel’s Opera was still running but narrowed its activity significantly. Golinkin managed to produce several productions, such as Der Zigeunerbaron, Demon, The Barber of Seville, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci.[16] The inactivity of the Opera was such that by 1934 it was omitted from the official Register of Companies."[17]

The difficulties for the Land of Israel’s Opera were only increasing, and by 1939 it was clear that its days were numbered: “We had an outstanding Land of Israel Opera”, lamented Gabriel Grad, “under the management and supervision of Mordechai Golinkin – and it is no more”.[18] In the summer of 1940, the Land of Israel’s Opera ran its last production: Halevi’s La Juive. It ran sporadically between July and September of that year and marked the end of the Opera’s activities.

It is hard to determine what “sin” Golinkin’s Opera committed – it might have been that Golinkin was too eager to bring new productions to the stage without thoroughly considering the costs and revenues. Ultimately, Golinkin was more an idealist than a man of finance. Nonetheless, his contribution was exceptional by any standards. Moreover, Golinkin’s Land of Israel Opera was ultimately doomed from the start – it was financially “deserted”, i.e., without any state or governmental support. The British Mandate had no reason to support a Hebrew-Jewish musical body and so any official financial support was unimaginable in the future.

It is hard to determine what “sin” Golinkin’s Opera committed – it might have been that Golinkin was too eager to bring new productions to the stage without thoroughly considering the costs and revenues.

# The Palestine Folk Opera[20] (1941 – 1947)

As I have mentioned, the lack of activity by the Land of Israel’s Opera was clearly felt by the summer of 1940. In August, Gabriel Grad wrote in the daily Haboker: “Some wonder how it is that we don’t hear anything about performances from the Land of Israel’s Opera” , though he concluded by stating optimistically: “The Israeli Opera has started working and is now preparing for the next season with valor and strength”.[21]

But Grad was only partially correct, as these were the very last performances for the Land of Israel’s Opera. Yet, this did not mean the end of all operatic music in Palestine (Israel). Soon after Golinkin’s Opera closed its gates, a new opera house emerged.

In 1941, George Singer and Mark Lavry established the Palestine Folk Opera (1941–1947), which came to be the main operatic body during the years of the Mandate. At first, the Folk Opera had fewer members than its predecessor. It consisted of some 36 players, 10 soloists, a choir of 10 singers, and 10 dancers. Golinkin, was awarded an honorary conductor position. The Palestine Folk Opera incorporated such artists as Yosefa Schoken, Paulo Grin, Yehudah Har-Melach, and Yosef Goland. It was not long before the Opera expanded; by 1944 the Folk Opera consisted of some 150 workers.[22]

The Palestine Folk Opera was established as an independent cooperative. A crucial aspect of this was the body of the “Friends Association”, which aimed to provide financial support and collect donations. Among the Friends Association were different functionaries and important public representatives, such as Arie Shenkar, the Shlush Brothers, the architect Zaki Shlush (who was responsible for Bauhaus in Israel), and Arie Shlush (the mayor of Tel Aviv at the time and a great supporter of music in the city). Simcha Cohen, who later became the CEO of the Opera, was another member.

Perhaps the highlight of the Folk Palestine Opera was the staging of Marc Lavry’s Dan the Guard, known as the first Hebrew Opera to be performed in the Jewish community (see “The First Israeli Opera”, in this issue). While Dan the Guard had considerable success at the time, it of course did little to support the Folk Opera.

The Folk Palestine Opera concentrated on the performance of light music and operettas, mainly in order to attract as wide an audience as possible.[23] This might have been an attempt to learn lessons from the collapse of Golinkin’s Opera. The press seem to have been rather pragmatic about the technical abilities of the Folk Palestine Opera: “That is the reason why we cannot complain about the mediocre level and the ‘light’ program”.[24] Needless to say, the overall standard of the Palestine Folk Opera was not at an international level; the Orchestra was an improvised ensemble, and that is why it preferred to play shorter pieces. Y.H. Berg also wrote: “The morning piece taken from Grieg’s Peer Gynt was sufficiently performed, this time – [however,] the strong impression of morning’s first light that these sounds produce did not reach our ears”.[25] But not all was bad: “Despite this, the youngsters performed Lavry’s Emek in a reasonable manner” (Lavry’s Emek was often performed during the period of the Yishuv). But the emphasis on traditional repertoire, on more accessible music was not enough to save the Palestine Folk Opera and they were indeed in dire straits. The fact that Davar describes the Friends Association as welfare for the Opera is testimony enough to the state that they were in.[26]

By 1942, the livelihood of the 120 employees of the Palestine Folk Opera was less than secure, to say the least: “Wow to that livelihood”, wrote Z.W. in Davar.[27] The revenues were disproportional to costs, and even though Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera was a success, the almost exclusive performance of operettas did not prove to be profitable.

