This article was published on JÜDISCHE ALLGEMEINE
Omer Meir Wellber will become future music director of the Volksoper in Vienna. His childhood in Beer Sheva still characterizes the conductor today
From Axel Brüggemann
01.21.2021 10:38 am
It was a typical “no” appointment, says Omer Meir Wellber today. “I went there to cancel.” The Israeli Wellber is head of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, musical director at the Palermo Opera House and serves as first guest conductor at the Semper Opera in Dresden.
Why would he say yes when the designated director of the Vienna Volksoper, Lotte de Beer, asked him if he wanted to be her music director in the future? Omer Meir Wellber has enough on his hands.
When he tells this episode today, three months after the appointment with Lotte de Beer, he laughs. “Never say never!”, the conductor quotes James Bond, explaining: “It was the atmosphere of the conversation that changed my mind, it was Lotte’s enthusiasm, and it was the common statement that music has a similar meaning for both of us.” And in the end he said “yes” instead of “no”. Now Vienna is creating a completely new position for the 39-year-old: Music Director of the Volksoper. This did not exist before.
How unconventional Omer Meir Wellber’s understanding of music is can probably best be observed in the Sicilian city of Palermo at the moment. While much of Italy is still latent nationalistic, the Israeli conductor, together with the mayor and the opera director, forms “a kind of resistance”, as he himself calls it. “Palermo is different from Italy,” says Meir Wellber, “liberal, more open – more curious.” That’s why he feels comfortable here.
For the young Omer, music was not a hobby, but a necessity.
When the refugee crisis escalated, the conductor sent his assistants into the streets of the city and had them interview refugees. Do they love music? Do they play an instrument? Don’t they want to do it together with him? It became a big musical festival. And this year, on New Year’s Eve, Omer Meir Wellber has set up a transsexual classical cabaret, which also thrilled the mainstream audience in Palermo.
For me, music is not an art of representation or distinction, he explains, but an existential possibility of integration and surprise. He firmly believes that a large part of the audience is quite ready for new things.
Omer Meir Wellber spent his childhood and youth in Israel. He was born in 1981 to a teacher in Beer Sheva. The city was even smaller and poorer in my childhood than it is today, he says. When you walked through the streets, you heard ten or 20 different languages, and music played a very special, very existential role. Also because it was an existential feeling of the old homeland, especially for Jewish immigrants.
For the young Omer, making music was not a leisure activity, but a necessity. He first learned accordion and violin, began composing, and, as an eleven-year-old, he rode the bus alone to the desert every Sunday, to the Kibbutz, where Michael Wolpe taught him.
Later he switched from composing to conducting, appeared with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israeli Opera. In 2008, Omer Meir Wellber then went to study with Daniel Barenboim at the State Opera in Berlin and Milan. In 2009, Wellber was finally appointed music director of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra, which is mainly dedicated to the integration of Jewish immigrants in Israel.
Omer Meir Wellber financed his studies not only with the accordion, but also as a magician. “I love the little tricks in front of the spectators,” he says, “the card tricks or tricks with coins. Tricks in which you manipulate the viewer’s attention.” Of course, this has a lot to do with the profession of conductor, says Wellber, the sound magician.
Mozart is not treated by him as a chocolate ball with gold leaf, but as a revolutionary.
With his Mozart-Da Ponte cycle at the Semperoper in Dresden, he showed the world how he reads familiar things anew, when he brushed the Mozart operas Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni against the grain of the mainstream. Wellber does not treat Mozart as a chocolate ball with gold leaf, but as an enfant terrible, a revolutionary and an all too human person. In the three key operas, the conductor recognizes the human stereotypes of fear, risk and love, which Wellber also picks up on in a book.
In general, he discovered writing as a means of self-expression. It is a way to deal with his homeland, with Israel. His new book is called The Four Powerlessnesses of Chaim Birkner and disenchants Israeli self-image with a wink.
Wellber tells the story of the oldest man in Israel, a 108-year old, who allegedly saved Torah scrolls from the Nazis in Hungary in 1941 and fled to Israel. His biography turns out to be partially fabricated. Weary with age, the protagonist is forced by his daughter Sharon to pick himself up again. “I want to tell the story of Israel a little differently,” he says. The book has already been published in German and is currently published in English and Italian.
Whether in his books or in his music, whether in Israel, London, Palermo – or in the future in Vienna: If there is one thing Omer Meir Wellber abhors, it is the routine, the satiety of the people, the stagnation of the world and dispassion in music. Omer Meir Wellber calls himself a conductor, but in truth he is, as Vienna will soon discover, a seducer of music.