It’s not every day you see the word “Mamzer’” in an opera title. Perhaps even more extraordinary, though, is that the influence of Chasidic and cantorial music is central to Mamzer Bastard, the new opera by the young Israeli composer Na’ama Zisser, staged later this month at the Hackney Empire. It even includes a cantor, Netanel Hershtik, from the Hampton Synagogue in New York as part of the cast.
Na’ama Zisser is currently doctoral composer-in-residence at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD); the opera serves as her thesis and is a co-commission between the Royal Opera and the GSMD in association with the Hackney Empire. It’s an adventurous and productive way to nurture young composers, and Zisser is only the second person to hold the post. Yet Mamzer Bastard is also a family effort: Na’ama’s two librettists are her elder sister, Rachel C. Zisser, and Samantha Newton, Rachel’s partner in life as well as work.
At the theatre café between intensive rehearsals, the Israeli-born sisters — two of five siblings —— could scarcely be more different from one another. They are a decade apart in age, with Rachel, 39, forceful and forthright while Na’ama, 29, seems quieter and deeply intuitive. Still, they share a wry sense of humour, as does Manchester-born Samantha, 35, part of the family for 13 years and originally Roman Catholic (“I wanted to go to Midnight Mass,” Rachel says, “and Sam said ‘Why’?”). Together the three are a force to be reckoned with. Today Na’ama is pale, focused, but tired: “This is the biggest piece I’ve ever written,” she says — the opera is about an hour and a half, without a break. “I’ve just sent out 400 pages of score!”
Na’ama first began composing after she discovered, during military service as a musician, that she loved making musical arrangements. Offered opportunities to study in London or New York, she chose the former: “I was 20 and my mum said it was nearer home!” she remembers.
She loves collaboration and has written for contemporary dance and various installations as well as opera and instrumental works, her commissions including pieces for the London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Grimeborn, the Tête-a-Tête Opera Festival and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, among others.
The new piece is Rachel’s first foray into opera, though Na’ama has composed smaller-scale operatic works before, including a ‘horror opera’ with Samantha as librettist. Rachel and Samantha first met at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, where they were both directing fellows, and have worked together ever since in film and TV. Their first film, Traces, was presented at the Berlinale and has won numerous awards. “Normally,” Samantha declares, “we write horror movies.”
Mamzer Bastard is no horror story, but its filmic qualities are evident as Rachel describes it. The action takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the biggest blackouts in the city’s history. A young man from the Orthodox Jewish community is to get married the next day. Unsure that he is ready, he decides to escape and finds himself lost in the darkened streets of the city, where he is nearly murdered. A stranger saves his life, asking in recompense only that he returns to his family and the wedding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he realises how little he knows about himself.”
“Mamzer” translates almost as “bastard”, but more precisely as a person born from a relationship forbidden within Jewish religious law. According to Rachel, the story relates, tangentially, to deep roots within the Zisser family. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it in one form or another ever since,” she reflects.
“At five or six years old, she was with her father when he ran into an old friend from before the Holocaust, who said ‘How nice to see you — and this is your little daughter?’ He replied, in Yiddish, thinking my aunt couldn’t understand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the original one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted afterwards: ‘Who is the original me?’
“When she was 17-18, her father went to testify at one of the Nuremburg trials. He came back with a document of his testimony against one of the Nazis. My grandmother didn’t want her children to know that our grandfather had had another family before the war, so she hid the document — and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daughter and a son before her, so she understood finally why she was not the first. I think the presence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”
Sadly, he died before he could see the project come to fruition, but, says Rachel, “he knew the opera was going to happen. And though we were reluctant to work together at first, he was the person who kept telling us it was the right thing to do.”
“He always took ownership of my music,” says Na’ama, smiling. Rachel takes up the story: “Like fathers do. And Na’ama would try to escape it as much as she could... Funnily enough, her first big opera is exactly what she was trying to escape from.”
The idea of a Chasidic backdrop for the piece originates with the Zissers’ background in Strictly Orthodox Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv: “It’s exploring our own childhood, in a way — the sights, sounds and feel of it,” says Na’ama. “Our great-grandfather was the founder of the city, and over time it got more and more religious, but we stayed there. I think it’s very present in all of our lives and works. It’s something we explore and try to deal with forever.”
Their parents were not as bound by tradition as the rest of the town. “We felt that everything was open to us and that we could do whatever we wanted to,” says Rachel. “And I think our parents’ approach affected all their group of friends. I wasn’t surprised, when Na’ama started looking into cantorial music, that our dad easily managed to introduce her to lots of cantors who would work with her, many of them very frum, because through his eyes they felt it was something very natural.” Na’ama smiles: “Now I have lots of new friends,” she declares.
Fitting cantorial music into opera was not quite as much of a culture-clash as it might initially sound: “I think it contains some similar things to opera, but the mechanism is totally different, and I was drawn to the freedom of it,” Na’ama explains. “That was the starting point, and I knew I wanted to incorporate existing cantorial pieces.” She spent six months immersing herself in old cantorial recordings in various archives, absorbing their musical language.
Now that the opera is finished, though, she says the sounds are still in her head and she has found herself, often inadvertently, continuing to use the characteristic language of the traditional Jewish modes. “I’m trying to forget it,” she jokes. “But every piece you write adds another layer to your palette.”
As for the story, that lingers too — and every family touched by the absences and secrets of the Holocaust will recognise elements of it. “I think there’s a lot of art that speaks about survivors,” says Rachel, “but there are other elements about which people don’t speak enough. If this is a river, how does it turn into lots of strands? How do these strands affect the next, successive generations? There was a secret in the family — how does that affect us? And it does affect us. It affects the way we experience things, though very differently from how it affected the first generation.
“There was a window in time, perhaps through to the 1960s, in which things happened, but then people put them away in a box,” she adds. “The attitude was that there was an old life; it finished; and now it’s ‘take two’ and the kids don’t know about it. But it’s not over. Even for the grandchildren who grew up with a grandfather who had a secret, if that secret is not in the open, the struggle is still there.”
The Royal Opera presents the world premiere of Mamzer Bastard by doctoral composer-in-residence Na’ama Zisser, a co-commission with the Guildhall School in association with Hackney Empire. June 14, 15, 17 at Hackney Empire.