After COVID, New Israeli Opera returns with biblical moms and seances

It wasn’t all that long ago that veteran opera director Shirit Lee Weiss could only hope to stage an opera, given the cultural timeout in Israel caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now she has two operas about to go live, “The Medium,” a drama performed with the audience seated onstage, as well as “Mothers,” the biblical-inspired original opera written by Weiss’ friend and long-time colleague, conductor David Sebba.

“The Medium” will be performed on May 23, 25 and 27 at the New Israeli Opera house in Tel Aviv, while “Mothers” comes onstage June 6, 11, and 12.

The one-hour, two-act opera “The Medium,” with musical direction by Yael Kareth, offers a mix of drama and music in this more modern work written by Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who spent much of his adult life in the US.

It’s a heavy, complicated tragedy about Madame Flora, a medium who conducts seances in her home, and the unexpected romance that arises between her daughter and her mute servant.

Sitting onstage offers an immediate exposure to the drama and raw emotion, said Weiss. It’s also a good way to try out opera for anyone new to the art form.

“We always want to do more intimate things, and this was the opportunity,” said Weiss.

Weiss and Kareth began rehearsals for “The Medium” more than once during the last year and a half, often starting the process and then canceling rehearsals due to lockdowns and other COVID-19 scenarios.

Opera director Shirit Lee Weiss who is directing two brand-new productions, ‘The Medium’ and ‘Mothers’ at the New Israeli Opera in May and June 2021 (Courtesy New Israeli Opera)

“You create something and you return to it and then you say, wait, what was I doing with this? And, is it still correct? And why? Then you start rehearsals again and you return to it and you’re happy that you can,” said Weiss.

When the Israeli Opera opened up again in March, first with some lighter fare of Hebrew songs and well-known arias, Weiss continued rehearsing “The Medium” and also embarked on rehearsals for “Mothers,” the chamber opera created by Sebba.

Weiss began hearing about “Mothers” from Sebba when he started working on it six years ago, just after she had given birth to her twin daughters.

“He came to me with this idea, starting with Leah, who is set up as a kind of substitute wife to Jacob instead of Rachel, and no one asked her about any of it,” said Weiss of the biblical matriarchs.

Weiss, undergoing her own experiences with two newborns, could well empathize with Leah and her biblical conundrums, none of which are spelled out in the original text.

Sebba’s opera refers to Leah and Rachel, Sarah and Hagar, and all the other biblical mothers whose stories are familiar to so many, adding his own subtext and commentary.

It’s these mothers who gave birth to the tribes of Israel, and the opera adds other biblical women who don’t always have their own names but may be named as someone’s wife, mother or sister, lacking their own specific identity.

Sebba’s opera began as something minor and more fringe, but gradually grew into a larger endeavor with music and an orchestra, dialogue and scenes, sung in Hebrew and performed by opera singers along with actors from the Gesher Theater.

The opera was written before the #metoo movement, said Weiss, and echoes similar sentiments, allowing the mothers to finally have a chance to speak, open their mouths and be heard.

“It’s all so relevant now,” said Weiss. “It’s an emotional creation with many narratives.”

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