In 1945, the well-known American Soprano, Edis de Philippe, arrived in Palestine (Israel). She performed with the orchestra in 1945–1946, and the revenues were supposed to cover the Palestine Folk Opera’s debts. De Philippe decided to donate the profits from her first set of concerts to the Opera. One particularly large concert took place in Rina Garden, with thousands attending under the open sky, and hundreds more standing on rooftops to watch. However, as it later became apparent, De Philippe did very little to aid the Palestine Folk Opera; in fact, she helped to bring about its end.

It was only much later that De Philippe’s web of lies became evident, in events reported in 1949 by H. Racheli in the daily Davar:[28] The Palestine Folk Opera had planned to stage Puccini’s La bohème for the 1946 season, with De Philippe as Soprano. Owing to De Philippe’s reputation, the Opera’s management felt secure about the expected revenues from the concert. Only six shows into the season, De Philippe left the country, thus breaking her commitment to the opera house. She explained that the aim of her trip was to attend the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel (December 1946), to raise money for the Folk Palestine Opera. However, upon her return to the country, De Philippe broke off her relations with the Palestine Folk Opera, and left them with neither her acclaimed soprano nor their expected revenues. According to the Folk Opera’s management, they had invested 3,000 Palestine pounds in the production, but as a result of De Philippe’s absence, they were unable to cover their investment and sunk into debt. In 1947, those debts brought the Folk Palestine Opera to bankruptcy.

But the truth about the “De Philippe affair” was even more problematic and calculated than this. In 1946, behind the Folk Opera’s back, the Friends Association authorized De Philippe to represent them and raise funds in the Zionist Congress – but for a new opera house: the Israeli Opera.[29]

But the truth about the “De Philippe affair” was even more problematic and calculated than this.

By relying on different philanthropists and Zionist supporters, De Philippe raised a substantial amount of money. Her explicit aim was to keep that money for the New Opera House.

In his biography on De Philippe, Josef Ulitzky allows De Philippe’s voice to be heard above all others, but he still unfolds the same narrative as the one that appears in Davar in 1949. Ulitzky explains: “De Philippe had only the pure and best of intentions; however a field of thorns lay in front of the Palestine Folk Opera and did not allow for standard activity”.[30] Ulitzky seems to view De Philippe through rose-colored glasses and exempts her from any kind of responsibility. Ulitzky was acting as De Philippe’s ghostwriter, and so it would perhaps be unsurprising if he wanted to justify her actions.

The struggle between the collapsing Palestine Folk Opera and De Philippe was not completely hidden from view: in 1946, probably before they properly understood what was happening behind their backs, Lavry and Singer published a public denial of their financial hardships. They stated that they would look unfavorably on any interference in their affairs without the power of attorney – a clear allusion to the Opera’s Friends Association. At the same time, perhaps with a certain amount of naivety, they went so far as to thank De Philippe for her ongoing help.

Lavry and Singer’s article was probably written without their true understanding of just how close the cooperation between De Philippe and the Friends Association was. Nor did they have any idea about the plan to consolidate a new opera house in place of the Folk Opera.[31] Perhaps, as Ulitzky wrote, De Philippe meant well, but ultimately she conducted herself unethically; otherwise, there would have been no need for secrecy.

One way or another, the deficits endured by the Folk Opera were well beyond its financial means, and the end was inevitable. The die was finally cast at the beginning of 1947, and the Folk Palestine Opera was forced to shut its doors.

# The Israel National Opera[32] (1948 – 1982)

In 1948, De Philippe established the Israeli Opera to replace the Folk Palestine Opera. From a broader perspective, there is no doubt that the Israeli Opera was significantly more stable than the former opera house. This stability was not necessarily derived from the Israeli Opera’s management and may have been more a result of the population growth in the Jewish Yishuv (a result of different waves of immigration during those years), the establishment of Israel, and state support. De Philippe’s personal financial support was also a significant factor. De Philippe (1912–1978) was the driving force in the consolidation of the Israeli Opera and soon afterward she became its Manager and Director – positions she held until her last days. One cannot underestimate De Philippe’s contribution to Israeli opera – it is, in many ways, equal to that of Golinkin – though hardships she had in abundance, some of them created by herself.

