Opera viewed with a Jewish slant

Opera viewed with a Jewish slant

Jewish soprano Eleanor Lyons plays Donna Anna in Opera Australia’s production of the Mozart classic, Don Giovanni, currently playing at the Sydney Opera House.

Eleanor Lyons as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Photo: Keith Saunders
Eleanor Lyons as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Photo: Keith Saunders

ON the daily commute from Sydney’s north to attend classes at the University of Sydney, Eleanor Lyons’ eyes would light up at the magnificent sight of white sails reaching into Sydney’s skyline.

“I used to look at the Opera House every single day, and I said, ‘I want to sing there, I want to sing there!'” she recalled with the enthused passion only a musician who lives, breathes and adores their work can evoke.

Since those days, Lyons has become an opera singer and has performed around the world at venues including Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Hungarian State Opera House and Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre, but her dream to grace the Sydney Opera House stage has never wavered. 

It came true when she performed Mahler’s Klagende Lied with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last month, and continues in Opera Australia’s production of the Mozart classic, Don Giovanni, which opened last week at the Opera House and continues until February 27.

Eleanor Lyons and husband Vladimir Fanshil.

For the past 18 months, Lyons and her husband – pianist and conductor Vladimir Fanshil – along with their three-year-old daughter Floria, have been residing in Vienna. 

Their move from Berlin was prompted by Lyons winning the Michael Byrne Vienna State Opera Award by the Opera Foundation for Young Australians to study at the Vienna State Opera.

“Vienna is an amazing city,” she told The AJN. “We are very lucky. I have the absolute ideal situation right now which is that we just escaped the European winter to come back here and do not just one but two gigs.”

Lyons is excited about making her Opera Australia debut in Don Giovanni, a dark psychological thriller that she views through a uniquely Jewish prism.

“It’s all about teshuvah,” she said of Mozart’s opera, explaining her interpretation that the dishonourable and sinful Don Giovanni (played by Italian star Luca Micheletti), who attempts to rape Donna Anna (Lyons’s character), fails to repent despite the attempts of Donna Elvira (Jane Ede).

“Teshuvah is about return. Donna Elvira is trying to turn him around to something good, and in Don Giovanni we see the example of somebody who doesn’t turn around and then the earth splits open and gobbles him up.”

A scene in Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni. Photo: Keith Saunders

It is not solely in her interpretation of Don Giovanni that Lyons’s Jewishness makes itself apparent; her faith remains a guiding light for all operas she performs.

“I sing a lot of western classical music and the themes almost always come out of the Torah,” she said.

“I always go back to the chumash, and I read all of the commentaries and I find it absolutely illuminating and it helps me to have an interesting and deep interpretation of what I do.”

In 2018, while singing in Verdi’s Requiem with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, she experienced a powerful spiritual encounter.

A requiem, Lyons described, is “kind of like kaddish”.

“I found myself at times praying when I was singing and that doesn’t happen that often … It was something meaningful for me and I almost felt like I had made tikkun olum a little bit.”

Before meeting Fanshil when she was 19, and later converting to Judaism, the foundations for a life inspired by religion were evident early on.

“Even when I was a very small child, I said to my mum, ‘Do you know what, mum? I’m going to go and read the Bible’ … My family is not religious at all, but we had a Bible.

“I was always searching and it was when I met my husband while we were studying at the Sydney Conservatorium that I asked him about Chanukah … then I wanted to learn more and over the next eight or so years I kept learning and I just loved it. When people were reading Vogue, I was reading the Torah.”

Now Lyons and her husband grace many of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe – sometimes performing together.

“In Russia we performed together, and quite often Vlad is accompanying me on the piano, and that’s wonderful. He’s so sensitive and he’s got such a wonderful ear, and because we’ve been together for so long he really understands breathing and singing.”

Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni is at the Sydney Opera House until February 27. Bookings: opera.org.au.

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