András Schiff talks family, war and humanity
The acclaimed Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, a part-time London resident who was knighted last year, returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 18 for a recital of late works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Later in the week, on Oct. 22, 23 and 24, he’s scheduled to play and conduct three concerts in the hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.”
Earlier this month, a day after his packed recital at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Schiff sat down in his hotel suite to discuss his artistry, his continued public stand against anti-Semitism and the degradation of public life he sees in Hungary.
In 2011, Schiff, 61, became a controversial figure when he announced a self-imposed exile from his homeland. According to Schiff, things have not improved since that time.
“It’s much worse,” Schiff said, “because during communism, this anti-Semitism was somehow repressed. Now it’s really broken out. It’s not official, but it’s unbelievable. What kind of language is being tolerated? Unimaginable hate speech — in parliament, in the press.
“They say this is freedom of speech,” he continued, “but it’s hate speech, and it’s disgusting. It should not be legally forbidden, but in a decent culture, there should be a consensus that there are certain things you don’t do or say, because it’s not decent.”
Schiff said there are about 100,000 Jews remaining in Budapest but currently no effective counterforce to the irrational hatred — a hatred he recalled experiencing firsthand as a 4-year-old growing up in Budapest.
“I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of Catholics and Protestants,” Schiff said. “They didn’t mind us, because my father was a very good doctor who was respected and quite liked. I was playing soccer with the other kids — I loved soccer — and one day the neighbor kid said, ‘You can no longer play with us because you are a Jew.’ This kid was maybe 3. It was the first time I heard the word ‘Jew.’ So I asked, ‘Why is that a problem?’ And he said, ‘You people, you killed our Jesus Christ.’ Since I was not schlagfertig [quick-tongued], I could not say I was at the dentist that day.”
Schiff laughed, but clearly the memory still hurt.
“I’m just telling you this because how does a 3-year-old kid, probably a good-hearted kid, where does he hear it from? From his parents? The church? They haven’t learned that Jesus was a Jew. That’s news for them. All these figures of Christianity were Jews. These religions go hand in hand.”
Maybe that’s why Schiff feels comfortable with religious works by famous Christian composers such as Bach and Haydn. “You ask me about the Jewishness, and yet I’m most attracted to these sacred pieces, like Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ and ‘Mass in B minor,’ ” he said. “It couldn’t be less Jewish. And yet it’s the spiritual element. It’s this divine connection. When these composers wrote for the church, they really outdid themselves.
“But it’s also like when I did Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ last year,” he said. “When I went back to Beethoven’s late sonatas, they gained a new dimension. He was working on the last sonatas simultaneously with the ‘Missa,’ so then I can say [when interpreting a sonata], ‘Aha, here is the Credo, and here is the Gloria and here is the Agnus Dei.’ ”
Schiff left Budapest in 1979 for London. He is the only child of Holocaust survivors. Both parents lost their first spouses in the Holocaust; his father, an amateur violinist, also lost a 4-year-old son from his first marriage. His mother, trained as a pianist, had hoped to become a piano teacher.
“She came back from the war with no strength to continue with music,” Schiff said. “But a piano was in the house, and I showed interest.” Schiff was 5 when he started to pick out tunes he heard on the wireless. Though Schiff took up conducting many years ago, he said he would never be “unfaithful” to the piano.
“I know exactly my abilities and limitations,” he said. “I will not conduct the ‘Rite of Spring’ or Mahler symphonies. Nor would I like to. The music I do — Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms and Schumann — this I can do from my experience on the piano and from chamber music and ensembles. I can play these scores on piano, but it’s not like the real thing.”
In his role as conductor, Schiff said Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” is especially relevant. In 1973, during the height of Vietnam War protests, Leonard Bernstein performed it at the National Cathedral in Washington. Hearing this, Schiff said, “Good for him: a big statement.”
