Opera at Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station

After 17 years in Europe, performer/director Gilad Philip Ben-David was compelled to return and transform the much-maligned Central Bus Station into a stage. His new opera opens there this weekend.

It's strange to see the cavernous, usually bustling Tel Aviv central bus station empty and still. That's what happens on Saturday mornings, when all the many entrances are locked and the labyrinthine hulk that combines busy bus terminals and a low-end shopping center resembles a grimy ghost town.

It is this much-maligned building – or at least the area at the foot of the escalator near Gate 44, between a wallet store and a women's shoe shop – that was filled on Saturday afternoon with sounds that don't usually reverberate against its walls. Not the Mizrahi songs that pour out from some stores during the week, or the Filipino or African tunes played by the many labor migrants who usually congregate in the bus station. Rather it was opera – music that is usually set in stately cultural institutions on the other side of town. And at least some of the audience present on Saturday seemed to have little reason otherwise to set foot in a bus station.

What I heard on Saturday was a rehearsal for the fringe opera "Yvonne," which will debut in the same place at 9 P.M. Friday, followed by a noon performance on Saturday. Before the rehearsal, four female singers (who were wonderful, as I discovered a few minutes later) stood by the escalator to warm up their voices. Next to them walked a male singer (one of two) who opened the opera in a deep and impressive baritone: "With the first light, always before everyone else, I wake up, take the S60 train from Birkenwerder." A light Berlinesque atmosphere seemed to descend on the transformed space, at least until my eye caught the Hebrew sign above the singer's head: "Exit to Zemach David Street on the 4th floor."

Returning to his cabaret roots

Also present was the man who wrote the opera, Gilad Philip Ben-David, who is better known by his stage name, Hamuchtar. Before the rehearsal, Ben-David arranged displays of women's lingerie. Though they might have come from one of the station's stalls, they were actually there because the opera is set in a Berlin department store. He sat on a long pink rug while he worked and interrupted the rehearsal when he had something to say to the singers.

Wearing a black suit and a cravat, he both did and didn't resemble the young man who regularly showed up in the pages of the Tel Aviv weeklies in the early 1990s. Ben-David, then 20, put on shows like "Hayalim Vezonot" ("Soldiers and Hookers") and "Hayare'ah Vehapartenon" ("The Moon and the Parthenon"), which gave Tel Avivian nightlife a new air of dark cabaret and decadent songs.

Today, at 40, Ben-David doesn't look that different and is still interested in compelling topics, but this time, he isn't the one in the spotlight. Sure, he writes, sets lyrics to music, dreams, initiates, produces – but this time he's leaving the stage to others.

"Yvonne" introduces us to employees at a department store who resemble characters from German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's movies as well as characters from the British sitcom "Are You Being Served?" The premise follows an Israeli man named Haim, who is in Germany to discover his roots and comes to the department store because it was built on the ruins of a synagogue that was burned down on Kristallnacht.

He despises the people he meets there – especially a female customer whose name might be Yvonne. He follows her around the store, imposing on her an imagined identity that has dubious ties to reality. He becomes sexually attracted to her (another side of his feelings of abhorrence), sniffs a pair of women's underwear, stuffs it in his pocket and walks out. From there, the story gets more complicated, sliding into violence and ultimately, a reconciliation at a hot-dog stand.

Even though "Yvonne" deals with an extremely sensitive issue, it does so with slapstick humor and without any intellectual pretensions.

"I tried to get into deep issues as little as possible," said Ben-David. "I found that doesn't jibe with the medium of opera. In the first version, there was a deeper debate over everything relating to the Holocaust, but I decided to toss that out."

Brought back to Israel by those taken away

This is the first time Ben-David has tried his hand at opera. Inspiration came from his experience being unemployed in Germany, where he lived for a while before coming back to Israel two years ago. "When you're unemployed in Germany, like I was, you can watch opera for three euros," he says. "You show your proof of unemployment at the ticket desk half an hour before the performance and you get a ticket for that price."

Ben-David's original idea was to write an opera based on the Book of Job. "It's a perfext text for opera, but in the end it came out as 'Yvonne,'" he said. He wrote most of the work while living in Germany, though he finished it in Israel. Until his return two years ago, he had been living in successive European cities – Amsterdam, London and Berlin for the past 17 years.

Ben-David said his return to Israel is tied up with the great pain he felt after reading about the government's decision to deport the children of migrant workers, many of whom live near the central bus station. "I wanted to do something," he said, "not just to sit in Berlin and curse." So he came back to Israel and rented a studio in the station.

"I always felt like a stranger," said Ben-David, who grew up in Rishon Letzion in a half-Yemenite, half-Dutch family. "When I lived in Europe I was a foreigner and in Israel I was also a foreigner, so to live among foreigners is natural for me."

Ben-David helped some of the children of migrant workers put on a musical production in his studio in the station. "The children would come to me on Saturdays and write songs. Up until the last minute, until the buses took them away for deportation. They wanted to record another Hebrew song. It was really heartbreaking. I miss their knocks on the door."

When asked if it was easy for him to put on "Yvonne," he says, "Nothing goes easily for me. It's hard but it's good. Things that aren't created through struggle sound boring. Still water brings mosquitoes and malaria." He singled out the Tel Aviv municipality's Mandel Cultural Center and its director, Ingi Rubin, as being particularly helpful in getting his project off the ground. All the same, he seems astounded that the opera has made it this far."It was a miracle," he says. "Simply a miracle."

The decision to put on the opera in the central bus station had a practical component – after all, Ben-David had his studio there – as well as an ideological one. "One of the considerations was bringing the opera to one of the least desirable places in Tel Aviv, unjustly in my eyes," he said. "The set provided by the bus station is the dream of every opera house. These dimensions, these levels, the escalators and the acoustics of the place – where else do you get this?"

The music that shaped Ben-David's youth included Yemenite tunes from his grandfather's synagogue and music his mother loved, such as French songs by the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, Dutch cabaret and the German music to which he was drawn from a young age.

When asked where his nickname comes from, Ben-David said "Hamuchtar" (The Mukhtar) just appealed to him. "I identified with the name, I don't even know why," he said. "I think it's meant to create some kind of distance between me and my stage persona. Maybe I tried to preserve myself with the help of a stage name. But it's a name that became me."

As for the great interest he generated, Ben-David said he thinks it's because he introduced concepts that weren't around in Israel at the time. "Not that I invented this style," he said. "They were basically chansons in Hebrew, which sounded very natural.

"I realized at a young age that I have to shine. That's one of the reasons I left Israel," he said. "Success, even if it was limited, damaged me a bit. I should have returned to myself and rediscovered what caused me to pick up a pencil and write a song. In that sense, 'Yvonne' was a pleasant surprise. I don't sing in this opera – six other singers do that – but I feel like I'm the one singing in six different voices."

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov