Well, I have been back in Israel, this time for the Opus Festival in Jerusalem. I did a series at Opus Magazine on vocal technique (with videos), and they asked me back to open their Festival in Jerusalem and for a master class with students at the Music School at Tel Aviv University.
We also tried to set up masterclasses with interested students in Palestine, but none of our connections even answered our emails in East Jerusalem and Ramallah. My connections at Ashtar Theater in Ramallah at least gave me a very reasoned and principled answer that they can’t collaborate with someone who is collaborating with the Occupying State, Israel. I understand their desire to boycott Israel, and that is their prerogative. I can’t live even a minute in their shoes and know the reality of life in Palestinian territories these days. They have a long past of broken promises and broken dreams, and so I honor their decision, although I don’t agree with them personally for myself.
So for those of you who will criticize me for still going to Israel, I will explain. I sang at the New Israeli Opera for the first time in the late 90’s, which was a huge success in the role of Gilda in Rigoletto. I made tons of friends, and the opera house staff and musicians became like family to me. They had me come back immediately to sing my first Lucia di Lammermoor there the next season. After THAT huge success, they basically asked me what I wanted to sing – and we set up two projects of roles I really wanted to sing… Then, the Second Intifada happened in 2000 after Ariel Sharon made the unfortunate decision to provoke the Palestinians by going to the Temple Mount, which led to major unrest and clashes, which only escalated.
Besides being worried about my safety, being an easily recognizable target as both “collaborator” and American, I felt it was not right what the Israeli government was doing at the time, so I pulled out of all my beloved projects and told my friends there (with a very heavy heart) that I could not conscionably come to Israel at that time. Years passed, and it became very fashionable in Europe to boycott Israel. When the opportunity in 2012 came up to return to Israel as a guest of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with my dear friend and mentor Michael Tilson-Thomas conducting, I figured enough was enough. My not being there had not changed anything (“Oh, Laura Claycomb isn’t coming to Israel! We must withdraw all the illegal settlers now!”), and sitting on the sidelines and criticizing something when I don’t know the situation on the ground didn’t help, either. I figure it was better to go there and see for myself what was happening. Hearing first-hand accounts from people of what is going on is better than any historic or news account. And it helps you understand how intractable and difficult the situation is there to remedy. First and foremost, I believe that SOCIAL and CULTURAL cooperation and collaboration is necessary for people to understand the “other side” and I hope in my small way to be a part of that. If I were to boycott every nation whose government does things I think are horrendous, I would never get to go back to the U.S., either… We still have Guantanamo Bay and still have to have sayings like “BlackLivesMatter” for our police to avoid beating up kids of certain skin color… So I will be the last to point fingers. I always think it’s best to apply social pressure to people from WITHIN… which requires connection, not disconnection!
I returned to Tel Aviv a few months later to sing Lucia in a different production from the first one I had done there, and reconnected with my old friends at the Opera there. I also came back to sing with the Israeli Philharmonic last year, in Carmina Burana (yes, I am aware of the irony!) for ELEVEN DATES which were invariably packed! It was supposed to be conducted by the fantastic Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, but when he cancelled all his engagements, the immensely talented Ryan McAdams came in to save the day. We all knew that such a workhorse as Frühbeck to take time off meant one thing – and we were saddened not much later to hear that the great maestro had passed away.
With this in mind, while I was there in 2014, I made a trip to Ramallah, where my friend Michael Walling, director of Border Crossings, an inter-cultural theater project, was directing a play at the Ashtar Theater. I was able to meet with him, tour around Ramallah, and get to know some of his colleagues and hear their stories. It was eye-opening to go through the cattle-stall-like border crossings in and out of Israel from Palestine, and great to hear stories from the other side of the new wall…
For this trip now in 2016, I got directly off my flight and went to my master class at Tel Aviv University. Three talented young female singers sang for me and made great strides, as we painstakingly worked on the (mainly technical) arsenal they needed to confront the challenges the music set out for them. Some of them brought more than one piece, not knowing that we’d barely make our way through ONE with the way I like to work! I was afraid it might be boring for the audience to nit-pick things so much, but they stayed as focused as we were, and appreciative of the positive progress we were able to make. I hope I was able to give some tools to the singers to listen and work on their own in the future!
Here is the lovely soprano Beata Lipska wondering, “What the heck is this lady doing?” while I make some kind of crazy point with hyperbole.
