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VENICE AND THE GHETTO At “La Fenice” Theatre for the Great Symphony

la feniceBy Ada Treves*

The theater “La Fenice” is a central institution of Venice recent history, and it is also an important place for everyone who loves music, a place with a highly symbolic name. The images of the fire that, twenty years ago, made people believe that one of the most beautiful theaters of the world was lost forever, and the story of its rebirth from its own ashes can be compared to the rediscovery and the new fame that the Ghetto is experiencing, thanks to the five hundredth anniversary of its establishment.

“We are very proud of having been chosen for the inauguration of the celebrations, this is going to be an unmissable event and we have decided to support it without any hesitation”, says Fortunato Ortombrina, artistic director of the theater. With self-confidence, he adds that this is not just a celebration which has to do with Venice and its Ghetto, it has a wider significance: “We are dealing with the history of civilization and humanity, with facts that go beyond any boundaries”, he claims. “La Fenice” has been dedicating a special night to the International Holocaust Remembrance Day for ages, a concert whose program is carefully researched every year “but for this special occasion we have considered many different possibilities, it seemed clear to us that we had to do something different, we had to broaden our vision. We chose something universal, director Wellber and me have considered many options, but in the end we inevitably selected the Symphony in D major by Gustav Mahler, which not only celebrates our connection with nature, it also incorporates popular sounds that bring to our mind the idea of a great Europe”.

This is almost a wish and a hope, which Mr. Ortombrina expresses together with Omer Meir Wellber, the young Israeli conductor who has established an excellent professional relationship with “La Fenice” orchestra in the last eight years. “I found him in Bassano del Grappa,” says the artistic director. “He was there so as to conduct the Aida. After a gradual induction into the world of the theater, he confirmed my first impressions: he is curious, active, lively, he is very good at captivating his colleagues and at working with them as a team”.

We can find the same enthusiasm in Wellber’s words, whose knowledge of Italian shows that he is completely familiar with our environment: “Here at La Fenice they were very welcoming. I have spent eight years in Italy, but the proposal of working here in Venice made me feel like a kid who is going to Disneyland for the first time. Clearly, living here is not easy, time stretches and everything is more complicated, but at the same time there are silver linings, as it always happens”.

Wellber is really pleased with his orchestra, one of the best ones in Italy according to him; he is considered one of the most talented young conductors of his generation, having been Daniel Baremboim’s assistant both at Berliner Staatsoper Unter der Linden and at La Scala in Milan. “Living here makes things more difficult, moving is much more complicated, and music and the orchestra are conditioned by our life-style. Here, musicians are used to a dilated time, they are more patient, they leave more time to listening and to atmosphere. They adapt themselves to their everyday life”.

And it is not all about time: during wet days the instruments cannot be kept in tune, and so it is impossible to work as usual, they have to bear this conditions and adapt to them and then, says Wellber, “you finish the rehearsal, you go out and you find yourself in the middle of the magical Venetian mist…”. Concerts are never the same, the great value of musicians’ work also lies in their capability of adjusting themselves according to restrictions caused by the place in which they are performing.

“For this occasion, we were looking for an important and symbolic concert… we soon realized that what we were looking for was the First Symphony by Mahler, which is very important in modern Jewish history. It deals with a modern set of problems, like secular life in Israel, fascism, kletzmer… Right projects are usually right from the beginning, and this one is right.”

Wellber has been musical director at Raanana Symphoniette Orchestra, founded in 1991 in order to facilitate Jewish people integration in Israel, since 2009. He also takes care of young musicians’ education: he is ambassador of the nonprofit organization Save a Child’s Heart, which is located in Jerusalem and deals with cardiac surgery in developing countries and he is also one of the founders of Sarab – Strings of Change, an educational program which offers musical education to young people belonging to Bedouin communities in Negev desert, in Rahat. “I needed beautiful things to tell because, like all Israeli artists, I am always considered a spokesperson of my country, regardless of my real personality and opinions. So I needed some topics that would not make me instantly talk about politics; I worked hard in order to realize beautiful and important things, a positive topic”.

However, Wellber does not avoid talking about controversial subjects, like politics, and he highlights the fact that the five hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Ghetto is not a circumstance which should be celebrated: “It is an important anniversary, but we have to keep in mind that we are dealing with a problematic subject”. It is a sad story, which brings back bad memories, as well as an important consideration: “Maybe Judaism has survived through centuries, unlike all the other ancient religions, because of the conditions that were imposed inside Venice Ghetto, the same conditions that everywhere restricted Jewish people’s liberties, like their freedom of movement. I hope that people will think about this. We do not have to live inside ghettos anymore, and we can celebrate this, but in Judaism things can always be interpreted in two different ways. Modern anti-Semitism is a subject of which we have to talk”.

*This article has been translated by Ilaria Modena, student at the Scuola superiore interpreti e traduttori di Trieste, ‎who is doing her apprenticeship in the newsroom of Pagine Ebraiche.