Interview: Israeli composer Na’ama Zisser tells us about writing her Jewish opera Mamzer Bastard

© Mariana Kazarnovsky

**Please note this is an abridged version. Read the full interview in the upcoming July issue of Jewish Renaissance.

Imagine you’re in New York in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter is either in office or about to be, bands like the Bee Gees and Elton John are vying for top spot in the charts, and one very apprehensive groom named Yoel is dreading his impending wedding.

“It’s not necessarily just about the wedding,” clarifies Na’ama Zisser, the composer of this unique Jewish opera, Mamzer Bastard. “Throughout his life Yoel has felt a bit like a misfit, that maybe there’s something wrong with him, but he doesn’t quite know why. I think the wedding is the climax of these emotions – the point where he thinks: ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’”

You see, Yoel is a Chasidic Jew and his marriage has been arranged for him, but the night before he is filled with doubt. Only an encounter with a stranger can enlighten Yoel to his true feelings and set him on a new path – one of self-discovery.

Mamzer Bastard, which ran for three nights at the Hackney Empire in June, formed the culmination of Zisser’s doctoral residency at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. For the past three years she has been researching and writing the performance, readying it for the stage. “I’ve never worked on a piece for so long,” she says of the process. “I’m kind of a last-minute person, I work really well under pressure, but I’ve found out that in opera it’s so necessary. It’s 400 pages of music – that’s a lot!”

Image by AKA

So it must be a weight off the shoulders to have finally released it to the world? “It’s hard to say until I’ve done the dissertation and the thesis. I think I’m probably not going to process that it’s the end of the residency until it happens, until I actually get my PhD.”

While Zisser’s ‘mamzer’ (the Hebrew for ‘bastard’) isn’t based on anyone in her own life, this remains a story close to her heart. “There are two sides to this, I guess,” the 29-year-old explains. “I’ve never attempted to get married, but the entire world of the opera is based on personal experience: the feel of it, some of the music, some of the visuals. Both my sister Rachel – who wrote the libretto with her partner Samantha [Newton] – and I have put in a lot of things that we know from real life, but not in a literal sense.

“However, some of the opera was inspired by a family story. My dad was born to Holocaust survivors, but it was only when my grandfather passed away that he found out my grandfather had had a wife and three other kids that he lost in the war. And when my dad passed away two years ago, during his shiva, my aunt told us a story about a mamzer that gave us the inspiration to go down this route. We felt especially connected to the idea of secrets and trauma of war in families, because my grandfather lost his entire family in the war and remarried years later without revealing his past.

“So we thought about stories for a very long time, and we were interested in the idea of homecoming, which is quite a popular theme in Jewish literature, but making an opera about a ‘mamzer’ or a ‘bastard’ seemed like a direction we should go in.”

By Danielle Goldstein

**Please note this is an abridged version. Read the full interview in the upcoming July issue of Jewish Renaissance.

The Royal Opera presents the world premiere of Mamzer Bastard by Doctoral Composer-in-Residence, Na’ama Zisser, a co-commission with the Guildhall School in association with Hackney Empire.

Mamzer Bastard runs Thursday 14, Friday 15 & Sunday 17 June. 7pm, 5pm (Sun only). £18-£25. Hackney Empire, E8 1EJ. https://hackneyempire.co.uk

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