The American De Philippe was born in New York to a family of immigrants from Ukraine. She acquired a reputation as a much sought-after soprano. In 1945, during a brief stay in Paris, she met several artists and musicians who had survived the Holocaust: “the misery and despair of their appearance moved me”.[33] She decided to help them and dedicate herself to the cause: “I was deeply affected by what I saw […] and then I told myself that one day I will go to Palestine, establish an Opera house there, and all those miserable artists will be able to work there”.[34] That day soon came, later in 1945. Upon her arrival in Palestine (Israel), she stated, in a press conference: “[I intend] to build an Opera house with the money I will earn from performances as well as from donations. Personally, I do not need money, I have enough”.[35] Ulitzky writes that De Philippe, who was ambitious and driven, intended to make the same kind of contribution to the opera as Huberman did to the Israeli Philharmonic; and in many ways she did.[36]

De Philippe was joined in her efforts by Simcha Even-Zohar, a wealthy businessman who was also, incidentally, her lover. Bringing with her the much-needed opera wardrobes and large donations from the Zionist Congress, De Philippe next took on the task of finding an orchestra. She offered the job to the Israeli Philharmonic, with Golinkin as its Director.[37] The Israeli Philharmonic refused: “They did not approve of Golinkin, as had been the case since the Second World War.”[38] The official response that came from the Israeli Philharmonic was: “The Orchestra will not play fabrications; we are a symphonic Orchestra, not an accompaniment to Opera”.[39] The Philharmonic reasoned, with justification, that their artistic freedom would be compromised in such a union.

The Philharmonic’s spokesman, who passed on the bad news to De Philippe, was Shlomo Levertov. But De Philippe was not someone who liked to hear the word “no” – in a later interview in Davar, she insists that Levertov did not represent the Philharmonic’s position. This, of course, did not alter the fact of their refusal.[40]

De Philippe (and Even-Zohar) decided to offer the job to the Palestine Symphony Orchestra of the Workers Council instead. This was a young orchestra that had recently established itself in the 1940s; its players were mainly immigrants and Golinkin and George Singer were conductors.

De Philippe (and Even-Zohar) decided to offer the job to the Palestine Symphony Orchestra of the Workers Council instead.

On November 29th, 1948, the Opera’s committee met and decided that a new production was needed. Massent’s Thais was chosen for the occasion, mainly because De Philippe knew the part. Beit Brenner was temporarily chosen as the Opera’s house. The premiere of the Israeli Opera took place on April 25th, 1948, during the War of Independence, in the presence of David Ben-Gurion, while sniper fire was coming in from neighboring Jaffa, hitting passersby in Tel Aviv.[41]

It was clear that De Phillip had big plans for opera in Tel Aviv. In our conversation on the matter, the acclaimed late Mira Zakai wondered just how ready a country established as recently as 1948 was for De Philippe’s grandiose future plans.[42]

But De Philip felt committed towards her cause and her plans - and at all costs. Assisted by Levi Eshkol (then Shkolnik), the Israeli official and future Prime Minister, she started raising funds for the Opera.

In a memo sent to Poalei Tel Aviv, Eshkol explained the difficulties faced by the Israeli Opera and, in retrospect, his words also ring true for the Folk Opera: “We have no state, as such, we have no state financing. No opera in the world can survive solely on their incomes. The Folk Palestine Opera went through five years without any consideration from the public, which might have provided them with elementary development”.[43] But the Government’s budget was exhausted by Israel’s War for Independence and its different confrontations; inevitably, Eshkol could only extend temporary help.[44]

For eight and a half months of De Philippe’s first tenure as Opera Director, starting from April 1948, things went quite well. There were three different opera productions and 38 shows. But while the revenues amounted to 21,000 Palestine pounds, expenses stood at 25,000 – a deficit of 4,000 pounds (to give an idea of costs: each production was 500 pounds).[45] Things got worse over time: the initial overall budget of the opera house was 93,000 Palestine pounds, while revenues were only 63,000. The deficit was covered with help from donations by various philanthropists and institutions, and some of the funds came from De Philippe’s own pocket. By 1952, De Philippe had invested 10,000 Palestine pounds of her own money – a significant amount at that time.

