Thursday 14, Friday 15 June, 7pm; Sunday 17 June, 5pm; Hackney Empire
The Royal Opera presents the world premiere of Doctoral Composer-in-Residence Na’ama Zisser’s new opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission with the Guildhall School in association with Hackney Empire. 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: it is one of the very first operas to feature and reference cantorial music & singing.
‘Mamzer’ is a Hebraic word that roughly translates as ‘bastard’ – it denotes a person born from a relationship that is forbidden according to Jewish religious law. Through her setting within the Hasidic community during the 13 July 1977 New York blackout, Zisser explores how much a person will sacrifice for their religion, their community and other people’s happiness.
With a strong live cinematic element reminiscent of the night of the blackout, the opera is scored for ten players, including brass, woodwind, strings, keyboards and soundtrack created by Yair Elazar Glotman and live camera by Paulina Jurzec. The cast is made of up of six performers, including lead cantor of Hampton Synagogue Netanel Hershtik who sings the role of David, a cantor. The other cast members are Collin Shay (Yoel); young Yoel, Steven Page (Stranger); Gundula Hintz (Esther); Robert Burt (Menashe). Musicians from Aurora Orchestra are directed by conductor Jessica Cottis. The libretto is written by Rachel C. Zisser and Samantha Newton whose films have screened at many prestigious film festivals including the Berlinale, and the opera is directed by Jay Scheib’s whose recent productions have included ‘Bat out of Hell’ in the West End.
The project is a real family affair as the co-librettists are Na’ama Zisser’s sister and sister-in-law respectively, whilst their genealogy provides much of the inspiration. 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 and share this rich and diverse musical tradition on which she was raised. Sifting through Jewish folktales for inspiration, a theme of ‘the late return’ kept recurring. Sadly, the full story was not forthcoming until the death of her father, Mordechai.
The son of immigrants who survived the Second World War, although Mordechai himself did not experience the Holocaust, its tragic memories were nurtured in him by his mother who lost her entire family. She was a proud woman who never spoke of her past, so he grew up not fully understanding her story, yet her loss left in him an unfulfillment, an empty space that the war took forever. Mordechai yearned to re-occupy this space and this opera is an attempt to do this.
Launched in 2013, the collaboration between the Guildhall School and The Royal Opera is one of the first examples of an opera company and conservatoire joining forces to offer a Composer-in-Residence studentship which leads to a doctoral degree. Fully funded by the Guildhall School and supported by The Royal Opera, the studentship offers one composer every two years the opportunity to be Doctoral Composer-in-Residence over a three-year period. During this time, the composer researches and writes a major work, which is staged by The Royal Opera at the end of the residency and is supervised by Head of Composition at the Guildhall School Julian Philips and Sarah Crabtree, Creative Producer for The Royal Opera.
Na’ama Zisser began her compositional studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, having completed compulsory military service as a pianist in her native Israel’s Air Force orchestra. From here, she was commissioned by a variety of leading Israeli orchestras such as the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Camerata Orchestra. With this experience, she went on to gain her BMus in Composition from the Guildhall School and recently graduated with Distinction from the Royal College of Music with an MA in Composition. During her time at the Royal College, she studied under Mark-Anthony Turnage (supported by the Polonsky Award) and was awarded the Hurlstone & Cobbet RCM special prize for outstanding achievement.
Zisser’s work, which centres around collaborations and has a particular focus on contemporary dance, opera, installations, theatre and instrumental music, has been presented at various venues in the UK including the Southbank Centre, the Barbican, Snape Maltings, National Portrait Gallery, Sadler’s Wells, Kings Place and the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, as well as on BBC Radio 3 and online radio station NTS. She has been commissioned by and worked with such ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Tête à Tête, CHROMA Ensemble, Grimeborn, Dance UK, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Israel Contemporary Players, and Israel Camerata. She has held residencies with Sound and Music and East London Dance emerging artists programmes; Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme; London Symphony Orchestra Soundhub; and her work has been supported by Arts Council England and PRS.
Philip Venables was the inaugural Doctoral Composer-in-Residence and his opera 4.48 Psychosis which premiered in May 2016 has won numerous awards including the 2016 UK Theatre Award for Achievement in Opera, the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large-Scale Composition and the 2017 British Composer Award for Stage Work. It was also nominated for the 2017 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production and the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Best Opera 2017. The Royal Opera presents further performances of 4.48 Psychosis in April and May at the Lyric Hammersmith.
In September 2017 Matthew Rogers joined the programme as the third Doctoral Composer-in-Residence. Rogers is a British composer who has written for and with a host of leading instrumentalists, ensembles and technologists, creating music and installations for concert halls, theatres, galleries and public spaces. He studied with Gordon McPherson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is an alumnus of the Britten-Pears School where he studied with Oliver Knussen, Julian Anderson and Magnus Lindberg.
Recent works include the opera The Virtues of Things (Royal Opera, Opera North, Snape Maltings), concert music for American chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound and Danish ensemble Scenatet. Rogers has received the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Composers and has been Artist-in-Residence at the Southbank Centre and Tokyo Wonder Site. He was also the first composer to be commissioned by London's Art on the Underground, in conjunction with London Sinfonietta.
As Doctoral Composer-in-Residence, Rogers is interested in exploring fictionality as a property of both fiction and reality.
In addition to the Doctoral Composer-in-Residence, the Guildhall School offers a Masters in Opera Making and Writing (www.gsmd.ac.uk/operamaking) in association with the Royal Opera House. Launched in 2014, this full-time, one-year Masters programme allows composers and writers to focus on how new opera is created, developed and performed.