David Ben Gurion once stated that “it is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” but he probably wasn’t thinking about opera. Omer Meir Wellber, born in 1981 in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel, has carved out an international career as a conductor. His new book, “Fear, Risk, and Love: Moments with Mozart” from Ecowin publishers, describes his experience of conducting three operas written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.
Wellber’s U.S. debut was in 2014 with the Pittsburgh Symphony, following extensive experience across Europe. Acclaimed for his muscular renditions of operas such as Verdi’s “Aida,”; Boito’s “Mefistofele”; and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, Wellber has also recorded an aria recital with the soprano Aleksandra Kurzak for Decca.. Recently Maestro Wellber took some time from his busy schedule to speak with The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry about matters musical and desertic:
At age five you were studying piano, accordion and violin and, at nine, composition with Tania Teler of the Be’er Sheva Conservatory. She would make students copy out entire symphonies. You called this a “profound spiritual experience.” Not boring?
Of course it’s not an exercise that would interest everyone, but the effect on my career was really profound. It was like getting into the shoes of someone else. Memorizing things, the mechanical activity of doing it, erasing when you made some mistake, is a very profound thing. I was a little bit of a romantic child and would light candles as if my room was in Vienna 1820.
Among your charitable projects was cofounding in Rahat, a predominantly Bedouin city near Be’er Sheva, the Sarab Strings of Change Program, named after the Arabic word for oasis, to provide musical education to Bedouin schoolchildren in the Negev. Does it matter how many of these students become professional musicians?
The project is to use music to make society a little bit better, not to make them professional musicians. After a year, the results are amazing. They tell me the level of patience in the classroom, how they suddenly listen, everything has changed. The class is more relaxed, instead of going to play in the street and who knows [what].
When you were young, your parents did not constantly listen to music, but enjoyed comedy recordings by the Israeli comedy trio HaGashash HaHiver which you learned by heart. Their recordings were highly musical and rhythmic, so perhaps they provided some early career influence?
Yeah you know, if we go from the point of view that you learn from everything, you can learn a lot more about timing from these kind of comedians than from a normal recording of a Beethoven symphony.
Your parents also listened to French chansons, so was it a family allusion when during the continuo part of “The Marriage of Figaro” in Dresden last year, you played Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” on the accordion?
This idea did not come from me, but from the [stage] director. But after we talked about it, it did touch me in a nostalgic way. My parents come from a very Orthodox family and then they became secular. My mother always told me that they used to listen almost obsessively to the radio, and this kind of music was performed on [Israeli] radio in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When we speak of Leonard Bernstein, my mother always said, ‘What a voice he used to have.’ For her, he was the voice of the Young People’s Concerts as transmitted over the radio. They would come home from the synagogue and secretly listen to the Young People’s Concerts on the radio.
You have expressed admiration for Israeli performers such as the jazz bassist Avishai Cohen, and the popular singer-songwriters Yehudit Ravitz, Shalom Hanoch, and Amir Benayoun. Do they offer more rhythmic flexibility than classical music?
No, with these people it is really a linguistic thing. Hebrew is very important to me and I hope the future of Judaism will be the language.
Last March, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Ghetto, you conducted Mahler’s First Symphony. What does Mahler have to do with Venice, apart from the Luchino Visconti film “Death in Venice” which famously used Mahler’s Third and Fifth Symphonies on its soundtrack?
It was more about Mahler as one of the figures of the new Jew, although some unfortunate things came after. This type of personality, like Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Artur Schnabel, Arthur Rubinstein, was a symbol of getting out of the ghetto.
Among contemporary composers, you have championed the Ukrainian-born Mark Kopytman (1929– 2011) His compositions have unusual strength, and even his “Kaddish” for viola and ensemble sounds feisty instead of just mournful. What is the source of that energy?
Wow, he’s actually one of my favorite [contemporary] composers, because what [Kopytman] has put inside his music is the miraculous Israeli effect of bringing people together and somehow having them live together as a people. Russians are always very proud of their roots, but he came to Israel and listened to the sounds of the desert.
At Milan’s “Jewish and the City” Festival in 2013 you spoke about considering the Bible as music, and referred to the Book of Exodus 20:18, where the Sinai revelation is described by the phrase, “and all the people saw the voices.” What voices are being referred to here and is this part of your idea of revelation as essentially musical in nature?
I think you actually touched on the argument. The idea is when a musical experience really makes its impact, then you manage to see it in a way. The senses have to mix somehow. The simplest example is when people meditate, the sound of a bell affects their body, eventually causing them to feel and see things differently, even after the meditation. If you really, really put Beethoven in your body, there are things you can see with your eyes. From one symphony, there may be things that will stay with you all your life.
In “Fear, Risk, and Love” what you call the “elegiac forgiveness of the Countess” for her husband’s infidelities in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” evokes for you Yom Kippur, when people must seek atonement from other mortals by looking them in the eye and admitting error.
It is one of the things I find beautiful about Yom Kippur. God can forgive you, but not for things you did with your friends. This is something I find very special in “Figaro.” It was revolutionary to say I have to forgive my friend, because it was like saying I am equal to my friend. The [opera’s] different characters, a count, a gardener, and the others are all together in this forgiveness, and this is revolutionary.
“Fear, Risk, and Love” mentions that you saw the Miloš Forman film “Amadeus” (1984) “hundreds of times” as a boy and the hellfire scene when Don Giovanni descends into the flames “almost broke [your] heart.” Why?
Unfortunately I was not exaggerating. I know [“Amadeus”] by heart, word for word. What broke my heart was to see Mozart putting himself on the couch of Freud, opening his heart with his father, this kind of honesty and psychological freedom. In the film it’s very touching.
In 2011, you told “Haaretz,” “I come from a socialist household but I also admire Menachem Begin in many areas.” Why, was he a music lover?
(Laughs) What I like about Begin, and today we lack completely, is the ability of people to change. Don’t forget that Begin still did the peace with Egypt which still exists and is very strong. And eventually it was done by Menachem Begin who years before was killing English soldiers, who saw the possibility to change as a good thing. Today I appreciate this more and more. Change as a positive thing makes you stronger and not softer, as some people say.
When you conducted the Verdi Requiem in Israel in 2011, you told “The Jerusalem Post” that you detected a great deal of doubt about faith in the work, although Daniel Barenboim told you that you “take an overly Jewish view of the work.”
This was a joke that [Barenboim] was always telling me. When we spoke about the Beethoven Third Symphony, he would ask me what the Talmud said about it. When I see a piece like the Verdi “Requiem,” I think of the basic dialectic Jewish technique, to question the question. This is something I adore in Judaism, but is problematic in other religions: to ask questions about everything.