Stage Animal / Hanoch Levin Goes Opera

Next week the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center will host the world premiere of "The Child Dreams," an opera by Gil Shohat based on the play by Hanoch Levin, with sets by Gottfried Hellenwein, directed by Omri Nitzan and conducted by David Stern. This will be the first opera from a Hanoch Levin play, even though several of his plays, mostly from the works he wrote after the era of "Execution," practically beg for an operatic version where the music takes the events from the realistic plane and creates a stylized framework that enables dealing with the intensity of emotions, pain and suffering.

Levin's play served as the core of a new and unique creation. But the play itself, as it was performed, or even as it was printed, is not where it all started. From the 1980s, Levin would submit to theaters a computer printout, sometimes with two options for a given line, and this text would undergo changes until the premiere. In addition, Levin prepared files with printed draft copies.

In the case of "The Child Dreams," his original handwritten notes and preliminary drafts can be found in one of the files. In "The Young Hanoch Levin Book" (no. 19 in the Mita'am Review of Literature and Radical Thought series issued several months ago), those manuscripts (literally) by Levin were published with comments of the editor about the places where the handwriting was blurry. The drafts were penned before the start of work on "The Child Dreams" in 1986, before the outbreak of the first intifada.

The Cameri, which was to a large extent Levin's home theater at the time, acquired the rights to the play. However no performance of the play was scheduled over the course of four years, and in the end it was performed at the Habima Theater in 1993, directed by Levin, with a set by Roni Toren, music by Poldi Shatzman, with Jetta Monte in the role of the woman and Dina Blei as the child.

Levin's drafts, which served as a basis of "The Child Dreams," and the comments of the Mita'am Review editor Yitzhak Laor are a starting point for some fascinating research into Hanoch Levin and the Holocaust. Without a thorough search, it may be said that direct references to this topic or even the use of the very word "Holocaust" hardly exist in any of his plays. The notes ahead of "The Child Dreams" are basically his only direct discussion of the topic in his dramatic works.

Levin was at the time very moved by Stuart Rosenberg's film "Voyage of the Damned," which told the story of the St. Louis, a boat that departed from Germany in 1939 with over 900 Jews on board who had purchased permits to Cuba. They were not allowed to disembark in Cuba, nor were they allowed into the United States. They were taken back to Europe and some, if not most of them perished, eventually, in the concentration camps.

Levin's notes detail a synopsis of the same situation of refugees, who at first fight to board the ship and then do not find any safe harbor, and he quotes or copies in his handwriting horrific descriptions of the Nazis' deeds in murdering Jews from the books of Herman Wouk and Martin Gray, and from Gideon Hausner's speech at the Eichmann trial about the world's indifference.

Reading the play as it was performed illustrates how Levin consistently erased any realistic reference to the Holocaust. The play still touches on the abuse inflicted by those in power on the defenseless, the mother-child relationship, what people are willing to do in order to stay alive and the hope that the messiah will come and provide consolation. Suddenly, in a later reading, it seems that the songs of comfort (in most of Levin plays music has a very important place) at the end of the horrifying plays (the "horrifiers" as Laor suggests to label a section of Levin plays to which "The Child Dreams" belongs) are not ironic; they reflect a recognition of the meaninglessness of the world, of life and death, and nevertheless a desperate hope, or plea, that the father figure will come to bring comfort and redemption.

"The Child Dreams" had a relatively short run in 1993, as the very large cast needed made the cost of the production too heavy a burden on the budget, even though it was a joint production of the National Theater Habima, the Haifa Municipal Theater and the Israel Festival.

While working on preparations for the opera, Nitzan happened to come across the film "Voyage of the Damned," which is occasionally shown on one of the movie channels. He saw the connection to "The Child Dreams" without knowing about the notes.

Levin managed to make the Israeli audience to accept his "humane" caricatures of everyday life, and his grotesque and pathetic characters, who feed on the suffering of the other, were welcomed on the stage. But when he set out to search for the awe and overwhelming nature of suffering which defies the imagination, for the pain that is unbearable, he was himself grappling for the the appropriate theatrical style. His inclination (and that of the set designers he worked with) was toward exaggerated theatricality, perhaps in an attempt to search for the tragic catharsis.

Very few actors could provide such stage intensity. It is possible that the medium of opera, which sets the events on the stage on a scale that is stylized, unrealistic, larger than life and different from it to begin with, is actually the right stage language or at least offers a possibility for achieving such emotional intensity with the audience. There is even a hint to this in the plot of "The Child Dreams." In one scene, when the father is about to be executed, the mother says to the child "ask for mercy! Sing a song to her! Your voice must soften her heart."