# The Chronology of disputes in De Philip's Opera house

While there is no doubt as to De Philippe’s contribution to operatic music in Israel, she often acted selfishly, and exercised her authority forcefully. De Philippe wanted to run the Opera exclusively, and to that end she made some pivotal decisions about what music was played (or not played). An example of this is her refusal to restage the opera Dan the Guard by Marc Lavry.[46] Perhaps a much more problematic example was her intention to ban music criticism, which led to lawsuits and court hearings.[47] And so some of her time was spent in court, instead of managing the Opera.

In 1950, the government offered De Philippe financial support, but she knew that this would mean that others would have a say in the running of the Opera. De Philippe refused to accept the financial aid offered. Instead, she covered the deficits herself as best she could. This way, De Philippe retained her exclusive authority over which productions would be shown, and when and where they would be shown, but she also held on to the Opera’s debts.

The 1952 productions were shown throughout the country: in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Rehovot, Petah-Tikva, and Netanya. The overall cost of those concerts was substantial and derived mainly from travel costs. The Secretary of Office tried to help by giving additional finances to the Opera, but his offer was not accepted.[48] The costs of traveling productions and other financial debts led to the end of the National Opera, and it had to close down in 1954. De Philippe left the country in that same year. In 1955 an investigative committee was set up to consider how it might be possible to help the Israeli Opera. It seems that the efforts finally bore fruit, and in a 1957 press conference De Philippe announced the re-opening of the National Opera.

In the meantime, De Philippe also managed to solve the logistical problem of location: together with the Opera Friends Association she raised half the money needed to acquire Kesem Theater (known today as “The Opera Tower”) in Tel Aviv. The overall amount stood at 440,000 Israeli lira and the other half was provided by the state.[49] The premiere took place on the eve of Tabernacles 1958, with a production of Gounod’s Faust.[50] The official event was attended by the president of the state, Yitzhak Ben Tzvi, and several government ministers.[51] For once, the reviews were to De Philippe’s liking.[52]

Despite its difficulties and hurdles, De Philippe’s National Opera survived until 1982. During those years, De Philippe’s opera house achieved several important landmarks: for example, the 1959 premiere of Menachem Avidom’s Alexandra the Hashmonite (libretto by Aharon Ashman), and the recruitment of the famous singer Placido Domingo as a guest performer for three years. Domingo worked under De Philippe’s guidance, performing in 12 different roles and productions which brought significant revenues to the Opera.[53]But despite everything, the Israeli Opera was accumulating debts; this was possibly the result of De Philippe’s refusal to accept state support.

In 1962, a new set of difficulties emerged, with the journalist Shlomo Nakdimon reporting: “The Israeli Opera has reached its highest octave of deficits”.[54] The Opera’s debts during those years stood at 250,000 million Israeli lira. This was despite the donations and financial support from Tel Aviv City Hall, which supported the Opera with 15,000 Israeli lira a year, but at the same time charged an even higher sum in taxes and other costs.

An investigative committee was appointed that year by Abba Even. In 1962, Shlomo Nakdimon reported on the conclusions of the committee, which were mainly that the deficit was created due to a lack of any real financial support from the government. While the revenues of the Opera were not in themselves small, the overall budget was insufficient to the point that workers were not always paid on time.[55]

An investigative committee was appointed that year by Abba Even.

Paradoxically, later in 1976, Idit Zartel described the Opera’s budget as over-inflated.[56] With a lack of any real government support, the Israeli Opera reached a critical point after De Philippe’s sudden death in 1978.

Alexandru Szimberger, the former director of the Romanian State Opera, was brought in as the conductor for the National Opera. Szimberger’s strengths lay in operettas, and therefore, under his baton, this was what the Opera mainly performed.

Eventually, in the summer of 1982, a Board of the Arts decided – under the recommendation of yet another special committee – to effectively stop the Opera’s funding. The collapse of the Opera house was virtually instantaneous: several months later, the National Opera closed its doors.

One year later, on June 19th, 1983, Avner Bahat, Chair of the Arts and Culture Committee in the office of Culture and Education, and Shlomo Lahat, Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo announced the establishment of the New Israeli Opera.[57] Additional support came from Sarah Caldwell, Director of the Boston Opera House, who raised some $650,000, which gave the Opera a major boost. Yehuda Pikler was appointed Director for the New Israeli Opera.

# The New Israeli Opera (1984 – Present)[58]

By 1985, the Israeli Opera signed an agreement of cooperation with the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Chamber Orchestra. As a result of this, the Municipality of Tel Aviv became involved as a major sponsor. Yoav Talmi was appointed as the Musical Director of the Opera and Uri Ofer as General Manager. In 1986, Gary Bertini was appointed as an Artistic Advisor to the Opera. Later in 1988, after Yoav Talmi completed his tenure, Bertini became the Artistic Director of the Opera.

