Neil Shicoff speaks about the role of Eleazar in La Juive
When did you first discover La Juive?
I had a meeting with my first agent and with Mr. Hollander in Vienna, we discussed possible new roles for me at the State Opera which would be a production interesting for the city, interesting for the company and interesting for me, and we came up with La Juive because it carried a statement which would be important for that particular city, and ultimately we thought that it was a good idea, which it was.
Did you know about the opera before?
I knew about the opera from Richard Tucker. The Metropolitan Opera offered him this role just prior to his death. I think he was informed the day he died, because they wanted to make the production for him, what would certainly be spectacular for the Met, for him and for the history of the opera, but unfortunately it did not happen.
In many ways the story of La Juive is not different than other opera stories, yet at the end it is very different.
Well, the story of La Juive is a very typical literary political contemporary piece. It was, I believe, written in the 1850's in a kind of period when there was a window of liberalism in France. It is about a conflict between Brogni and Eleazar and Rachel. It talks deeply about intolerance and prejudice and the end of the piece suggests that without some resolution, without the other side understanding what the other side feels, the end would be horrific. In this opera others suffer as in the case of Brogni, or die, as in the case of Rachel and Eleazar. It is about resolution and prejudice and the statement is that there is not some final solution, all sides loose. I think it is very appropriate to present this opera in Israel because it is about the story of the Jewish people and your very own history. And really, I am Jewish, it means a great deal to me that there are a lot of images of Jewish death in history, so it touches me personally but there is as well a larger scheme to the piece which is that prejudice and intolerance exist in all times and all places, so if you brought it out it all gets not specifically to this place but it becomes universal and the audience can identify readily when there are only three characters, you focus on these three characters who bring out this enormous statement about our times.
It's rather a sad story…
It's more than sad because there are other operas that are sad, and that we feel bad for their characters. Mimi who has consumption and dies or Tosca. But this is very personal in a political sense because we are dealing with more than people's life. It is about how other people refuse to understand circumstances of other people. It is a deep statement and has a larger sense than one individual who suffers.
Who is Eleazar?
Eleazar is the leader of the Jewish community. They look towards him for leadership, for focus, for vision. He is a fanatical figure, driven by hatred towards the Cardinal Brogni who has earlier killed his two sons, so there is just a justification for his act, at least as he sees it. He takes the daughter, the natural daughter of Brogni and, and he takes her out of the burning house and raises her as his own. And now comes this tremendous conflict of Brogni trying to find out if his daughter is alive and where she is, and of course Eleazar, and this unfolds in the course of the opera. This kind of fanatical behavior from Eleazar, in my opinion, you can put it into various other people in the real world, other people in other communities and other nations. So, in a wider sense it goes to show what happens, and how distorted it all is, how it gets started and how it ends. It is transformed into a situation which destroys the environment, but as I said before, these people represents nations, and how in the world at large this grows into something extraordinarily destructive.
Why did Eleazar save Rachel, is it clemency or already a plan for revenge?
I don't know. I've not decided, I never …It's a very good question of whether he takes her out of goodness, and then it's transformed. I mean, Eleazar genuinely loves this Rachel. When I came to the part, I always thought that he takes her out of goodness. When he sees the child burning, he takes the child and the whole thing, as a matter of fact, gets distorted by the aggression, the anger and misunderstanding. It's all set, of course, by his hatred to Brogni.
If he is really a loving father who raises her, in the opera, why wouldn't he tell her the truth from the very beginning?
He gives her an opportunity in the end, in a kind of convoluted way, that she can chose another way, which is not the Jewish way. He gives her that but the way I play it, I really don't give it to her. Even though I ask her, I describe her the other option in a way she really doesn't have an option, she has to go and chose to die with the father. He is at the point of the end of the opera where his hatred for Brogni and for the Christians is so extreme that there is no possibility for him to see clear, he doesn't want to, he refuses. There is no light at the end of his tunnel, there is no light at the end of fanaticism, period, and this is the character that is fanatical. I am playing him in a way that is in my mind, that can be transferred to other cultures, other religions. Because we see in the world today, we see this fanaticism at very different levels and from very different sources and at the end there is no light, there is no light at all. I am sorry, I see no light.
