Renowned American tenor Neil Shicoff rushed into the meeting room of the Israeli Opera, his eyes shining. The interview took place a while back, when Shicoff appeared for the first time on the stage of the Israeli opera house as Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen. But with all due respect to the broken heart of the soldier-turned-contrabandist, all Shicoff wanted to talk about was La Juive, by Jacques Fromental Halevy, the dramatic story of a Jewish goldsmith, Eleazar, his daughter Rachel, and Cardinal Brogni, set in medieval Switzerland. The role of Eleazar is especially important for Shicoff, but even before he spoke about it, he asks whether it was possible to open the interview with a sort of a statement. Sure, I said.
“I just want the Israelis to realize that in a country that which spends so much money on defense, this opera company is a jewel,” he said excitedly. “And Hanna Munitz, who has been heading it for 15 years, is one of the stars of the profession, because she took the limited funds and has utilized every shekel to bring in the best people she can for this money and to convince people to come to Israel. 15 years without deficit – this is very rare in the world today. And don’t forget opera’s many educational programs, which are aimed to nurture the new generation of opera goers.”
Shicoff, who was born in the USA into the family of celebrated cantor Sidney Shicoff, first studied singing with his father. After his father’s untimely death, he continued on to cantorial school and to Juilliard.
“Everybody expected that I would continue the family tradition – my grandfather was a hazzan, too – but I wanted to be me, and my entire career is filled with controversy and turmoil, lots of good work and some bad work,” said the singer, who has known some ups and downs.
Shicoff made his professional debut in the title role of Ernani in 1975 and a year later made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi under James Levine. Since then he has performed scores of roles in all of the important opera houses around the world.
AT FIRST, though, Shicoff didn’t even plan to become a singer, but rather an attorney.
“I liked the idea of individual struggles and how to resolve them,” he said. “As an artist I am most associated with psychological struggles or political struggles. Political struggle is surely La Juive, and psychological struggle is Les Contes des Hoffmann, since Hoffmann has problems with his creativity; while in Peter Grimesone could probably see both; it’s all about the character’s relationship with the community.”
However, Shicoff confided, La Juive has a special place in his repertoire.
“I will not be remembered for the roles with which my name is usually associated – those of Cavaradossi, or Ernani, or Rodolfo, or Rigoletto, or even Hoffmann – although I saw him in a very different light. But there is another part, and there probably will always be a little star next to my name – Eleazar in La Juive. We did it first in Vienna and then the production went to New York. [Director] David Pauntney created a stunning production.”
The singer emphasized that he is especially happy that the opera will be presented in Israel “during the Pessah period and Holocaust Remembrance day.”
“It is a piece about prejudice and intolerance, about the Cardinal and his daughter, rescued from his burning house by a Jewish goldsmith whose own sons were executed before his eyes as heretics. The conflict between Eleazar, the Christian Cardinal Brogni, and Rachel, who was raised Jewish, finally destroys everybody.”
SHICOFF EXPLAINED that “it was very important to make this opera in Vienna, because of the history of the Austrians with the Germans and the Nazis, and especially in 1999, when [far-right leader Jorg] Heider, who was totally xenophobic, came to power. The reaction in Austria was an explosion of feeling. Other key places are New York, where many Holocaust survivors and their families live, and, of course, Israel.”
“Now,” he continued, “the entire world suffers from intolerance, I see it as a wider issue in the world of today. And this is why La Juive is so important for me. Because it says that if you are not trying to figure out what the other side is trying to say, everybody is going to lose. I am not so naive – the other side could be really nasty – but you have to try and understand, otherwise you are going to kill each other, exactly like in this opera.”