Asher Fish, David Stern, Daniel Oren, and Dan Ettinger (Residing) were later appointed as Conductors.[59] The first season of the Israeli Opera opened in 1987/1988, with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a cooperation between the Opera and the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Chamber Orchestra. In 1989, the Rishon Lezion Orchestra became the Israeli Opera’s official orchestra. Up to 1994, the concert theater hall for the Israeli Opera was the Noga Theater in Tel Aviv-Yafo. From 1994 to the present day, the Israeli Opera has resided in the compound of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.

Having a permanent venue provided the Opera with financial stability, as it was no longer required to pay rent. It was only in 1994 that the problem of having a center for the arts was finally resolved – it was a matter that Golinkin had been dealing with since the 1920s.

Having a permanent venue provided the Opera with financial stability, as it was no longer required to pay rent.

Performances outside the Arts Center, whether on other central stages or in the periphery, are an increasing trend nowadays. These productions are intended to acquaint larger audiences with opera – this was one of the Opera’s main aims from the time of its establishment. In recent years, larger events, such as the Mesada production, do indeed attract bigger audiences – for example, Nabucco in 2010, Aida in 2011, Carmen in 2012, La Traviata in 2014, Tosca (in two different productions), and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff in 2015. In recent years, the Opera performs in the Acre Opera Festival, which is in the Acre Citadel, or the Sultan’s Pool, in Jerusalem. There are other traveling productions in other cities, such as La Cenerentola by Rossini, which was staged in Afula.

In recent years, the Opera has increasingly commissioned and performed new Israeli operas – these world premieres are an important initiative by the organization. Some important examples are: Josef (1995) by Josef Tal, with libretto by Israel Eliraz; two different operas by Gil Shohat: Alfa and Omega (2001), libretto by Dori Manor and Anna Herman; The Child Dreams (2012), after a play by Hannoch Levin; A Journey to the End of the Millennium (2005) by Yosef Bardanashvilli, libretto by A.B. Yehoshua; Dear Son of Mine (2000) by Haim Permont, libretto by Talma Eligon; And the Rat Laughed (2005) by Ella Milch Sheriff, following Nava Semel’s book, and with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra; The Lady and the Peddler (2015) by Haim Permont, libretto by Zuria Lahav, following the story by S.Y. Agnon; and Shitz (2015), opera by Yoni Rechter, to text by Hanoch Levin.[60] New and promising ensembles, such as the Jerusalem Opera, stage new productions every year. Both the Academy for Music and Dance in Jerusalem and the Buchman-Mehta School of Music occasionally stage operatic productions.

In financial terms, the Israeli Opera has found stability – it relies mostly, but not exclusively, on its revenues. The Opera is supported by formal state organizations as well as independent ones. Beside operatic productions, the New Israeli Opera also relies on income from different dance productions, jazz music performances, and concerts for children. The Opera has thus achieved some financial stability by attracting wider audiences.[61]

In financial terms, the Israeli Opera has found stability – it relies mostly, but not exclusively, on its revenues.

The New Israeli Opera has seen several General Directors: Uri Ofer from 1985 to 1995; Hanna Munitz from 1996 all the way until 2015; and, since 2016, Zach Granit. The Opera currently has 18,000 members. On average, the New Israel Opera reports that it produces some eight different productions a year. Some of these productions are local, while others involve cooperation between the New Israeli Opera and other international opera houses.

In a departure from past convention, operas today – in Israel and elsewhere – are performed in their original languages. The New Israel Opera shows simultaneous subtitles in Hebrew and English. Since 1994, the Tel Aviv Performing Theater and the Golda Center for Performing Arts (named after Golda Meir) have been the main venues for the New Israeli Opera.

Opera's nowadays in Israel and elsewhere, are shown in their original language – unlike what was previously accepted – The Opera house shows simultaneous subtitles in Hebrew and English. Starting from 1994, the Tel Aviv Performing Theater or The Golda Center for Performing Arts (named after Golda Meir) is the main venue for the New Israeli Opera.

The present overview does not presume to encompass the entire picture as far as operatic music in Israel is concerned. It is important to note that there have, over the years, been several productions of Israeli operas by Israeli composers which have not been mentioned in this overview; however, these were either abridged performances or upstaged and shown in a concertante form.