“When I programmed the Mass, I didn’t see what is happening in Europe,” Schiff said. “It is a disaster. War has become a huge business. In [George] Orwell, ‘War is peace.’ Politicians preach peace but tell us when they are not selling arms, the economy is not doing well. It seems to me the economy is only doing well when they make war. But preferably, not in your own place. So when you say ‘Mass in Time of War,’ there is always war.”
Like war, anti-Semitism has long blighted humanity, and all his life, Schiff has been trying to understand it.
“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “Unfortunately, the issue is more general. The problem is with human beings. It’s jealousy, hatred, envy — those categories. To find an outlet for those emotions, people look for scapegoats, and the Jews are at hand. In Hungary, the Gypsies are also at hand. But if you go back to Cain and Abel, if the human race were one race, one nation and one family, they would still kill each other. If you have minorities or people who are different from the majority, then it’s a good excuse.”
Every piece of music tells a story
An intellectual pianist in the best sense, Jonathan Biss has a probing and poetic musical mind wedded to a playful, spontaneous temperament. Biss, 34, is also a musician who craves performing in public. So much so that even though he wisely canceled a concert in April with the New York Philharmonic — during which he was scheduled to play Brahms' mammoth D-minor concerto — after he slipped and broke his left arm, he kept two concert dates less than a month later with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
At the second concert I attended, Biss gave an exquisite, classically balanced account of Mozart’s complex Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Remarkably, Biss then offered a generous encore, “Abschied” (“Farewell”) from Schumann’s “Waldszenen” (“Forest Scenes”) — a memorably touching performance, reinforcing his reputation as the foremost Schumann interpreter of his generation.
“I’m just counting my blessings,” Biss said by phone from the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. “I was incredibly lucky with the injury not ending up being all that bad, and then having fantastic medical care. It’s been six weeks since I’ve felt as much as a twinge.”
Such luck bodes well, because Biss is scheduled to give a recital of works by Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Oct. 16.
Biss grew up in a Jewish musical family in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents — mother, Miriam Fried, a Romanian-born Israeli violinist, and father, Paul Biss, a violinist and conductor — were professors at Indiana University. Biss’ paternal grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, whose playing was reportedly admired by Pablo Casals. His maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
“I’m not remotely observant,” Biss said of his heritage. “If I was forced to pick between musician and Jewish as adjectives to describe myself, I would obviously say musician. But in ways that are so basic — I can’t even put them in words — I am a Jewish person. It’s just part of my cultural being. It’s clearly who I am.”
Coming out of an immersive family musical environment, it’s not surprising Biss sees an intimate connection between music and language, a link he said he’s been thinking about even more now that he is on the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, his alma mater.
“Any piece of music worth listening to, there’s a narrative and grammar,” Biss said. “The intonation of the musical sentence reflects that — pausing for emphasis, moving ahead for emphasis. And you have to articulate for emphasis. Without thinking about it, we all inflect phrases, and that’s a huge part of music making.”
If ever a piece of music tests an interpreter’s ability to keep the story focused and emotionally coherent, it’s Schumann’s mercurial “Kreisleriana” (1838), which Biss will perform during the second half of his Broad Stage program. A set of eight untitled fantasies, “Kreisleriana” is just the kind of challenge Biss revels in, from its tumultuous in medias res beginning to its disarming intimacy, childlike innocence and spellbinding mystery.
“When people say that Schumann’s music is poetic, it’s a way of saying that it’s music where how he says something is as important, or more important, than what he says,” Biss said. “I’m not saying there isn’t any of that in Beethoven, but Beethoven is so relentlessly concerned with taking you from place to place, he doesn’t leave himself space to find these nooks and crannies, where in Schumann, the nooks and crannies are so often the best part.”
For Biss, the interpreter’s most important job is to make listeners understand there is a reason why one event follows another. “Sometimes the sequence is strange, seemingly irrational on the surface,” Biss said, “but even irrationality has a reason.”
Biss said he also thinks a lot about the sequence of works in his recital programs. For the first half of his Broad Stage recital, he’s programmed Mozart’s Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 and Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494 with Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces” in between.
