An Opera by Ella Milch-Sheriff and Nava Semel
November 5-12, 2009
Opera York in partnership with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto are pleased to present the North American premiere of this Israeli opera based on the novel of the same name by Nava Semel.
Artistic Director, Geoff Butler
And the Rat Laughed is an opera by Ella Milch-Sheriff based on the novel by acclaimed Israeli author and child of Holocaust survivors, Nava Semel. The novel and opera support understanding of the themes of “Remembering the Holocaust”, “Hidden Children” and “Righteous Among the Nations.”
This is a story set in 2099, where paralysis of emotions is balanced by story tellers embedded with memory chips. The story moves to 1999, where a grandchild has a school assignment to learn about her family history.
The grandmother tells of being given to farmers to hide her, while her parents try to survive the war in Poland. Abused and left in a pit, her only companion is a rat she befriends. After financial support from the parents stop, the farmers offer her to the local Catholic church, suggesting she be turned in for a Nazi reward, or for her to be killed.
The local priest chooses instead to save the young child. Returning to the timeframe of 1999, with the people from the future watching, we learn that through the remembrance of the story with her family, a resolution takes place for the grandmother/ child, with the story ending on stage, with the grandmother, herself as a child and grand-daughter and people of the future bathed in a circle of light and happiness.
Nava Semel, born in Tel Aviv, holds an MA in Art History and is an art critic. Semel has worked as a TV, radio and recording producer, and as a journalist. She has written poetry, prose for children and adults, television scripts and opera libretti, in addition to translating plays. Semel has received several literary prizes, including the American National Jewish Book Award for children’s literature (1990), the Women Writers of the Mediterranean Award (1994), the Austrian Best Radio Drama Award (19996), and the Tel Aviv Woman of the Year in Literature Award (2007).
Born in Haifa, Ella Milch-Sheriff began her composer career at the age of 12. Ella graduated in composition from the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University.Ella composes for opera, and has written chamber, orchestral and vocal music as well as popular music and solo works. Her music is performed widely through Israel, Europe and USA and of note, is her refi ned arrangements of songs by Kurt Weill for mezzosoprano and chamber orchestra.
In 2005, Ella Milch-Sheriff was awarded the prestigious“Israeli Prime-Minister Prize” for her musical works and the opera, “And the Rat Laughed” conceived with Nava Semel and based on her book received the“Rosenblume Prize” for achievement.
“I was trembling with excitement. It was shocking in the inner force of Nava Semel’s text and libretto. It was spine-chilling in the quality of Ella Milch-Sheriff’s music. I could hear how the tears pouring from the music, how it began to cry... This is one of the most superb operas ever written in Israel... It was stirring to hear choral pieces so electrifying in their poetry. And what a profound and brilliant orchestration. All the singers were superb. The girls of the Moran choir sang like angels. The Israeli Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Ori Leshman was at its best. Director Oded Kotler’s minimalist direction was brilliant.
If you miss this opera, the loss is yours. It is not just an opera, it is an event.”
“The three-sided encounter between Nava Semel’s story, which in itself is vast and powerful, Ella Sheriff’s music that heightens the content and underpins it, and Oded Kotler’s penetrating, implied and sensitive direction creates the kind of artistic treasure that Wagner termed “a combination of the arts” (Gesamtkunstwerk) at its best... ... The story, the music and the direction are palpitating in their force and perpetuate not only the Holocaust, but also the great talent of the creators of this opera.”
“...it is the music which elevates the story to the point of manifesting in its own unique plane: on the one hand it is contemporary with no conspicuous structure that can be easily defined, it is sometimes intentionally disharmonic and chromatic. The opera is not built in the standard classic-romantic, recitative-aria form; it is a musical drama sung throughout, with many capturing harmonic and melodic passages. ... This artistic framework, which uniquely combines opera and theatre, is a spellbinding experience from start to finish. Through the writing of Ella Sheriff, the challenging Hebrew language came out comprehensibly sung, the roles are molded with emotional conviction ... in a nutshell, beautiful.”
“Milch-Sheriff has written richly expressive music to the extremely cogent libretto, which she wrote together with Nava Semel. Each circle has its melodic or rhythmic qualities and with very vivid orchestration she succeeds in giving rich and clear musical expression to Semel’s book. Each character and scene is blended into a texture of exceptional musical quality, like links in a complete and continuous musical chain. The music reaches its climax when Sheriff combines with innovative imagination liturgical music and the "other", contemporary, music or that music which symbolizes the future.
From time to time there emerge familiar Jewish motives from within the orchestra but without crossing the border into sentimentality.
...It is to the credit of everyone involved in the performance of this unique opera that they have not neglected the small details, those that transform the whole into a living organism.”
“Sheriff possesses a unique melodic talent... the melody is surprising, exciting, tastefully orchestrated, fully justifying the text for which it was written... The opera is performed without pausing for breath, scene follows scene as the emotions and dynamics intensify ... The libretto was written with cinematic perspective... An excellent performance sent an exhilarated audience home from the auditorium.”