# Notes

[1] Music began to play an important role in Israeli society from the 1880s and 1890s, as immigration increased in waves. According to the testimony of Yehudit Harari (Eisenberg), without any forms of entertainment, people would meet in factories and workshops, singing, dancing, and telling stories: in “I sing to you my Country” (Sharti lach Artzi), Chapter 11, The Broadcast service, 1974. Later, in 1905, the Friends of the Hebrew Stage Foundation (Agudat Chovevei Habama Ha’ivrit) was established; although primarily a theater group, it also incorporated musical scenes and songs.

[2] One of the first major steps in establishing art music in the Jewish Community occurred in 1910, when the Zionist leader Arthur Rupin and his wife Shulamit Rupin emigrated to Israel. In that same year, Shulamit Rupin founded the Shulamit Conservatory in Tel Aviv and invited Moshe Hupenko to direct it. Later, Meriam Levit’s Music School was established and, in Jerusalem, Sydney Seal’s Conservatory. Starting from 1924, as part of the fourth Aliyah (fourth wave of immigration), composers of early Hebrew folk songs emigrated to Palestine (Israel), including Hannina Krachevsky, Yedidya Admon, Yoel Engel, and others. They were pivotal in laying the foundations for popular Hebrew folk song and their music was incorporated in theater shows and musicals. For an important description of the consolidation of art music in the Palestine Jewish community, see Jehoash Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 37–47. And see Jehoash Hirshberg, “Western Music in Mandatory Jerusalem”, in Yehoshua Ben Aria (ed.), Jerusalem during the Mandate, Jerusalem, Mishkanot Sha’ananim – Yad Yitzchak ben Zvi, 2003, p. 436, (Heb.) [Muzika Ma’aravit Be’yerushaliyim Ha’mandatorit].

[3] Mordechai Golinkin, “A National Hebrew Theater in the Land of Israel”, in Vision of an Art House: Four Years of Operatic Work in the Land of Israel, 1927, pp. 9–25, (Heb.) [Teatron Ivri Leumi Be’eretz Israel”, in Chazon Beit Ha’omanut]. Concerning the first publication in Odessa see: Mordechai Golinkin, “From the Beauty of Yefet in the Tenets of Shem”, (Memoir), (Heb.), translation from Russian: Yaacov Medini, ed. Y. Har-Even, 2nd Edition, Tel Aviv, The Committee for the publication of M. Golinkin’s Memoir, 1956–1957, p. 183.

[4] A. Sh., “Ronald Storrs is Dead”, Davar, November 2nd, 1955, p. 1, (Heb.) [‘Met Ronald Storrs’].

[5] Golinkin, “The Beauty of Yefet in the Tenets of Shem”, pp. 114–117.

[6] Ibid, pp. 117–119, esp. p. 121.

[7] In Hebrew: Ha'Opera Ha'Eretz Israelit [האופרה הארצישראלית].

[8] Cited from the website for the Tel Aviv Municipality: “1st Israeli Opera – Mordechai Golinkin’s 1st Israeli Opera”: http://tel-aviv.millenium.org.il/NR/exeres/05AC7A98-59CF-4F3E-9A22-EAFD30E8DA7A,frameless.htm?NRMODE=Published (Heb.) [Opera Rishona – Ha’Opera Ha’Eretz Israelit Harishona shel Mordechai Golinkin].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eden Cinema in Tel Aviv consisted of 600 seats, while Zion Cinema in Jerusalem – the largest cinema – consisted of 1,000 seats. See Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, p. 76. In total, in the first seasons Golinkin’s audience numbered 6,600 visitors. At the time, the Jewish community numbered some 90,0000 people, 35,000 of whom had emigrated from their countries of origin in 1919. See David Gurevitch, Aaron Gertz and Roberto Bachi, The Jewish Population of Palestine, Jerusalem, Jewish Agency for Palestine, 1944, p. 24. It is interesting to note that a large percentage of those attending concerts at the time were relatively young: most were bachelors (18,600), while married couples made up a smaller number (14,200). Only a small percentage of the audience was over 70. See Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, p. 75.

[11] Singing in Hebrew was important at a time when subtitles were not possible. The translation to Hebrew was often made by the poet Aharon Ashman.

[12] Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, p. 72.

[13] Roberto Bachi, “Demography”, Encyclopedia Hebraica, 6 (1957), p. 675.

[14] Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, p. 76.

