In the Teatro Massimo di Palermo’s new production of Wagner’s opera Parsifal, Western soldiers posted in the Middle East enact terrifying rituals, before sensuous flower maidens provocatively shed their hijabs. The most powerful scenes, however, come from members of the Rainbow Choir. Comprising children from Palermo’s migrant community, its appearance brings Wagner’s abstruse celebration of compassion into blindingly sharp focus.
As the Sicilian capital emerges from the ravages of a devastating war with the Mafia, the theatre has led efforts to reforge the city’s identity through culture. And, with the arrival of the Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber as music director, an exciting new era has dawned
“People have to understand that what is happening in the theatre has a relationship to their lives,” Wellber tells me following the opening performance of Parsifal, his first production in charge. “Our generation has a responsibility: to correct the mistakes of a classical music world that thought distancing the audience was a good thing.”
Working closely with Adham Darawsha, Palermo’s new director of culture, who is Palestinian, Wellber is ramping up the Massimo’s outreach work, for example by signing up violinist Midori for a “pilgrimage” of Bach sonatas around Palermo’s churches, and pledging to raise the Kids Orchestra’s profile. On New Year’s Eve, Wellber conducted a concert that “only Palermo could put on,” said Francesco Giambrone, superintendent of the Massimo. The lively programme featured everything from Senegalese and Kurdish popular music to Bizet, while Wellber played his accordion onstage.
It is no wonder his arrival has caused a stir: also principal guest conductor of the Semperoper Dresden and chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, Wellber, 38, is hot property. And by scheduling an array of big-hitting productions, he has quickly enhanced the Massimo’s international profile.
It is a remarkable turnaround for a theatre that was once emblematic of a city crippled by crime. In the 1980s, raging street battles in Palermo claimed 200 lives a year and the Mafia effectively governed the city. But the turning point came with the murders of prosecutors Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone in 1992. After sweeping to power for the second time that year, current mayor Leoluca Orlando intensified the city’s counteroffensive, and harnessed law and culture as the “two wheels” of the wagon of social regeneration.
The Massimo closed for a major renovation in 1974. When building contracts went to the Mafia, it remained closed for 23 years (former floor manager Alfredo Giordano’s prosecution for Mafia ties two years ago hints at a problem that was systemic). But Orlando relaunched the theatre, and an array of initiatives followed including cheap tickets, an informal dress code, children’s sleepovers, live relays on maxiscreens and opera productions transported by lorry into formerly mafia-infested districts such as Danisinni.
Today, Palermo is buzzing with culture, as the city reaps the rewards of its twin status as Italian Capital of Culture and host to the nomadic Manifesta biennial of contemporary art two years ago. With former prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone proclaiming the effective demise of the Mafia last September, Orlando’s ongoing push to integrate migrants, which culminated two years ago when he defied Matteo Salvini’s orders to close Italy’s ports, has been gaining traction.
Giambrone, formerly Orlando’s director of culture, explains how transformative cultural outreach has been. “Before, it was not wise for me to enter Danisinni,” he tells me. “But I went anyway, at my own risk. And I saw a great diffidence. An obvious wall. They could kill you. Now it’s a place that the tourists go.” Harnessing local talent, for example by setting up a local chorus in Danisinni, means “opera can be seen as an opportunity for people’s futures,” Giambrone explains.
“We once went into the Zen [another rough neighbourhood], and asked the kids there if they had ever been to the Massimo. They said ‘no, we haven’t even been to Palermo’,” Giambrone says, noting the irony. “So we brought them over, and explained that our carpenters made the set. One kid, Matteo, stepped forward and said ‘my dad’s a carpenter. If I follow in his footsteps does that mean I can work in opera?’ We took them to our workshops after that, and I got a letter from one of the group saying that we had helped him decide what he wanted to do in life.”
Wellber also understands the power of community work, not least having jointly founded Sarab — Strings of Change, a project providing music education to young Bedouins in Israel’s Negev desert, in 2015. That is one reason Palermo fits him like a glove.
“He is attracted to this theatre and this city,” says Giambrone. “To the life of this city, the values of the city, the necessities of the city, with the city that we are building. The theatre is a piece of the city and its vision. And Omer is part of this vision.”
How did Wellber get passionate about transforming lives through music? Growing up in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev, impressed on him how hard musical opportunities can be to find, he explains.
“It was a difficult, poor city, full of immigrants and people with different languages and cultures. And there was no money. Being an active musician was not easy. You had to find your partners, and go to the conservatory to really do something,” Wellber says.
His father, a socialist politician, was a further influence. “At the time, politicians were not corrupt so they did not earn a lot of money,” he quips. “Many of our friends moved to a rich city nearby, and, even if we visited them, we would never have moved there. It would have been a bad example.”
Wellber once worked as an assistant in Milan and Berlin to Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli conductor, who has worked tirelessly to forge links with Palestinian musicians. Like his former boss, he is critical of Israeli policy on the settlements, but has maintained close ties with the nation (he has been music director of his native Raanana Symphonette Orchestra for over a decade). “There is one small difference between Barenboim and I that is actually huge,” Wellber says. “My mother still lives in Israel. If the army calls, I go.”
Where Wellber and Barenboim see absolutely eye to eye is on the thorny question of whether Jews should play Wagner.
The music of the antisemitic composer is boycotted in Israel, and Barenboim’s decision to perform it there made him a persona non grata. Does conducting Parsifal come with baggage? “Yes, it’s quite heavy,” Wellber chuckles. So why do so? “Precisely for that reason. In Palermo you need to present complicated arguments. It would be silly to do simple stuff in such a complex city.”
This huge work (five hours in duration in Palermo, intervals included) is an operatic Everest for orchestras, and its ambiguous philosophy, which some believe is linked to Arthur de Gobineau’s theories on Aryanism, presents directors with challenges too.
Wellber’s solution was to draft in Graham Vick, the British director famed for his hard-hitting social critiques, who stripped the work of excess symbolism to deliver a searing indictment of ideologically-motivated violence. When Parsifal (Julian Hubbard) preaches to members of the Rainbow Choir, Vick indicates mutual tolerance is the key to true enlightenment
“A production like Vick’s could — no, should — be performed in Israel, because it brings to life the actual value of the work rather than the mythological elements that have become toxic,” says Wellber. Nevertheless, he has no plans to take it there. “For me it would be much more powerful to perform Vick’s production in Dresden.”
In October, Wellber published his first novel, Die vier Ohnmachten des Chaim Birkner (literally translated as ‘The Four Swoons of Chaim Birkner’), in Germany. The story, which portrays a fictional 108-year-old Jew being interviewed in 2038, in an Israel dominated by radical Orthodox leaders, has already been translated into French, and an English version will follow.
But it has not been possible to find an Israeli publisher. “I am telling a story of Israel that is not often told, because it runs counter to the official narrative. And some of these things are quite taboo. For example, the fact that Israeli society did not believe what Holocaust survivors had been through. These are things that nobody wants to speak about.
“After living in Germany for a long time I understand that my story has relevance there,” he continues. “People still don’t know that Israeli society has very different priorities to what people might think, and that the trauma there is very different to that of the Germans.” Is this also about helping Germans process national guilt rooted in the Holocaust? “That is for sure. The father figure is quite strong and says things that no German could say. You think ‘oh wow, it’s a Jew saying that’. This is really the point of the book.”
“As an artist you somehow need to choose: do you want to make the bad people good, or do you want to make the good people better?” Wellber concludes. “And I’m more into making the good people better.”
Whether conducting operas in Palermo or writing books, a desire to improve lives seems to drive all of Wellber’s work.