Discussion is the national sport of Israel. They are incessant talkers, Israelis. This extends to the opera, that holy shrine of silence in western culture, where I landed last night. The packed house was not just talking before the show and after the show, but through it too.
A family from out of town sat beside us. They proceeded to do two things which shocked my operatic sensibilities. Each parent sat a child on his or her lap, throughout the whole of the first two acts! They had purchased only two seats. I assume this was all with good intent – but my friend’s view of the stage was impaired quite a bit, as Mum sought to expose her nine-year-old to Il Trovatore at no cost to herself, but at plenty cost to us. And then, low and behold, Mum struck up conversations with her child throughout the show.
I only realised at the interval that she was actually explaining the plot. I missed an opportunity there, in fairness, as I had no clue what was transpiring on stage.
The man sitting beside us immediately took up a conversation as we arrived into the theatre, asking if we were British. I was wearing my Barbour jacket emblazoned with the Union Jack, which I purchased for a discount – because it was emblazoned with a Union Jack. Good value trumps patriotism, every time.
We explained that we were Irish. ‘Even better’, he responded, a glint in his eye.
We joined in the pre-opera conversation, and I became totally fascinated by this gent, with whom I ostensibly had so very little in common.
He was a Zionist from Jerusalem, an expert in tort law, and had lectured on the intersection of law and religion at Yale, Columbia and Cambridge. He explained that he and his wife were now back in The City on the Hill, “retired, but not tired”.
I have taken to observing more closely the habits of people who are older than me. I am looking for role models, now that I am fifty. Across the evening, something of his approach to living emerged. He initiated conversations; he moved from humour to insight to humour, with perfect ease; he was humble and curious; he looked you in the eye when he spoke. As the show would unspool (‘It doesn’t end well’, he warned us), I saw him lean his eighty year old frame forward, all the better to drink in the drama and the beauty. He was so fully alert, it made a mark on me.
The orchestra began to tune-up, and there was bustle in the audience as we prepared for the show. Conversations were not so much wrapped up, as suspended. Much and all as I was looking forward to Verdi and the show’s stirring anvil chorus, I was also looking forward to the interval, so we could talk some more.
The man sitting beside us at the opera was born in Switzerland in the mid 1930s, and had lived through harsh antisemitism there, throughout the war years. Political neutrality does not equate to impartiality, it seems.
In 1952, a young idealistic law student, he emigrated to Israel. The state was only three years old. He spoke of his interest in Aristotelean justice – distributive justice and corrective justice – and how these intersected with religion. This was his area of specialisation. I was trying to piece together and understand all that he was telling me; it was quite an onslaught.
‘I am a teacher’, he smiled. ‘I like to teach’.
And what a teacher. He was truly an exciting presence to be around. He had ended his career as a justice on Israel’s Supreme Court. Holy god, I thought, when he mentioned that. But of course, I did not say anything. ‘Holy god’ is a subject in some dispute in these parts.
We asked him what made a Zionist a Zionist. He explained it was the belief, among Jews, that the creation of a Jewish state is a good and desirable thing. The issue is much debated within his own community. One, more conservative view is that the creation of such a state should only be an act of God, not a decision of man. The Zionists, however, hold that human agency plays a role, and that their founding the State of Israel is itself the beginning of the second coming.
At least, I think that’s what he was telling me. Unlike opera, where the same text is repeated five times for emphasis, he never came back on himself. His was a rich and layered conversation. Complex, like the finest whiskey.
When the final curtain descended, almost all of Verdi’s characters were dead, murdered or otherwise detained. Opera is a cruel world. The cast was beyond compare, with the exception of the lead tenor, the eponymous Trovatore (or ‘troubadour’), who had a flabby voice which warbled rather precariously. I was amused the way the Israeli audience not just shared my opinion, but also made it known to him. Catcalls. The odd boo. A precipitous drop in the volume of applause as the tenor stepped forward.
The night might have been just perfect, they seemed to be saying, if only the Troubadour could have got his act together, and risen to the task.
As we shuffled to leave the opera house, I turned to say goodbye to my new-found mentor, whose name I did not even know. He wished us well on our trip, and on our journey home to Dublin.
‘Are you married?’, he asked me, capturing a moment when only I could hear him. By this stage in the evening, of course, he had ample opportunity to deduce that he was talking to a gay man.
I replied in the negative. ‘No, I’m not married’.
He paused for a moment.
‘Not yet’, he said, as if to encourage me in exploring a new adventure in life. ‘Not yet‘.