“The way one hears music is hugely affected by context,” Biss said. “The quality that binds these three very different composers is that they are all mercurial. Mozart writes temperamental music, which comes from him being, in essence, a theatrical or opera composer. The characters change their mood frequently. He can go from tempestuous to nostalgic, sometimes with finger-snapping speed. If anyone else did it, it would seem stage-managed.”
For Biss, the link to Schumann in the program’s second half is clear. “Schumann may have worshipped Beethoven, but temperamentally he was much closer to Mozart,” Biss said. “And with Schoenberg, there’s this unrelenting intensity, but his ‘Six Little Pieces’ are so tiny and evanescent, with the distillation of an idea — a feeling comes and almost before you know it, it’s gone.”
Although he’s currently midway through the process of recording Beethoven’s complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, a project Biss said may take him until he’s 40, the pianist still finds time to perform new music. In April 2014, he premiered Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony, and his latest endeavor, “Beethoven/5,” involves the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned five composers — Timo Andres, Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean — to write new piano concertos for Biss, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.
Andres recently sent Biss the first movement of his score, which takes off from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It will be paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra program in November.
“The idea was to take as wide a range of composers to demonstrate that whoever you are or whatever your compositional style, you’re going to have something to say about Beethoven,” Biss said. “That’s just the nature of Beethoven’s music and his place in the musical world.”
Meanwhile, Biss is busy teaching, recording, adding to his popular online music course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas” (three more lectures were appended to the site in May) and working on Andres’ partial score while awaiting the rest with “a mix of elation, terror and confusion.”
“One of my great failings as a musician is that I don’t compose,” Biss said. “I don’t have any ability in that direction. I feel I would understand something more of the process if I did. I hear these great works — a Beethoven string quartet or ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ — and I always think, ‘What was the first idea that led to this?’ And it’s not a question I can begin to answer.”
Biss said that’s one reason he’s so proud of the “Beethoven/5” project. “My greatest hope is that the pieces have a life beyond me,” Biss said. “Playing new music — working on music that has no performance history — forces me to think in a different way about how the creation process happened.”
For now, Biss said he’s looking forward to his Broad Stage recital. “There’s something about my need to share with other people, and I really mean need. It’s wonderful to play privately in a room and feel free and uninhibited, but something happens when you actually connect to an audience, which can be total magic.”
Pianist Inon Barnatan to bewitch audience with one of Mozart’s greatest concertos
Soloists such as Van Cliburn and, more recently, Lang Lang, made their mark on the world’s stage at a relatively young age. But such careers often hit a plateau or, worse, suffer burnout. Other artists, like the 35-year-old Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, grow more gradually. Happily, Barnatan’s music-making — both in concert and on disc — continues to deepen, delight and enrich.
Last season, the pianist’s tour stop at Soka Performing Arts Center with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields impressed Orange County Register music critic Timothy Mangan, who observed that the pianist played Bach’s Concerto in D minor with “compelling ebullience, like a jazz musician jamming with friends.”
On Aug. 21, Barnatan joins conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for his debut as a soloist with orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in one of Mozart’s longest concertos, the charming and poetic Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat (K. 482).
“This concerto is one of Mozart’s greatest,” Barnatan said recently from his home in New York, “especially the dark and heartbreaking slow movement. Following the 1785 premiere, Mozart wrote to his father with great pride how the audience clapped so hard after the slow movement that they had to repeat it.”
Barnatan, who will be performing his own cadenzas (Mozart never provided them), chose this score for his U.S. concerto debut in 2007 with the Houston Symphony. Since then, Barnatan’s career has taken off on both coasts. He was recently appointed the New York Philharmonic’s first “artist-in-association,” a three-season post that begins next spring.
Born in Tel Aviv, Barnatan left Israel at 17 and entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. He moved to New York in 2006, where he studied with pianist Leon Fleisher, whose meteoric concert career, interrupted by a serious hand injury, turned into an illustrious career as teacher and mentor.
