The poet Else Lasker-Schüler and a girl confronting a wall of silence are the subjects of two highly contrasting Israeli chamber operas that nonetheless tell the same story.
An old poet lives lonely and impoverished amidst her fantasies and her art. A young girl learns of the persecution of her parents, but they refuse to tell more. Two generations and two chapters of Israeli cultural history are the themes of chamber operas performed this past weekend in the Cologne Music Academy and in Wroclaw, Poland, on December 1.
"Else" tells the story of the expressionist poet and cult figure Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), set to sharply atonal, oblique and unsettling music by Josef Tal (1910-2008), called the father of modern Israeli composition. "Conversation With a Stone" by contemporary composer Ella Milch-Sheriff (1954-) is in a very different style, bubbling with catchy melodies in tango and blues rhythms.
Two operas, one narrative
In plot and music, the works stand in stark contrast. But the old woman who can find truth only in her poetry and the young girl on a futile quest for the truth are two sides of a bigger story, said singer Shira Patchornik in an interview with DW. "The older generation experienced great personal suffering," explained Patchornik, who sings both roles. "Others, who came afterward, are still dealing with the consequences. Both are part of Israeli culture. I have the opportunity to combine the two here. Together, they speak to everyone."
In the stage production by the German-Polish director Bruno Berger-Gorski, the two operas blend into a single work of art, sharing the same simple set whose main motif are stacks of clothing. Between them, an ageing bag lady, the protagonist in "Else," pushes a shopping cart filled with personal effects, muttering incomprehensible phrases and considered crazy.
But in her younger years, Laske-Schüler was a sort of Lady Gaga of the Weimar Republic. Universally creative and scandalous, she painted and drew, wrote notable expressionist and surrealistic poetry, and had several romantic affairs and an illegitimate son.
A political activist, Laske-Schüler protested the persecution of homosexuals in Germany and advocated reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. After her immigration to Jerusalem in 1933, she lived in dire poverty but continued to write.
Probing family history
The second chamber opera, "Conversation With a Stone," retains the mis-en-scène with piles of white laundry, adding a sculpture by Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri and its human counterpart, a dancer dressed as Death. Here a young girl seeks to penetrate the enigma of a stone and thus achieve wisdom, but her questions, intoned in Hebrew by Shira Patchornik, meet only with the stone's refusals, sung in Polish by Uta C. Georg. Both characters are musically supported and commented on by small women's choruses.
The piece echoes the composer's personal history. Having survived the Holocaust, Ella Milch-Sheriff's parents were forced to leave Poland behind in 1946 due to anti-Semitic activities there. Both remained silent on the issue, which Milch-Sheriff discovered when she read her 80-year-old father's diary.
"This is the first time I've composed a piece with a Polish text, combined with my native tongue, Hebrew," the composer wrote.
Ella Milch-Sheriff's chamber opera has a personal dimension for stage director Bruno Berger-Gorski as well, who lives in Vienna and has a Polish father. Complemented by screen projections of the texts by Wislawa Symborska, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his stark and symbolic scene and action lift the story onto a metaphysical level, relating man's inability to comprehend the universe. The futility of communication is also the central theme of the chamber opera "Else."
Hilary Griffiths, who conducts the performance, finds it only fitting that both roles - the old poet and the young girl - are embodied by the same young singer. "Else may have been over 70, but she felt 17. As a person grows older, one knows that the feelings are the same." That indicates the universal power of art, adds Griffiths. "It enables us to experience the memories and experiences of other people ourselves."
Under the patronage of Anna Azari, Israel's ambassador to Poland, both works of Israeli music theater will be presented in the Old Synagogue in Wroclaw, a European Capital of Culture this year, on December 1.