Before she moved to London as a third-year undergraduate student less than a decade ago, Na’ama Zisser had never even been to the opera. This week sees the production of her very own, “Mamzer Bastard,” by London’s Royal Opera House at the Hackney Empire. Taking place within an orthodox Hasidic community and featuring Jewish cantorial singing, “Mamzer” is the second fruit to be born from the ROH and Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s joint-doctoral program, after Philip Venables’s celebrated “4.48 Psychosis.” It’s a heavy precedent which Zisser admits initially “freaked me out,” though ultimately “in a good way—it put pressure on me to work harder.”
Growing up in what she describes as a “small religious city” called Bnei Brak, not far from Tel Aviv in Israel, Zisser was surrounded by a heady mix of musical flavors from an early age. She listened to the muezzin’s call to prayer and the Hasidic music enthusiastically promoted and sometimes sung in synagogue by her own father, and started classical piano from the age of six. She continued to play the instrument as part of her compulsory military service with the IDF. It was there that—aside from one or two Elton John arrangements made for friends at school—she got her first taste of composing, writing vocal arrangements for the military band. Her music, combining traditional Jewish melodies and quarter-tonal trills with all the expanded sonorities and extended techniques of 20th century composition, is sensuous without being trite; subtle without being slight.
Through a deft skein of small gestures, Zisser is able to build up a sound world high on atmospherics, gossamer-light and richly engrossing.Since moving to London and studying with Mark-Anthony Turnage, she has written smaller operatic pieces for Tête à Tête and Grimeborn Festivals, dance works for Sadler’s Well Theatre, and instrumental works for the London Sinfonietta and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. But “Mamzer,” as she freely grants, is “definitely” her biggest production to date. I caught up with her in the bar at the Hackney Empire, in the midst of rehearsals, to talk about opera, karaoke, and the Golden Age of cantorial singing.
VAN: What has been the biggest surprise for you, working on such a larger scale than you are used to?
Na’ama Zisser: Everything was a surprise, in a good way. It’s amazing to have an idea executed in the best way, by the best people. I’m more used to thinking, I want to do this—how can I do it on my own? Now I’m learning how to let people do their own thing.
What are the particular frictions that you discovered in combining the Jewish cantorial tradition with contemporary Western classical music?
It’s a totally different approach to music. But in a way, it’s an uncanny version of operatic singing. There was a time, between World War I and World War II, which people call the “Golden Age” of cantorial music. It was the most creative period for cantorial pieces. Many cantors were composing their own music, which doesn’t happen as often today. And a lot of cantors were trained by opera singers. Yossele Rosenblatt, for example, one of the most famous cantors in history, was chased by all the biggest opera houses, but I think he was never quite ready to take it up—because of religion and so on. And I think many cantors were in that same position.
So something in the vocal technique and the training was similar. And some of the compositions were influenced by Western classical music as a result. But at the same time, a lot of the vibratos are different. There’s more quarter-tone vibrato. The freedom in it is totally different. So it’s kind of a weird hybrid, which I’ve used in the opera. It’s somewhere in between Middle-Eastern and Western music.
And if, at that time between the wars, many cantors were approached by opera houses but never wanted to do it for religious reasons or whatever else, did you also struggle to find your cantor, Netanel Hershtik?
Definitely. It took me a year and a half. Until finally, the time before last that I was in New York, just before I left, someone sent me a text saying, “Did you ever meet this person?” I finally met him just before my flight. And he was…amazing! Still, it wasn’t easy. It took a while until he said OK.
In your piece “Empty Orchestra: Kara-oke” (2016), you brought a particular singing tradition that is normally outside the Western orchestral tradition into that world. The piece was performed by the LSO Chamber Ensemble at LSO St. Lukes, with the instrumentalists playing your music alongside lyric videos by No Doubt and Dusty Springfield.
I love karaoke in a very serious way. There’s something really special about the experience of karaoke. It makes you understand what works and what doesn’t in many songs. You strip it down and get to the very essence of pop songs. I think for me it’s also quite an emotional experience. I like the way it plays on people’s memories in different ways. So I think it was my dream idea to do a live karaoke with players.
So are you more of a fan of the Japanese style private booth karaoke, or everyone singing together in the pub?
Definitely the Japanese style. Get it all out there! For a few good hours.
Do you have a favorite karaoke song?
Lots! My friends complain that I always sing Celine Dion.
You’ve also worked quite a lot with dancers and choreographers: “Ghosts” at Sadler’s Wells in 2013 with Sivan Rubinstein and “Fill In The Blanks” with Ashley Hind and the Anything Goes Collective in 2014. What appeals to you about writing for dance?
One of the most appealing things about working with dancers for me is the process. All the choreographers I worked with, they spend so much time in the rehearsal room feeding off the dancers. It’s never just a thing where someone turns up with a piece of paper and says, “Do it.” It’s more of an organic process of all of us being in the room and we create something together.
Is that kind of approach something that you try to bring in to the way you write music?
In my dreamworld. I do have some musicians that, over time, I have collaborated with, and that’s always a homecoming kind of experience. What’s great about it is that they know your notational language and they know what you mean when you say things. I always find notation a challenge. For me, it’s a means to an end. It’s a way of communicating with people. I try to write things in the simplest way I can, to just try and be as direct as I can on paper, without overcomplicating things.
What do you want to do with the genre of opera? Do you have your own particular vision for what opera can or should be about?
I feel like because I came to it so late, in a way I don’t have the weight of history when I approach it. It’s good and bad, I think. But it allowed me to come to it in a simpler way, just trying to think about what interests me in it, rather than thinking about the evolution of the genre. For me, the thing that attracted me to it is the idea that you can manifest characters through sound. But I’m trying not to deal with what opera means to me. I think it would damage what I do. I look at it as a blank canvas. Ultimately, I’m interested in telling a story.
But are there particular elements from the great canon of classical and romantic operas that you want to retain and elements you want to move away from?
I think, if there’s something I want to change it’s maybe about telling stories that weren’t told in the operatic medium, giving exposure to different parts of society, different characters that weren’t represented in opera. Also, most of our team are female, and I think that’s quite nice, but it’s not very common. It’s small steps, but I think for contemporary opera it’s important. It’s really important to have the main stage productions and the big operatic works, but alongside it, it’s also important to bring the genre to places where it wasn’t present before.
Do you know what you’re doing next, after “Mamzer” is over?
I’m trying to survive from one day to the next at the moment. But probably going on a big vacation. I want to go to Japan…and sing karaoke. ¶