“Fleisher tried to make you take clues on the page and think about, say, the rhythmic and emotional structure of a piece,” Barnatan said. “The actual notes we hear are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about what you can’t hear. Every note exists for a reason you have to discover.”
Barnatan, who seemingly would rather play music than speak about it, quoted the aphorism, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Still, he is an eloquent spokesman for his art.
“It’s like an actor giving an inflection to certain words,” the pianist added. “It’s about understanding what’s behind and beneath.”
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein said she and Barnatan share an instinctive approach to the score at hand. They plan to record a duo recital for Decca later this year.
“We prefer not to talk too much in rehearsal,” Weilerstein said. “We’ll try playing something different ways, but we don’t have to talk to convey an idea.”
Playing chamber music is clearly one of Barnatan’s passions. “When you work with a soloist, singer or orchestra, you can’t just say your piece,” Barnatan said. “You have to listen and adjust your thinking.”
Barnatan’s family still lives in Tel Aviv, and he said he wished such a humane collaborative process would function more often there. “I wish people would listen to each other,” he said. “Very few people know the intricacies of what’s happening in Israel. People block their ears while they speak. They don’t try to understand the other person’s narrative.”
A self-described “citizen of the world,” Barnatan said he loves returning to Israel, but added, “It’s an intense place to live, which can be great, of course. As an Israeli, you grow up with that intensity. There’s always a sense something will happen. You deal with the situation and make the most of it.”
Barnatan has maintained his New York base since 2006. The same year marked the release of his debut solo recital, a gripping all-Schubert CD on Bridge Records. The disc included a turbulent, searching account of Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata (D. 960), the kind of performance that announced a major artist in the making. His latest record on Avie, of Schubert’s Sonatas in C minor (D. 958) and A major (D. 959), confirms Barnatan’s stature as one of the most sensitive and imaginative Schubert interpreters of his generation.
But staying close to the contemporary music scene is also important to the pianist. In recent years, he has commissioned works from composers Avner Dorman, Matthias Pintscher and Sebastian Currier. Indeed, “Darknesse Visible,” his second solo recording, proves Barnatan is as luminous, stylistically flexible and impassioned an interpreter of works from Debussy and Ravel to Thomas Adès.
Barnatan said he likes to present old and new music together. “The juxtaposition helps both, because nothing exists in a vacuum,” he said. “A 300-year-old score can sound like it was written yesterday. I still spend every day immersed in pieces hundreds of years old. I don’t think we’re ever finished, and that’s the beauty of what we do.”
Pianist Inon Barnatan will perform an all-Mozart program with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 21. For ticket information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.
A new ‘Magic’ for Mozart’s opera
Opera director Barrie Kosky didn’t like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” when he first saw it at age 10. Mozart’s Singspiel — a genre of opera characterized by spoken dialogue, along with singing — was a big hit in 1791, and the composer himself goofed around on stage during some of the performances. Ideally, given its broad comedy and fantastical characters, the opera should be able to engage kids.
“I have been attending opera since I was 7 years old,” Kosky, artistic director of the experimental Komische Oper, said from Berlin, where he was preparing a new German production of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” for the company. But “The Magic Flute” didn’t appeal, Kosky said. “I found it boring and not funny.”
Now 46, Kosky said he came to appreciate the opera as he got older, which led him to explore fresh ways of conjuring its magic for a new generation — a magic that, for him, had been tamped down by an awkward and talky libretto.
Kosky began by cutting all of the dialogue, reconfiguring his production by using elements drawn from silent film. “The Magic Flute,” which premiered last spring to sold-out audiences at the Komische Oper Berlin, will have its American premiere at the L.A. Opera on Nov. 23. The five evening and two matinee performances run through Dec. 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Kosky’s idea to reimagine the opera crystallized after he attended a performance by the alternative British theater company called 1927 — its name comes from the year of “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length talking picture. 1927 was co-founded in 2005 by director Suzanne Andrade and animator Paul Barritt and proved the perfect company to help develop Kosky’s silent film concept for “The Magic Flute.”