[15] Golinkin’s letter of complaint to the Tel Aviv Municipality in 1927 exemplifies just how acute the Opera’s financial distress was. He writes: “Under the present conditions in the land of Israel, the Opera members of the Choir and Orchestra could not earn their living from the Opera even as far as the minimum required for their everyday life. […] The financial situation of those became extremely difficult in connection to the general situation […] Outside the Opera, the choir and orchestra members could not find any work. The Opera’s earnings as well were diminished and equaled only half of what they were the year before. If it wasn’t for the hope of finding a job in the theater’s building […] That these people would not last until the end of the season and would scatter around looking for a job”. Mordechai Golinkin, “Golinkin’s letter to the City Hall, May 1927”, cited from the website of the Tel Aviv Municipality: http://tel-aviv.millenium.org.il/tel_aviv_arch/console/popup.aspx?guid={487CE1EF-BA14-41DC-9C71-B32662B97C23} (Heb.) [“Michtav shel Golinkin La’Iriya”].

[16] Gabriel Grad, Haboker, February 23rd, 1939, p. 4.

[17] Hirshberg, Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948, p. 77.

[18] Grad, Haboker, February 23rd, 1939, p. 4.

[19] Golinkin, “Four Years of Operatic Work in the Land of Israel”, Art Hall, 1927, p. 29, (Heb.) [“Arba Shanim Shel Avodat Ha’Opera Be’eretz Israel”, Heichal Ha’Omanut].

[20] In Hebrew: Ha’Opera Ha’Eretz Israelit Ha’Amamit [האופרה הארצישראלית העממית]

[21] Gabriel Grad, Haboker, August 20th, 1940, p. 4.

[22] A. Sh., “The Opera sets out to Egypt and South Africa”, Hamashkif, October 17th, 1944, p. 4, (Heb.) [Ha’Opera Omedet la’tzet Lemitzrayim ve’ledrom Africa].

[23] Z.V., “The Folk Opera in its Conflicts”, Davar, June 15th, 1942 [Ha’Opera Ha’amamit Be’lavatei’ha].

[24] Y.H. Berg, “In the World of Sound – The Hour of Edis De Philippe”, Kol Ha’am, September 5th, 1947, (Heb.) [Be’olam Hatzlalim – Sha’ata Shel Edis De Philippe”].

[25] Ibid.

[26] A. Sh., Davar, September 21st, 1942.

[27] Z.V, “The Folk Opera”, 1942, (Heb.) [Ha’Opera Ha’Amamit].

[28] H. Racheli, “The ‘Folk’s’ Claim Over the Property of the ‘Israeli’”, Cherut, April 1st, 1949, p. 4, [Tvi’at Ha’Amamit al Rechush Ha’Israelit].

[29] Josef Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, Tel Aviv [self published], 1983, p. 56, (Heb.) [Prakim Be’toldot Cha’yeha shel Edis De Philippe].

[30] Ibid, p. 67.

[31] “The Folk Israeli Opera – An Opinion”, Haboker, June 7th, 1946, p. 6.

[32] In Hebrew: Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit [האופרה הישראלית]

[33] Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 9.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid, p. 11.

[36] Ibid, p. 10. Ulitzky’s biography of De Philippe is also an important historical document about opera culture in Israel. The book was probably commissioned and ordered by De Philippe herself. To some extent, Ulitzky was probably careful not to offend his patron and, as such, while he may have tried to maintain a certain objective distance, he also had to restrain himself from being overly critical of De Philippe’s actions. In his defense, Ulitzky is occasionally critical of De Philippe. For example, Aliza Welch, reviewing Ulitzky’s book, admits that Ulitzky “came to bless, and was found cursing”. See Aliza Welch, “A Scandal from Another Opera”, Davar, July 22nd, 1983, p. 52, (Heb.) [Sha’arorya Me’Opera Acheret].

[37] Despite this, the relationship between Golinkin and De Philippe was uneasy. His blunt attack on the management of De Philippe and Simcha Even-Zohar is testimony to that. Golinkin demanded open elections for the job of Opera Manager. See Golinkin, “From the Tents”, pp. 177–180.

[38] Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 80.

[39] Ibid, p. 81.

[40] Danka Hirsh [interviews], “Edis De Philippe, Opera and Plans”, (Heb.) [Edis De Philippe, Opera Ve’Tochniyot], Davar, December 14th, 1962, p. 3.

[41] Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 90.

[42] Mira Zakai, personal correspondence in preparation to this publication, September 26th, 2018.

[43] Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 14.

[44] This is according to a report by the then Minister of Finance, Eliezer Kaplan, cited in Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 119.

