As BA cabin arrival announcements go, on landing at Larnaca in Cyprus, this was a doozy. “For those of you who have turned on your mobile phones and hit the ‘Maps’ button, we are not in Beirut”. Of course, I immediately disabled flight mode and fingered my iPhone Google Map button. Sure enough, according to my phone, I was in Beirut-Rafic Al Hariri Airport. In a restaurant. 

I was actually en route to Tel Aviv to see Israeli Opera’s production of Hanoch Levin – the Opera. I had been planning to give Beirut Opera’s long-running Casino du Liban show, Hezbollah’s The Persistent Terrorist, a body swerve. 

“This is due to local GPS spoofing. After the crew change, we will be on our way to Tel Aviv, in approximately 30 minutes”.

If Herod had heard of spoofing, the Three Wise Men could have ended up following their star to Damascus. Christmas might have been cancelled forever. Global Positioning System (GPS) spoofing is, apparently, well known in war zones. News to me. And discombobulating.

It is the Israeli military’s jamming strategy designed to confuse GPS systems nowadays fitted to cheap missiles – basically whizzbangs kitted out with mobile phones – instead of more interference-free, but expensive inertial guidance systems, to be found in Cruise missiles.

I was told there had been “spoofing” in the north of the country since the Gaza attack of 7 October 2023, to blunt anticipated Hezbollah rocket attacks from Lebanon. It was sobering to be reminded. I was heading to an opera in a war zone. 

The next announcement was worse. “As we are entering Israeli airspace it is compulsory to wear a seatbelt at all times. Remain in your seats. Moving around the aircraft is forbidden by law”. Risk of hijack? Unexpected, sharp manoeuvring to avoid …… what? Best left unsaid. 

On arrival, descending the long, sloping marble walkways from the landing gate to passport control, there were poignant images of the 7 October slaughter. Fastened to each stanchion of the walkway was a photograph of a hostage. That they were everyday, family photos taken in happy times made them intensely moving. Ages ranged from a nine-day infant to a 90-year-old great grandad. 

Their ordinariness was eerie. I suddenly realised why. These were my fellow passengers from the plane – kids, mothers and fathers, elderly parents, excited students, dropouts.

I had never heard of Hanoch Levin, let alone an opera about his life. But I visited Israeli Opera in 2022 to see its Pagliacci. If General Director, Zach Granit thought Levin deserved an opera, my instinct told me the production would be worth a journey. So it proved to be.

Hanoch Levin (1943 -1999) may well be Israel’s greatest playwright and bad boy satirist. His subversive oeuvre encompasses twenty volumes, and he covered the genre landscape. Comedies, tragedies, satirical Berthold Brecht type cabarets, short stories, prose, songs, poetry, sketches plays and cinema. 

Son of impoverished Polish immigrants from the 1930s, Levin quit school at the age of 13 when his father died to run the family fruit business, served his compulsory military service – a formative experience – then attended university. He started publishing in 1965. 

The Six-Day War in June 1967 was a seminal experience. Shortly after he wrote his political cabaret, You, Me and the Next War, which was a stark warning about national hubris over Israel’s rapid victory, Levin satirically dubbed the conflict The Eleven Minute War and prophetically warned of the long-term consequences of the occupation of Palestinian territories for both sides. 

Hanoch Levin – The Opera is a pot-pourri of his stories set to music by composers Yossi Ben Nun, Yonatan Cnaan, Yonatan Keret, Ronnie Reshef and David Sebba. Sebba conducted the Opera Orchestra. The full cast of performers and the programme – eighteen cameos – can be found here. 

As in the musical Cabaret, a Master of Ceremonies sets the scene. The stage is sparely set, the characters sitting on chairs in rows facing the audience. Are we facing our own distorted images? 

Then, it’s off to the Levin races, with The Rubber Merchants, competitive traders in condoms who describe their products in terms of the opening moments of a theatrical production, “any second now a vibrant life will start shining here”.

All the sketches focus on interpersonal relationships and poke a finger of fun at Hebrew culture. No more so than Bachelors and Bachelorettes in which Zneidoch, who has been ditched by Flotzika, courts and marries Bulba, finding new hell when Bulba insists on fulfilling her demanding sexual expectations. I shall coyly describe them here as “digitally directed”. To Zneidoch’s discomfiture. 

Two Shy Men and a Nervous Woman was a hysterical monologue about trivia. Genia’s contempt for her husband who has just asked her to pass the salt to the guest eating with him. How a simple act can be blown out of all proportion. Think John Cleese as Basil Fawlty reminding his German guests at Fawlty Towers when table talk of the war got out of hand. “You started it. You invaded Poland”.

In Chess, a mother asks of leaders sending young soldiers – the pieces on their board – to battle” “Where is my good child, is my good child alright?”.

You, Me and the Next War is about a couple whose romantic walks are dominated by imminent conflict. “When we are strolling, then we are three. You, me and the next war”.

Then, there is pure farce with a purpose. Yacobi and Leidental decide to end their friendship and Leidental courts Ruth Shekhash whose dominating, only memorable, inescapable, constantly wobbling features are her enormous buttocks. She self-deceives that she is known as a pianist. Let me put it this way. Despite her artistic endeavours, the buttocks win out in the end. 