“Their work is witty, weird, grotesque, childish, profound and deeply moving,” Kosky said. “Like the opera.”
While Kosky was in Berlin shepherding “West Side Story” to its Nov. 24 opening — (he’s scheduled to attend the final matinee performance of “Flute” here) — Andrade has directed the Los Angeles rehearsals of “The Magic Flute.”
“His style is different from ours, but we shared a sense of humor — slightly dark and a bit silly,” Andrade said of Kosky during a rehearsal break. “And we were all into cartoons and silent films, which really helped.”
After agreeing to work on “The Magic Flute,” Andrade found she had second thoughts. “I watched a YouTube video of the Papageno-Papagena Duet done traditionally in a bird outfit and thought, ‘What have we agreed to do here?’ It was so hammy and awful. But these moments kept pushing us to come up with good ideas.”
Andrade said they were careful not to be too campy, silly or dark. “We didn’t impose our own vision on it,” she said. “We let it come from the music, characters and story. We borrowed heavily from early animation, comic books and graphic novels. Kids will love it because there’s such an element of spectacle.”
For example, the Queen of the Night (coloratura soprano Erika Miklósa) is portrayed as a huge angry spider.
Andrade added that using classic Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin gags also helps keep this “Flute” afloat. “But it’s done stylishly and as simply as possible,” she said. “They’re universal. One of the things Barrie said to us was, ‘I want this production to be loved by 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds.’ That was the challenge he set for us.”
The cast also faced its own challenges. For instance, the spoken dialogue is replaced with projected titles of text and colorful, inventive animations that force the singers to freeze and hold poses.
“As an opera singer, we’re trained to tell the story not only with our voices, but also with our entire bodies,” soprano Janai Brugger, who plays Pamina, said. “Since a lot of the film animation is helping to tell the story, as well, you want to be synchronized with what’s happening behind you on the screen.”
For tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who portrays Tamino, holding poses has been a fun part of Kosky’s unorthodox version of “Flute.” “My background includes working at an amusement park for several years as a singer and dancer,” Brownlee said, “so there were times we had to strike poses or use our body in certain ways.”
Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s president and CEO, said James Conlon, the company’s music director, was charmed by Kosky’s Berlin production. The score remains complete, with additional excerpts from two of Mozart’s Fantasias for Piano — K.475 and K.397 — used as interludes. Only a duet between two priests, about four pages, was cut from the Mozart original.
Koelsch said the awkward dialogue in traditional productions has always been the opera’s Achilles heel. But Kosky’s and 1927’s inventive and sensitive streamlining may make this a “Magic Flute” for people who think they don’t like “The Magic Flute.”
“Sometimes when you get into the second act, you can lose the forest for the trees,” Koelsch said, “but this production is so fleet of foot that people can’t believe how fast it goes by.”
Kosky, who was born in Melbourne, said his parents “always supported my love of music and theater.” He added: “There is a huge Jewish population in Australia. It’s not the South Pole.”
For Kosky, risk is part of the fun of being an opera director. Before he became artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin, he presented controversial shows in Australia, like “The Operated Jew” at the Gilgul Theater Company, which he founded.
“ ‘The Operated Jew’ was a vaudeville show exploring the theme of how the Jewish body manifests itself through Jewish self-hatred and anti-Semitism,” Kosky said. “I did a version of it in Vienna, home of Jewish self-hatred!”
Kosky’s Komische Oper plans include programming little-seen operettas by early 20th century Jewish composers, including Kurt Weill’s “Der Kuhhandel” and Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy.”
“I can do anything I like at the Komische Opera,” Kosky said. “It is a fantastic playpen for me and my team. I would love to rework ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ sometime.”
Rachel Frenkel: Mezzo’s Kibbutz roots
It’s a long way from Kibbutz Dalia, where Rachel Frenkel was raised, to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, but the mezzo-soprano is completing that journey this week.
The slim and youthful wife and mother will sing and act the role of the count’s amorous page Cherubino in Mozart’s comic opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, opening May 17.