So the way you play Eleazar at the end is a sort of Trovatore end, that's your revenge? You are going happily to your death
Yes, but I never see pleasure in an opera. I think it's the nightly news, it's so contemporary. And La Juive is a vehicle to make a statement, but it's so current and it remains so current, pure, even from the period of the 19th century. That is not about opera, this is not only an opera piece, it is a very, very special piece. Look, I love to do characters with a particular point of view, whether it's about emotions, and in the case of crimes, where there is a community that is paranoid, Hoffmann, Vere in Billy Bud, where there is a nervous break-down, where there has to be an artistic development and it blocks him. These are characters that have great emotional colors and dimensions and depth, but for La Juive it is not, it's beyond opera, it is a function, whether we, as human beings, can get along with each other, and what happens when we cannot. That's the statement of this piece. So, it's not about opera, you cannot compare it to any other opera. It is not.
There is a beautiful scene on the Seder night, you are there with the family celebrating Passover. Brings memories from you own past?
Of course, my father was a famous cantor, and I was with him for all the holidays while he was alive and watched him, in the white gown and the white hat, and I mean my sound, my ability to express myself, maybe at the end of the day, that's what's I am about, I got it all from him, this sound comes directly from my father. I watched him, his ability to work on his own expressions. He was able to do that, and you know, I was kind of always on the side watching him and it went into my ears and into my body and I didn't know that it dwelt over the course of the years, certainly over the first decades of my singing at the Met. I then understood that I had a statement to make, it wasn't just about making pretty sounds. In the beginning I was limited, even though I was at the Met at a very young age, almost half a century ago, in 1976. It wasn't about statements, it was about the technique. I had learned so many other superficial things as a young person. I was in my twenties. All that came later on, the need to express and reach, and to inform an audience to get them to leave after an evening of watching a performance and have the effect on some level of their life, whether it's the level of the relationship to their children, to their husbands, to their co-workers, to society. I leave each performance hoping that from that particular evening, that there has been someone that has been touched enough, to make a change in their life.
But when you sing the big area in La Juive everyone is touched.
This aria has an awful lot of images for me. I had grandparents that have lost family in the Holocaust and I know how they lived afterwards and how their life continued and I have an extensive library of books, DVDs, about that period and these images are very real for me. And when I walk on stage and I do that aria, I feel like… It is just beyond what I do, because at the end of my performance I die and it's the end of it, but the period when I am there, and in that moment, I feel that there are voices that need to speak through my voice. I surrender to that feeling and these images come true in that aria. It's more than my own personal statement, it is the statement of many, many voices. I believe that, and it's not to be understood that I am artistic about that. I am anything but, I am open to give something that's bigger than that.
Is it a difficult aria to sing?
No. If you sing it technically and coolly, no. But in the context of the performance, when it comes, I have often in the Staatsoper in Vienna been very, very emotional and… I've done well with this aria, but sometimes the voice was not so perfectly clear and that's just part of the moment, part of the expression, it's really…, it's about expression, it's not about beautiful singing.
What would your father say hearing you singing this area, how would he react?
I Think my father would have been, if he could watch me in La Juive, very proud of me. He was my first voice teacher when I was fifteen, he passed away when I was fifteen and a half, and then I had many teachers afterwards. He was very, very supportive of my ability to sing and I have a ring, his wedding ring I wear on every stage, for every performance and I take him on stage with me. My aunt gave me his ring because she had some things when my mother passed away, and I put it on and it doesn't come off, and he came with me, and there was a day I said to him, "I want you on the stage with me now, I don't want to do it all by myself, I need you to be with me". From that point on he became part of everything I do on the stage.
What does it mean to sing Eleazar in Tel Aviv?
It's a full circle for me. I spent the last twenty years of my life, have grown up as a New York Jew. I have been in Berlin, Zurich, Vienna. It becomes a full circle that on this stage, what I have learned and how to express it and how to give back to people who… but we all are Jews, we all have centuries of weight on us, and we have all learned how to produce, how to create, how to move mountains. And to do it to this audience it's the greatest thrill I will have, it will be a combination of my work and my expression.