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MAMZER BASTARD (C) ROH 2018. IMAGE BY AKA

Mamzer Bastard – An opera set in the Orthodox Jewish Community of Brooklyn during the infamous 1977 blackout.

9 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

Composer Na’ama Zisser is succeeding Philip Venables as only the second Doctoral Composer-in-Residence of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Opera House. Her new opera Mamzer Bastard tells a story set within the Orthodox Jewish community and Zisser merges her own musical idiom with the music of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism. Born to a father who was a devoted amateur Cantor in a small ultra-orthodox town in Israel, Na’ama Zisser has been determined to find the right context to introduce this rich and diverse musical tradition, on which she was raised, into an opera. A ‘Mamzer’ is a Hebraic word that roughly translates as ‘bastard’, a child born from a forbidden relationship. According to Jewish religious law, mamzer are not allowed to get married…

London Calling: Tell us a little bit about the plot and the backstory of your opera!
Na’ama Zisser: Without revealing too much, it all takes place within 24 hours, on the night of a very mythological blackout in New York on July 13, 1977. We meet Yoel, our protagonist, who is an ultra orthodox young man. He’s about to get married the following night, and he ventures into the city to get baptized in the mikveh (a bathing ritual), which is what you do before the wedding in Jewish orthodox tradition. Just when he does that, all the electricity cuts out and the entire city goes into darkness for 24 hours.
 
It is known that during the blackout, there was lots of riots and looting and vandalism in the streets and Yoel gets into a physical violent assault and someone saves his life. So he asks that person, how can he repay him the favour and he answers:” The only thing you can do for me is to go ahead with your wedding and just get married.” Yoel feels completely thrown off by the fact that this stranger knows such intimate details about him, and during the course of those 24 hours, tries to find out about his saviour, but he actually learns more about himself. 

Na'ama Zisser and director Jay Scheib in rehearsal for Mamzer Bastard (C) ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

LC: It’s a bit of a family project, is it a story that is close to your family?
NZ: Yes, the libretto was written by my sister Rachel and her partner Samantha Newton, who are screenwriters for TV and film. It took us quite a long time to figure out what kind of route we wanted to go down. My opera features cantorial pieces, Jewish orthodox music that is sung by a Cantor, a trained Jewish musician that leads the congregation in synagogues.  It is one of the very first operas that has a part written for a cantor.
 
We knew we wanted cantorial pieces but we couldn’t quite work out what would be the frame that would bring this music to life in an organic natural way. We looked at a lot of Jewish literature revolving around the subject of the “late homecoming” which is also found in Greek literature. But it was only after my father passed away that my aunt told my sister and her partner Samantha about a real live mamzer. She told them the story of a person who found out that he has another family.
 
Just before my grandfather passed away, my dad found out that he had another family that was lost in the war. All that gave us the inspiration for this opera. It’s not directly related to a personal experience but to a personal history of the family.

Na'ama Zisser and Yair Elazar Glotman in rehearsal for Mamzer Bastard (C) ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

LC: You mentioned your sister and her partner are originally screenwriters, how does it differ to write a libretto for an opera?
NZ: You have to ask them! I think that the main difference is the idea of subtext. In film, there is a lot of subtext that you can control. In opera you have to be slightly more exposed and more direct in the intention that you want to transfer. A lot of subtext is in the music, which then seeps into the text. So it has to be a very cohesive language and collaboration between your writers and your composers to bring clarity to the text. But I think with opera there is no right or wrong way to write a libretto. I honestly think it is just about a mutual artistic intention. 
 
LC: Most of your team is female and you also have a female conductor. Is that a coincidence or what it something you were intentionally seeking out?
NZ: It was just about finding the right people. We do have an amazing female team, the writers are partners in work and in life. We have Jessica, our conductor, Madeleine the designer, Paulina the video designer and yes, I would say it’s a coincidence, they were just absolutely the right people for the piece.

Jessica Cottis and Na'ama Zisser in rehearsal for Mamzer Bastard (C) ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
 
LC: You are the second doctoral composer in residency at the Royal Opera House. How can we imagine that, are you researching?
NZ: It is quite a unique opportunity, I think the Royal Opera House in one of the only to collaborate with conservatoires, offering a studentship which leads to a doctoral degree, as far as I know. During your first year you mainly research, so I spend all my time going to archives and listening to music and talking to cantors. I travelled to different communities in Israel and also Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, and gathered tons of research material. Then during the second year, you start developing and narrowing things down into an opera, you start thinking about your creative team and try to figure out what it is going to be. In your third year it’s just full-on work. I was mainly locked up at my house trying to write and then going to rehearsals. In a way, I have never worked on a piece for so long, but at the same time, it went by so quickly and it always felt like there was so much to do.
 
LC: And now this finished opera is in a way your doctoral thesis?
NZ: Yes, you also have a written dissertation to do on your research and the opera is a culmination of the process and the doctorate.
 
 
Mamzer Bastard presented by the Royal Opera House and co-comissioned by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama will be performed at Hackney Empire 14 – 17 June.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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