Frenkel was born in 1981 in Haifa, but raised by her Brazilian-born mother and Argentinian-born father on Kibbutz Dalia (also spelled Daliya), about 20 miles southeast of the port city.
Both parents absorbed their Zionism through the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, so Rachel and her three siblings were raised in the old ideologically correct kibbutz style. From the age of 3 months to 6 years, she saw her parents only three hours each evening, otherwise spending her days and nights with all the other kids in a communal building.
“Both my parents had full-time jobs on the kibbutz, but they were very musical, with my mother always singing,” recalled Frenkel, sitting near a swimming pool at the Palazzo West apartment complex.
According to her elders, Rachel started to hum herself to sleep when she was 1 year old, and she made her debut at 8 in the kibbutz dining hall, singing (secular) Passover songs.
After finishing the Dalia high school and working in the kibbutz’s kindergarten, she enrolled and graduated from the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University and then joined the New Israeli Opera’s Studio.
Six years ago, the newlywed Frenkel won a scholarship and moved to Berlin to improve her technique and further her professional career, accompanied by her husband, Lior.
She was accepted as a member of the Berlin State Opera and in 2009 got her first real break in true storybook fashion.
“I was the understudy for Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and when the designated singer became ill, I stepped in,” Frenkel said.
Although she has performed in a half-dozen countries, Frenkel makes her home in Berlin and is somewhat conflicted about her choice.
“I have found a very welcoming atmosphere in Berlin,” she said, “but when I see the stone markers in front of houses, listing the former Jewish residents who were expelled or killed
by the Nazis, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
But being Jewish and Israeli is rarely an issue for Frenkel during her performances in Germany, Austria, Japan, Scotland and France.
An exception was her stay in Denmark last year, at a time when the fighting in the Gaza Strip escalated, eliciting international criticism of Israel, as well as from her fellow singers while watching Danish television reports.
“We had some conversations, and I told my colleagues that there was another side to the conflict,” she said, but added, “Criticizing Israel does not necessarily make a person a Jew hater.”
Her career got a boost when she won a prize at a contest for “New Voices” in Germany. One of the judges was the director general at the venerable Vienna State Opera, who engaged Frenkel for the role of Rosina in “The Barber of Seville.”
With her opera and concert career taking off, a new dimension was added to her life with the birth of her daughter, Ruth, now 2 years and 9 months old.
Frenkel decided from the beginning that she would not be separated from her daughter and husband despite her frequent travel, putting a special spin on the conundrum facing women on how to balance family and career.
Fortunately, Lior, her husband, is a music composer for films and a Web programmer, allowing him to work most of the time from home.
“Lior and I have always shared the housework and raising Ruth on a 50/50 basis,” Frenkel said. “When we travel, we never stay at a hotel but rent an apartment for a short time, where we both do the cooking.”
She considers raising a young child a plus, rather than a drag, for her career.
“Being a performer is not psychologically easy,” Frenkel said. “But when I get home and Ruth gives me a hug and I give her a bath, that grounds me so I don’t fly away and don’t deal constantly with my own ego.”
The Disney Hall appearance marks her first trip to the United States, and she was taken both by the pleasant weather and her first rehearsals with Dudamel. “When he walks into a room, he projects joy and fills the place with life,” she said.
Among her future engagements, she will perform in “Figaro” at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival at the Lincoln Center as well as in Budapest and Vienna. Next year, she will appear in “La Finta Giardiniera” (The Pretend Gardener) at the Glyndebourne Festival in England.
Asked how she sees her life 10 years from now, Frenkel responded thoughtfully.
“My professional goal is to keep singing at the highest level,” she said. “Personally, I would want a more stable lifestyle, more children and a sense of home. I miss Israel every day, and my dream is to live there permanently.”
For tickets and more information on the May 17, 19, 23 and 25 performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” visit www.laphil.com or call the Walt Disney Concert Hall box office at (323) 850-2000. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000.