London is about a student on his travels, under no illusions. “London isn’t waiting for me”. As the scene in front of Big Ben unfolded, a procession of the Royal Family waved their way across the stage, King Charles III behaving ever more ditzily, like Joe Biden looking for an exit. 

Schitz is about a mother and father who are obsessed with having wedding guests cover the cost of their daughter, Schprachtzi’s wedding. They pose as impoverished royalty, holding an auction that eventually hits their target. Their daughter’s wedding to Tcharchess hardly matters. 

As the different plots unfolded, I felt Levin was introducing me to his wider family. Absurd, unreasonable, often misguided, obsessive, but always loved. These tales may all point a sharp, critical moral, but because they are told from the inside, they are acceptable. That is why the show was sold out.

My new friends from Eilat, in the south, who I met around a coffee table pre-performance, had dedicated two days to take in Hanoch Levin. The husband was recalling his own student days. I bumped into them again after a post-performance talk in the foyer. Fortunately. As I had not understood the criss-cross conversation in Hebrew, although the sense was unmistakable. 

The opera had been due to premiere on 8 October last year. The Gaza slaughter put paid to that. There followed intensive debate about whether it was appropriate to mount Levy’s subversive plays at all at a time of national conflict. The English language version of the opera website cancellation announcement of 8 October accidentally remains unchanged. “The new production of Hanoch Levin – the Opera, on which we have been working for many months will have to wait for better days”.

These are not better days, but the decision not to delay turning the mirror of this, what Yes Prime Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby would have described as “unhelpful”, carefully distilled sampler of Levin’s work towards an Israeli audience was as right as it was brave.

In a square adjacent to the opera house there is a permanent site dedicated to “Bring them back” – the hostages – staging a dance performance. Competing up the street is an orderly demonstration critical of Bibi Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis. On the day before, he had unceremoniously disbanded his War Cabinet. Better days are a distant prospect.

As I buckled up to leave Israeli airspace, I reflected on the fashionable, mindless anti-Israeli protests awaiting me back home in London, and New York. Which of Israel’s neighbouring countries, some dedicated to erasing the country from the map – that’s what the pleasant-sounding slogan “From the river to the sea” means – would allow a similarly disruptive work to be staged?

The answer is, “none”. The protagonists would either be dead or wandering around without the benefit of their right hand. Only a vibrant democracy has sufficient confidence to test itself so.

Like the vast majority of reasonable people, I abhor all killing. But “peace” cannot be bought at any price. When the perpetrators of a premeditated slaughter seek to avoid righteous retribution by sandbagging themselves with their innocent compatriots, then complain of inevitable collateral damage, I know whose side I am on.  

Hanoch Levin – the Opera would be an ideal show for Covent Garden’s Linbury or New York’s Greenwich Village Theatres. The music has pace, the kaleidoscope of the absurd is absorbing and the staging is sharp. Levin keeps us honest. His disruptive voice demands to be heard as much in these times as in his own. We cannot afford to wait for “better days”.

And another thing!

Opera Holland Park, proud defier of London’s summer climate vagaries, staged a young artists’ performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville last Friday. It proved to be an evening of vibrant fun and frolics.

Mounting opera in a tent with holes in the side is always awkward and Holland Park has opted for a stage that encircles the orchestra. It’s an awkward format that makes for a constant imbalance in voices back and front of stage, forcing singers to become Holland Park Olympians, running back and forth distractingly at great speed to accomplish entrances and exits. 

The conductor is marooned in the middle with the orchestra, unable to make eye contact with singers for most of the performance. In a rapid-fire opera like Barber, that could lead to chaos. 

Anna Castro Grinstein, a student conductor from Munich, was on the podium and coped with the weird configuration with aplomb, even comically swapping paces with Lindoro – really Count Almaviva – as he gives furtive singing lessons to his heart’s desire, Rosina, in full view of her lusting guardian, Dr Bartolo.

Grinstein is on manoeuvres. Her YouTube Channel, How I Met the Opera is a must-watch hoot, featuring a series of 15 minute or so vignettes. What do Conductors Actually Do?, Don’t do This, NEVER do This, Tosca vs Game of Thrones and oodles of others all offering sharp insights into opera, music appreciation and, of course, conducting. 

Engagingly unpompous, Grinstein is riding a wave of interest in female conductors. The films Tár, The Conductor and the documentary Taking Risks about the singing conductor, Barbara Hannigan come to mind. 

Opera Holland Park does not court the merely popular. I am devastated to have to miss this year’s production of Puccini’s rarely performed Edgar. Rarely performed, because it is rubbish. Up there with Mozart’s The Goose of Cairo.

But I have huge affection for Edgar as it was the first Wexford Festival Opera performance to which I dared take my about to be wife in 1980. She famously likes only opera intervals. Watching Edgar gratuitously burning his own house down again in Holland Park would have been a good sort of anniversary present. 

Off to Grange Park and Garsington instead. More careful scheduling in 2025. And watch out for Grinstein. You heard of her here first.

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