Then, the next day, we were already in the throes of rehearsals for the Gala opening of the Opus Festival in Jerusalem with the Israel Camerata. The program featured a dastardly high Vivaldi cantata for me, a couple of Handel arias for countertenor Yaniv D’or, a Handel duet for both of us, a Mozart concert aria for me, then on the second half, I did excerpts from Le Nozze di Figaro with fresh Mannes students, Edward Cleary and P’nini Grubner. They then sang the Don Pasquale/Malatesta duet and I finished off the concert with “Caro nome.” Yaniv and I returned to sing “Pur ti miro” from L’Incoronazione di Poppea as an encore.
I had met Yaniv when we did Carmina Burana together last year, and we hit it off immediately! He is a wonderful artist, who has been working on a very interesting project called Ladino/Latino, which brings together traditional Ladino songs with a period orchestra, a very international and multi-cultural project. They have made a CD of the project and are touring all over the world with it! Here is a preview:
We were lucky enough to have the knowledgeable and affable Italian conductor Carlo Goldstein fill in at the last minute for the Israel Camerata’s director, Avner Biron, who had to have eye surgery. Carlo led the Camerata with aplomb and mastery, and kept us all in line! I had a wonderful time trying out a bit of Susanna, a role I had worked on in the past, but never got a chance to sing! Alexander Bernstein, the head of Opus Magazine and the one who invited me for the festival, wanted to support some young artists, so we were happy that such talented “youngsters” were able to take part in our concert! Here’s a selfie after our rehearsals…
After our first rehearsal, we drove into Tel Aviv from the small town where we were rehearsing, and had dinner near the Opera. Since our lovely conductor, Carlo, was going to the Opera to see a friend in the dress rehearsal of Cenerentola, I went along with him so I could say hi to some friends backstage. I ran into everyone, it seems, and ended up getting rooked into staying for the second half of the dress rehearsal. It was a fun production, and it was wonderful to see everyone! Here I am with my dear friend, aptly named, Israel:
The concert on Saturday went beautifully, with an immensely appreciative audience, and we stayed at the restaurant next to the theater until they closed their doors! Here we are afterwards, with staff from the magazine and from the Israel Camerata.
After such a late night, you’d think I’d want to sleep in, but I had left the whole extra day for myself while I was in Israel to go into Palestine this trip, to give a masterclass or something, which was stymied by my lack of any response from any organizaiont to give me an organized reason to go there…
However, all was not lost! I was able to have a morning meeting with an old friend at my incredible digs in Jerusalem, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guesthouse , a sort of artist’s colony outside the old walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Since I haven’t stayed in Jerusalem since I was 13, when I was there on a church trip with my family, it was an exciting opportunity to take advantage of the historic city when I could. I still remember the call to prayer at the crack of dawn, my first time in Jerusalem! My whole family all jumped out of our beds, as we had no idea what was going on.
Anyhow, as I was slated to sing the Bernstein Kaddish the very next week in Turin, I thought it was a very opportune time to take advantage of being in Israel to work on the Sephardic Kaddish pronunciation with some Israeli Jews! So I hied myself over to the Jerusalem Academy and had a coaching with a very helpful coach on the piece. No rest for the wicked! And then, knowing full well that it was PALM SUNDAY in my Christian tradition, I took a cab up to Bethphage (which most cabbies there didn’t know) on the Mount of Olives, and joined the procession, tracing what they think were the footsteps of Jesus through the Mount of Olives (Arab neighborhood nowadays) on his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. The most powerful part of this procession were all the many languages being spoken with groups from all over the place, and the SINGING!
As we processed down the mountain (hill!), we passed directly through Gethsemane, a poignant reminder of what was to come… They started singing “Jerusalem” (sung in many different languages) and then, “Santo santo santo,” and then moved on to “Hosanna” as they came through the Lion’s Gate. Although the “Jerusalem” sounded a bit like a Che Guevara song (I think the singer was Latin-American! ha!), the effect of all these people singing and playing whatever instrument/drum they had, waving palms as they came through the gates, was one of my most powerful memories of Jerusalem to date.
We continued on to St. Anne’s church complex, which has a courtyard inside with Roman ruins… There, there was a wonderful monk who extemporaneously led a group dance to the live music Arab musicians were making in celebration of the festivities.
I then went to get a bite to eat at a Arab Shawarma place across from one of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa (don’t ask me which – there was a restaurant in the compound of the church itself, but it was so smoky inside, I decided to eat across the street…)
After that, I wandered through the darkened and hushed streets of Jerusalem to the Holy Sepulchre Church, which was close to closing time.
I was able to drink in the atmosphere, say a little prayer for my friends in need at the Tomb of Christ, and watch a lady across from the Aedicule wash some ceremonial things while seated on the floor in the silence of an unlit chapel. Beautiful. Then, I took a walk home, enjoying the stillness of the Sunday evening. What a trip!!