Curtain Rises on Mozart’s Jewish Tie
On Jan. 27, Austria is marking the 250th birthday of its favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In honor of this sesquibicentennial, the city of Vienna is planning an impressive program of more than 1,000 events, including 350 public concerts and performances of the composer’s operas and sacred works.
But for the first time, the Viennese are doing something that has never been done before. After more than 200 years of silence — felt most deeply during Hitler’s rule — Austria is finally talking about Mozart’s Jewish connection.
“Mozart does not belong to any nation. It would be a total misunderstanding for anyone to lay claim to Mozart,” said Peter Marboe, Vienna Mozart Year artistic director. “That makes it obscene that the Nazis should claim him as an example of a great German artist and all the while hide his Jewish collaborators.”
In celebration of Mozart Year, which is being marked throughout Austria, the Jewish Museum of Vienna is presenting a look at the composer and his greatest collaborator, the Jewish-born Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist best known for “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787) and “Cosi Fan Tutte” (1790), long considered the composer’s greatest operatic masterpieces. The exhibit, “Between Tolerance and Aryanization–Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart and Vienna,” which opens mid-March and ends Aug. 31, illuminates the effects of Nazi propaganda on our perceptions of both Mozart and his librettist.
Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish community of Ceneda, Italy, in 1749. He converted to Catholicism, along with his entire family, shortly after his bar mitzvah, when his widower father remarried a Christian woman. He and his brothers were immediately sent off to a seminary to study for the priesthood, where he describes himself as an “inmate.” He later complained that “at that time, I intended to perfect my knowledge of Hebrew, which in my youth I had studied assiduously.”
According to his memoirs, Da Ponte became a Catholic priest at 20 in response to his father’s bidding. Da Ponte writes with great bitterness about his fate, which he blames for leading him to “embrace a way of life opposed to my temperament, character, principles and studies, thus opening the door to a thousand strange happenings and perils.”
Within two years, Da Ponte escaped to Venice, where he worked as teacher and poet. During that time, he had affairs with three society women. His exploits eventually caught up with him, and scandal forced him to flee Italy in 1782.
That year Da Ponte ended up at the imperial court in Vienna, where he met Mozart, who had just been kicked out of the service of the prince-cardinal of Salzburg. The collaboration of these two refugees from the church was to produce monumental results.
Their first collaboration, “The Marriage of Figaro,” was an enormous success.
But it was in their second collaboration that Da Ponte’s Jewish roots began to show. The tragic opera, “Don Giovanni,” is punctuated throughout with a sense of humor that was unheard of at the time. Commissioned for the Prague Opera, the so-called “perfect opera” reaches its climax when a huge statue comes to life to exact vengeance on a murderer. The oblique reference to the Yiddish legend of Der Golem was not lost on Czech audiences — in Prague “Don Giovanni” was an immediate hit. But in Vienna, it closed after 13 performances.
Da Ponte and Mozart collaborated once more on what would prove the composer’s final comic opera, “Cosi Fan Tutte.” The following year, Mozart died and Da Ponte was exiled to England for his scandalous affairs. The librettist eventually made his way to New York, where he founded the chair of Italian literature at Columbia University.
More than a century later, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and instituted the policy of Aryanization. Under the Nazi regime, Da Ponte’s Jewish identity was stolen by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, who banned all music by Jewish composers, including Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn, Jacques Offenbach and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But Mozart’s music was too valuable to the Third Reich, so like Johan Strauss, Mozart’s collaborator was “Aryanized.” Hitler reportedly told critics: “I decide who is Jewish.”
After the war, Viennese city government worked closely with the Jewish community to help rebuild a society devastated by the Holocaust. Their projects included the funding of the Vienna Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial. This year’s Mozart celebrations provide the perfect opportunity to openly discuss Da Ponte and his contribution to Mozart’s greatest works.
The Vienna State Opera has performances of all three Da Ponte-Mozart collaborations slated for this season, running from January to April. If seeing Mozart’s operas in Vienna has ever been on your to-do list, now is the time. And when viewed in concert with the Vienna Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, you’ll see them in a whole new light.