An Israeli Conductor Takes on Berlin With Little Sleep, but Lots of Love

Daniel Cohen is thriving in his first season as resident conductor of the Deutsche Oper.

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A scene from the opera La Cenerentola by the Israel Opera.
A scene from the opera La Cenerentola by the Israel Opera.Credit: Courtesy

Ever since he was chosen as the resident conductor of the Deutsche Oper, 32-year-old Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen doesn’t get more than five hours sleep a night.

“This is my first season in Berlin and I’ve already learned 11 operas in four months, since each season I have to conduct seven different operas from the existing repertoire here,” he explains. “The division of labor is such that the artistic director Donald Runnicles conducts new productions while I’m in charge of the others. How can one do this? I don’t get more than 4-5 hours of sleep at night but you don’t need to feel sorry for me – I love it. As Noel Coward once said, ‘work is more fun than fun.’ That’s how it is with me.”

How did he attain such a lofty position?

“They approached me and asked me to submit my candidacy. I had an audition in which I conducted an aria by Susanna from the Marriage of Figaro, and the overture from Ruslan and Ludmila by Glinka. I got a contract for two years, as is customary.”

Cohen’s success story began at an early age. When Daniel – whose father came from Baghdad and whose maternal grandfather was a violinist in Transylvania – was 14 he was accepted by conductor Noam Sharif for studies at Tel Aviv University’s Academy of Music, where he studied the violin under Haim Taub. He graduated from the academy with distinction at the age of 19, after studying conducting privately with Evgeny Tsirlin while attending the academy. He then went to London, where to his surprise he was accepted for studies at the Royal Academy with a full stipend. He subsequently played in several orchestras, including Daniel Barenboim’s Divan, and did some conducting as well, serving as an assistant conductor to Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. Two years ago he was the resident conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as a guest conductor in Verona, Florence, Palermo, Toronto and Australia.

Daniel Cohen, conductor. Taken in 2013.Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Netanya-born Cohen’s career also includes some performances with the Israeli Opera, including conducting Rigoletto, La Traviata, Otello, Wozzeck and Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk District. Also remembered is a small yet musically glittering production of The Marriage of Figaro in Acre, directed by Itay Tiran. These days he’s leading a Belgian production of Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola) in Tel Aviv, scheduled to open this week.

The current production of La Cenerentola, which was staged in Liege, Belgium two years ago, is directed, designed and choreographed by Cecile Roussat and Julien Lubek (partners in art and life and parents to a 2-year-old boy). The two, who are pantomime artists by training, incorporate six pantomime dancers (guests from abroad) in the performance, alongside the singers. Two mezzo-sopranos will alternate in the lead role: Annalisa Stroppa ( a guest from Italy who appeared here before in the role of Rosina in the Barber of Seville) and Na’ama Goldman (who had the role of Carmen in the Masada production in that opera). Cohen will share the role of conductor with Eitan Schmeisser.

Is one allowed to edit a Rossini opera or shorten it?

“Opera, in contrast to a symphony, is a musical creation that depends on circumstances,” he says.

In other words, it’s permissible and desirable to adapt it to a location, an audience and to the conductor and director’s changing intuitions. “I made a few cuts in Cenerentola this time, not many, since the music in this opera is quite tight. I took out an aria by a step-sister which is not in the original score. Rossini didn’t compose it but agreed to add it in to placate a certain prima donna. I took it out not because it’s not in the original version but because it’s not as good.”

What are the most salient arias in this opera, in your view?

“One is the simple Cenertola’s canzone at the beginning. The second is the aria by Alidoro, the prince’s tutor, which embodies a different style. It wasn’t included in the original version but Rossini added it years later. The third is the most successful aria in the entire opera, the one sung by Don Magnifico, the step-father, as he wakes up. This is ingenious comical composition.”

What do you think of typecasting certain conductors as “Rossini experts?"

“That expression does refer to expertise, associated with the fact that Rossini did employ a specific style. Very different from Donizetti, for example, who is closer to the early Verdi and is actually a romanticist in every sense of the term. Rossini is sort of an Italian Mozart, entrenched in the classical style, in the tradition of the commedia dell’arte. An important quality needed in conducting Rossini is ‘agilita,’ the capability to conduct flexibly, allowing the orchestra to express itself lightly, letting the singers sing lightly as well so that they can produce their coloraturas, those difficult ornaments. That’s the challenge. I’m pleased to add that in the present performance, here, this is not impossible. The Rishon Letzion symphonic orchestra, due to their long years accompanying operas, has a good approach to this style.”

You’re a conductor, not a director. And yet, is it difficult to stage an opera bel canto such as La Cenerentola?

“It’s very difficult, especially with Rossini, with his comical effects that are based on repetitions. Rossini understood that repeating a funny sentence two or three times is not funny. But when you repeat it 15 times it’s funny again. The problem lies in how to stage these repetitions in an interesting way.”

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