At 32, Wellber is undoubtedly the first "sabra" — an
Israeli-born Jew — to make a huge hit conducting Verdi's "Aida"
in Padua, Italy, where he stepped in at short notice in 2008.
He has conducted, as Daniel Barenboim's assistant, at La Scala
and the Berlin Staatsoper. He also has conducted at the Israeli
Opera, the Valencia Opera House, the Dresden Semperoper and will
make his debut at England's posh summer opera showcase at
Glyndebourne in May conducting Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin".
And yet what do interviewers ask him about?
"As an Israeli, you are always an Israeli," he said. "This comes
first, the music comes second."
It has been a fast and furious trajectory, taking Wellber, who
lives in Italy, to a world far away from his upbringing in the
Negev Desert town of Beersheba. He admits he is hyperactive.
"I call my mother and only by saying 'hello' ... she can feel
the hyper thing."
His late father was the leftist head of Israel's powerful
teacher's union and was close to the Bedouin community, as a
result of which Wellber has a first name used by Arabs or Jews.
He showed musical talent at an early age and was playing piano
at age five. He also took up the accordion and sometimes will
play an encore with the instrument beloved of gypsy and klezmer
bands but rarely heard at symphony concerts.
"The sound is the most beautiful sound ... it opens my heart
completely, this thing," Wellber said, chugging water in a
Dresden cafe recently after conducting Richard Strauss's two-act
opera "Ariadne auf Naxos" straight through, without a pause.
From the experience of playing accordion at hundreds of
weddings, Wellber can attest that it "gives you spontaneity" — something he put to use in "Ariadne".
Sensing that soprano Romy Petrick, singing the role of the
flirty Zerbinetta, was in good voice, Wellber decided to pick up
the pace. "She took it well so I thought, 'We're on the horse',"
Wellber said, his eyes still glowing with excitement.
If a conductor playing the accordion seems incongruous, and a
little known Israeli making a splash in Italy with Verdi is
unusual, how about the sabra conducting Strauss, who famously
lived and worked in Nazi Germany throughout the war, at the
opera house where nine of Strauss's operas had their premieres?
Again, it was a last-minute call that brought Wellber to Dresden
in 2010 to conduct Strauss's one-act opera "Daphne". But it was
something else when the opera orchestra invited him back to
conduct during Strauss's 150th birthday year in 2014.
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"I had an amazing experience when I did 'Daphne' ... and after that,
I don't know how to say it, it changed the whole proportions of the
country because I met here such wonderful people and such an
interesting orchestra and theater — but I'm talking about a
man-to-man basis, not about Germans or Israelis.
"The people responded to me and this was something that was very
strong," he said.
The legacy of musicians who lent their prestige to the Third Reich
is a fraught issue, especially for an Israeli.
Wellber's take on Strauss is that the man who described himself as a
"first-class, second-rate composer" was arrogant, childish and made
a bad choice to remain in Germany. But, he said, "what is more
important is the message, the art."
LESS FORGIVING OF WAGNER
He is less forgiving in the case of Richard Wagner, whose music,
dear to Hitler, was played constantly on the radio and in
concentration camps. To this day his music is boycotted in Israeli
concert halls, much to the chagrin of Wellber's fellow Israeli
Barenboim, who thinks Israelis only hurt themselves.
"I'm sure the Israeli boycott is stupid, on the other hand I'm sure
we shouldn't play Wagner in Israel ... I think the people are not
ready for it and this should be the reason for it. The reason should
not be political," Wellber said.
And what if the Dresdeners should ask Wellber to conduct a work of
the virulently anti-Semitic Wagner, who died before Hitler was born
but whose music is inextricably linked to him?
"For me, it's complicated. If tomorrow someone asked me in Berlin or
whatever to do 'Tristan' (Wagner's doomed-love opera 'Tristan und
Isolde') ... I'm not sure if I'm ready. On the other hand, I'm sure
that the answer will go back to the human level.
"Because if I'm going to become really good friends with these
musicians, and I have a project of three years, being here two
months of the year, I can imagine that in three years if they ask me
to do Wagner it will be a different question."
Thinking out loud, he made it clear that one answer to what it's
like being an Israeli conductor is that he is playing to two
audiences — one in the concert hall and the other in Israel.
"Maybe I could have a discussion before the show," he mused. "We can
deal with it as a complicated question and not just come and appear
as someone who is simplifying the argument."
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)
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