“And the Rat Laughed”, an opera, is based on Nava Semel’s book of the same name (published 2001); the music was composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff, with the reworking of the book into the libretto by both Semel and Milch-Sheriff. It was premiered April 9th 2005 at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ori Leshman, and has played extensively in Israel, Romania, Warsaw, and, most recently, in a new Canadian production by Opera York, in Toronto. “And the Rat Laughed” will be performed at the Cameri Theatre Tel Aviv December 3rd 2009, opening the Isra-Drama Festival (December 3-8), a five-day symposium conducted in Russian, in which works of some 50 playwrights will be presented, some in full.
Born in Tel Aviv, journalist and art critic Nava Semel has written 16 books, 4 plays, 70 short stories, television scripts and the libretto to “And the Rat Laughed”. Semel and Milch-Sheriff are currently collaborating on a new production - “Flying Lessons” – at the Cameri Theatre – a co-production with the New Israeli Opera and the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva.
Ella Milch-Sheriff was born in Haifa. She has performed widely as a solo singer in Europe and Israel, focusing on Lieder and works of 20th century composers, and began composing at the age of 12. Her compositional oeuvre includes opera, chamber music, orchestral-, solo- and vocal music, popular music and arrangements.
“And the Rat Laughed” revolves around the Holocaust story through memory sixty years later. It centres around the story of a five-year-old girl hidden in a potato pit, and abused, by a Polish rural family. Her only source of company is a rat. The farmer’s wife eventually entrusts her to the village priest, who takes her in, risking his own life to save and heal her physically and emotionally, without his having any intentions of converting her to Catholicism. The crux of the opera is a Mass scene, in which we see Father Stanislaw’s own faith questioned by the experience. Semel asks a pertinent question; how do we remember and how do we pass on memory to the year 2099? I had the pleasure of talking to Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff November 15th, 2009.
Pamela Hickman: Nava and Ella, both of you are daughters of Holocaust survivors. Was the subject of the Holocaust discussed at home when you were growing up?
Nava Semel: No. My mother, who survived Auschwitz, did not talk about it for a long time. However, when my book “Hat of Glass” was published, a collection of short stories whose main characters are the children of Holocaust survivors in Israel – the Second Generation – people who carry their parents’ scars and suffering, she was deeply shaken. Her response to the book “And the Rat Laughed” was profound sorrow at not being able to protect me from submerging myself in the Holocaust subject and writing such a book. My father, also overwhelmed by it, could not understand how I had managed to hide my own suffering while putting pen to paper, as the experiences of the book were taking a hold on me, the fine line between reality and fiction becoming temporarily blurred.
Ella Milch-Sheriff: The Holocaust has been an integral part of my life for as long as I remember myself, but more through the silence surrounding it rather than through words. My parents passed on to my sister and me their sadness and suffering, rather than the facts themselves. I learned much more of my parents’ story from my father’s diary of 1943. “Can Heaven be Void?” (2003) for mezzo-soprano, narrator and orchestra is based on Dr. Baruch Milch’s diary. The opera I am in the process of writing at the moment reflects my own experiences as a “second generation” daughter as well as my parents’ story. My mother was present at the premiering of both “Can Heaven be Void?” and “And the Rat Laughed”. Words failed her - she could only cry - but she was extremely proud of me.
P.H: So what was the driving force behind creating an opera from “And the Rat Laughed?”
E.M-S: I read “And the Rat Laughed” in 2003. I found the book powerful and moving and, still in the process of reading it, decided I wanted to use it for the libretto of an opera. I had not previously written opera. Not knowing Nava well at that stage, I approached her with the idea.
N.S: I was most reluctant about it and thought the subject matter would not be suited to the dramatic stage, let alone to musical performance. I asked myself who would want to hear an opera on the subject of the Holocaust!
E.M-S: I requested a free hand in producing a first draft of a libretto and Nava gave me her consent. Once she had approved the concept, we then set to the task of collaborating to write the libretto together.
N.S: All the texts were taken directly from the novel itself, with Ella’s music as “lead player”.
P.H: With each of the five chapters of the book taking a different approach, how were you able to include the story, legend, poetry, futuristic fantasy and a diary as an operatic work?
E.M-S: We combined all of them on the stage: past, present and future exist together. The opera actually begins in the future and then moves backwards and forwards through time.
P.H: As in memory?
N.S: Yes. A relay race of memory. Ella’s musical vision had enabled me to choose the appropriate texts and lyrics from the five parts of the book in conjunction with the music.
P.H: Into what genre would you fit this unusual work?
N.S. Well, it is a sung work but it is, indeed, theatre; it now part of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s repertoire, directed by Oded Kotler and produced together with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra.
P.H: How did you envision its success?
E.M-S: We were not sure how the public would receive it. The Cameri Theatre and the ICO took upon themselves to give it a trial run of five performances. However, since then, we have had some 85 performances and the work is now into its fifth season.
P.H: Ella, would you like to talk about the musical style used in the piece?
E.M-S: Yes. My musical language is tonal yet, at the same time, contemporary. For me, the music must clearly express the emotional idea at hand. I make much use of contrast. For example, the music to the poems reflecting the child’s thoughts when she was locked in the cellar is sung by a girl’s choir: the harmonious sounds of their sweet, young voices create a more vivid contrast with the horrific lyrics than the most dissonant music could ever do. Actually, on reading those poems, it was clear to me that I wanted to set them to music well before the concept of an opera was born.
The concise Roman Catholic Mass for priest and choir is original music, Christian and liturgical in style. The priest does not renounce his Catholic faith, but, as the story unfolds and he becomes more involved in the Jewish question and his own deliberations, the music takes on more and more Jewish motifs.
For parts depicting the future, I make use of more monotonic motifs, “robotic” if you like.
The music is generally “user friendly”, even to people who are not familiar- or comfortable with classical music and opera. It includes contemporary styles, even pop, belonging to today’s music, thus communicating easily with people. This “cross-over” experience allows audiences to connect with the work and understand it through their own emotional reactions; many people attending performances find themselves overwhelmed by the work.
P.H: Nava, you and Ella have recently returned from Toronto, Canada, where Opera York presented four performances of “And the Rat Laughed” in Hebrew.
N.S: Yes. This was certainly a unique and deep experience. All the singers were Canadians and all sang the work in Hebrew! For two intensive weeks, Ella and I worked with the 12 wonderful artists on both language and music. Of the 12 singers, 11 had never heard a word of Hebrew before. By opening night, they not only sang with clear enunciation but were all totally aware of the texts they were singing! The opera received rave reviews. Professor Timothy McGee of the Music Department of the University of Toronto referred to the work as “a masterpiece” and “a compelling experience” and to the performance as “a wonderful triumph for Opera York”. There is now every chance that the opera will travel to other cities in Canada.
E.M-S: And I am sure that this is the first time an Israeli opera has been produced anew overseas, with different (non-Hebrew speaking) singers in Hebrew. With this production, we have joined the worldwide trend of works being performed in their original languages in countries where that language is not generally spoken. I would like to think that this will encourage other Israeli composers to do the same.
P.H: Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff, talking to you has been most enlightening. Many thanks for your time.