Israeli-born opera singer expands cultural roots at JCC


Ronit Widmann-Levy, born in Haifa, has performed in opera houses and symphony halls worldwide -- in Italian, French, German and Russian -- but the Israeli soprano rarely has had the opportunity to perform an opera in her native Hebrew language, until now.

Widmann-Levy plays Leah, who is possessed by the soul of Hannan, her recently deceased lover, in the upcoming opera "The Dybbuk," which is performed in Hebrew with recitative in English.

"It's wonderful," said Widmann-Levy, who also serves as arts and culture director at the Oshman Family Jewish Commuity Center. "There's a lot to be said for singing in your mother tongue. There's an immediate connection, and an interpretation that is on a very primal level."

While growing up in Israel, Widmann-Levy said music has always been a part of her life. As a child, she remembers watching Leonard Bernstein conduct the Haifa Symphony.

"I was over the moon. I was in awe. It was a defining moment. I knew I wanted to be a part of this great thing, this musical connection," she said.

She was determined to make music her life, with her voice as her instrument. "I always feel a spiritual elevation in singing. It's therapeutic," she said. "I don't think I ever looked at it as a career. I just knew that I had to sing, and I pursued it. I feel it's almost something you don't get to choose. You just have to do it. It fills you, it nourishes your soul and it takes you to beautiful places in the world."

Widmann-Levy began studying voice at the age of 12 and studied in Tel Aviv with Metropolitan Opera coach and current assistant conductor Joan Dornemann. At Dornemann's urging, after Widmann-Levy completed her Israeli army service in 1993, she and her husband came to the United States, where she had a full scholarship at Cincinnati University's College-Conservatory of Music and her husband did graduate work in engineering. Four years later, degrees in hand, they moved to Silicon Valley where her husband found a job in the high-tech industry, "and I started working with the symphony and opera houses around here. We made it our home," she said.

Widmann-Levy continues to travel but performs more often closer to home, as her children are 17 and 7 and it's more difficult to take them along. In recent years, she has performed with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Carnegie Hall, as well as with the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. She has also recorded for the PBS "Great Performances" series and is currently working on a musical project in Ladino, the language of the Jews who came out of the Iberian Peninsula.

Her own cultural background, however, is Ashkenazi. Her grandparents fled Central and Eastern Europe, where Yiddish was the Jewish lingua franca. Some years ago, she paid homage to those roots, performing in Yiddish in "The Thomashefskys," Tilson Thomas' theater piece based on the lives of his grandparents, prominent performers in the Yiddish theater here and in Europe.

Much of her focus at the JCC, where she became director of arts and culture in 2012, lies in nourishing the art, literature and music of the Jewish world -- past, present and future. One of her accomplishments was setting up the JCC's School for Performing Arts, which offers classes and lessons for ages 18 months and up. This fall, the musical theater class will work on "The Sound of Music," culminating in a performance.

Widmann-Levy's goal is to pass on to the next generation the joy she experiences as a musician and as a performer.

"It's great, the gestalt of being onstage, being with others, working with wonderful musicians, the connection you can make with an audience," she said. "That joint experience is almost utopic. It's a great privilege."

Meanwhile, she hopes audiences will have an opportunity to experience the same exhilaration with "The Dybbuk."

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