[45] Ibid, p. 117.

[46] De Philippe demanded that Lavry make some changes in his opera, including changing its name to Dan the Guard at War. Lavry refused to have someone interfere with his work, and the opera was rejected. De Philippe writes that Lavry thought that his work was “perfect” and did not accept her conditions. Ulitzky also writes that De Philippe believed that Lavry was planning to establish a new opera house behind her back; see Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 156.

[47] De Philippe was outraged by negative reviews in the press. She instructed her workers to effectively block the entrance of journalists who wished to go in the concert hall, and in particular of Menashe Ravina and David Rosalio, who were two of the more prominent music critics at the time. Things soon spiraled out of control as a few of the performers threatened the music critics (especially Ravina) with violence if they attended the December 1949 production. The critics did show up and arguments and threats were made by both sides until the police were ushered in. For a more detailed description of the events that took place, see Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, p. 189. On their part, the press resented the attempt to stop them from expressing their opinions freely and Haaretz reported on how “Yesterday, the Israeli Opera took unprecedented action in the history of theater in Israel”. See Tali Levi Lin, “The Israeli Opera Against the Music Critics – 6.12.1949, today, 60 years ago”, Haaretz, December 6th, 2009, (Heb.) [Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit neged mevakrei Hamuzike]. In this context, De Philippe was also involved in a lawsuit against Dr. Peter Gradenwicz, which claimed that he had slandered her in one of his articles. See Ulitzky, Chapters in the Life Chronicles of Edis De Philippe, pp. 233–248, esp. p. 246.

[48] Ibid, pp. 213, 229.

[49] Soprano, “The Kesem Theater was purchased by the Opera for 440 Thousand Lira’s”, Davar, January 23rd, 1958, [Olam Kolnoa Kesem Nirkash al yedei Ha’Opera be-440 Israeli lira’s]; see also Moshe Ben Shachar, “The Israeli Opera renews its performances”, Cherut, August 27th, 1957, (Heb.) [Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit Mechadeshet Hofa’oteha].

[50] The decision to stage Faust was probably based on practical and financial considerations. Even though A.B. Nissim finds some affinities between Faust’s struggle with the spiritual and the sublime and that of the Opera itself, these affinities are only visible in retrospect. See A.B. Nissism, “With the Opening of the Israeli Opera”, Kol Ha’am, June 20th, 1958, p. 4, (Heb.) [Im Ptichat Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit].

[51] ‘Sofer Davar’, “The Israeli Opera opens its gates on the Eve of Tabernacles”, Davar, May 23rd, 1958, (Heb.) [Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit potachat Sha’areiha Be-Erev Shavuot].

[52] A.B. Nissim, Kol Ha’am, June 20th, 1958.

[53] מתוך: Shabtai Benaroyo, “Edis De Philippe”, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, March 1st, 2009, Jewish Women’s Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/de-philippe-edis.

[54] Shlomo Nakdimon, “The Partiture’s Budget of the Israeli Opera is Not Pastoral”, Cherut, October 19th, 1962, p. 4, (Heb.) [Partiturat ha’Takziv she Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit eina Pastoralit].

[55] Ibid.

[56] Idit Zartel, “Who gets how much money”, Davar, May 28th, 1976, (Heb.) [Mi Mekabel kama Kesef].

[57] Yaacov Bar-On, “A New Opera will be erected in Tel Aviv”, Davar, June 20th, 1983, p. 6, (Heb.) [Opera Chadasha tukam be’ Tel Aviv].

[58] In Hebrew: Ha’Opera Ha’Israelit Hachadasha [האופרה הישראלית החדשה].

[59] See the New Israeli Opera online: http://www.israel-opera.co.il/?CategoryID=157&ArticleID=86

[60] Permont’s The Lady and the Peddler premiered on the same evening as Rechter’s Shitz. The latter, however, is closer to a musical than an opera.

[61] For a more detailed account on the budget of the Opera, see Liran Gurkiewicz: “Ending the Melting Pot: How Regev Divides Instead of Balancing” [Sof le’kur Ha’ituch: Keizad Regev Mefaleget Bimkom Le’azen], (Heb.), in the online news site: www.nrg.co.il, April 24th, 2016. See also Meirav Yudilevich, “The Opera vs. The Andalusian: Who is Inflated, Who Underprivileged”? in the online news site www.ynet.co.il, March 8th, 2016, (Heb.) [Ha’ Opera mul Ha’andelusit: Mi mekupach ve’mi menupach].