Paula Heil Fisher’s feature-length documentary film Finding ElÈazar will air as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival this March. A special guest panel called “Staging the Jew” will take place after the film. The film, a story within a story, chronicles the journey of American tenor Neil Shicoff as he develops his role as a Jewish character in the 16th-century opera, La Juive (the Jewess).
In 1835, librettist Eugene Scribe and composer Jacques Fromental Halevy created the opera, which tells the story of ElÈazer, a Jewish jeweler who must choose between his faith and saving his family from death. ElÈazar’s daughter Rachael breaks a law that prohibits romantic engagements between Jews and Christians and is condemned to death. The Cardinal gives ElÈazar the chance to save her and himself by renouncing their faith. He struggles with this age-old decision and eventually chooses his faith.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, La Juive was popular around the opera stages of the world. The Nazi regime banned the opera in 1936 due its timeless message about intolerance and fanaticism and it subsequently disappeared from world stages. Then, in 1999, the Vienna State Opera staged a new production of it as a vehicle for Shicoff, who has been internationally recognized as the pre-eminent American tenor of his generation.
Fisher’s film shows an intimate portrait of Shicoff grappling with his role as a Shylockian character. While providing a rare view into rehearsal rooms and studio recordings, the film portrays Shicoff confronting the complex role he is to play and shows how it affects him. The role Shicoff plays transforms him over the course of the movie: he is forced to confront his relationship with his own faith.
The guest panel will include Peter Kazaras, tenor, stage director and frequent Seattle Opera performer; Pamela Lavitt, SJFF film curator; Perry Lorenzo, education director for the Seattle Opera; Julie Mirel, mezzo-soprano; Aaron Posner, director of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The Chosen; and Rabbi Rob Toren, Seattle Opera tenor and grants director of the Samis Foundation. The panel will be moderated by James S. Rogers, Esq.
Lavitt and Posner came up with the idea for the panel. “It’s a great way to blend film, festival, the arts of Seattle and Jewish life,” said Lavitt, who’s doctoral work focused on Jewish folklore and theater history. The panel will deal with how Jews have been staged historically and how you take a 16th-century opera and revitalize the characters for modern times.
“It is always important, to talk, to discuss, and to expose presuppositions and prejudices and recognize them for what they are,” said Kazaras. “Even if the attempt to do so inevitably brings us face to face with our own prejudices. The notion of portraying something quintessentially ‘Jewish’ onstage is just as problematic and potentially offensive as a stage director asking actors to act ‘typically black: roll your eyes, show lots of white, and wave your hands,’ ‘typically gay: mince and walk as if you are half-paralyzed,’ or even ‘typically American,’ which in this particular case meant to wear cowboy hats and carry guns. To define is invariably to diminish.
“The discussion is nonetheless important. The only way to become aware of our prejudices is to become aware of them. They cannot merely be dismissed. They must be acknowledged first and then discussed.”
In planning the panel, Lavitt wanted to bring together artists from a wide variety of backgrounds, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to take part in the discussion of how producing, writing and performing in a production about Jews affects them personally and spiritually. She took the title for the panel from a book of the same title by Harley Erdman about images of Jews in popular culture.
“When the SJFF invited me to this panel, I was enthused to discuss the important issues of the representations of Jews and Judaism in western art—with particular interest in Wagner’s operas. Such issues must not be overlooked by us,” said Lorenzo.
Artists are often transformed by the work they do. Getting into a role forces performers to take on some of the weight of that role even when they are not on stage. It can also serve as a catalyst for self-discovery. Posner encountered this when he began working on adapting Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen for stage.
“I grew up a secular Jew in Eugene, Oregon. I was Bar Mitzvah’ed, and that was about as far as it went. But I fell in love with the passion and perspective of this extraordinary novel about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1940s. My journey of adapting and directing this play put me in touch with aspects of my own Jewish identity in new ways,” he said.
“I think especially as Jews living in Seattle, we need to voice our opinions when we see Jews being staged in various cultural and artistic venues and we don’t often get a chance to participate,” said Lavitt. “We get comfortable with certain images of Jews being reproduced again and again. We need to talk more in depth about the meaning of this.”
To explain the idea behind the panel, Lavitt quoted anthropologist James Clifford, “There’s meaning made, and then we make it meaningful.”
“This quote gives us the opportunity as audience members and Jews to discuss how others are producing images of us,” explains Lavitt. “Most often, when Jews are staged they seem stuck in the 19th century with black hats and coats. There are certain representational elements that signify Jewish. But if you look at the history of Jewish costumage, there are Jews from Persia, from Africa. There is so much diversity in the way real Jews look. Yet there is a conflict between that diversity and the way they are represented on stage.”