Growing up in Tel Aviv, Israel, Omer Ben Seadia was the kind of girl who would put her hands on her hips, stare down her cousins and tell them exactly how they were going to play.
“I was always, always interested in directing,” Ben Seadia recalled. “But I found out pretty quick that they don’t let 5-year-olds direct.”
Just a couple of decades later, Omer Ben Seadia (pronounced oh-MARE ben se-A-di-ya) is making her Cincinnati Opera directing debut at the helm of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
The daughter of an edgy theater director and a literary publisher, she knew the stage eventually could offer that kind of an opportunity. Even the roles she found as an actor encouraged her passion. But something was missing until she got a non-singing role in a Hebrew production of “The Barber of Seville.”
“I was 15, and I marched into the opera administration office and declared that I wanted an internship,” she said. “I had chutzpah.”
She also knew how to work. She cleaned and sorted props and costumes, helped directors and conductors, gave tours and eventually was giving the pre-curtain talks for the company. Ben Seadia also asked questions. A lot.
“I met a costumer recently I knew back then. I asked her if I’d been annoying,” Ben Seadia said. “She said I wasn’t. That’s good. Because it’s exactly what I still do: I hang out with the people who make it all happen and ask a lot of questions.”
Ben Seadia’s collaborative and indefatigable spirit attracted Robin A. Guarino, professor of opera at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, who offered her a coveted spot in the school’s two-year graduate opera directing program in 2012.
“She is resilient and strong and people sense they will get the truth from her,” Guarino said. “There are a lot of pretenders out there. But as a director, everyone has to believe in your storytelling. They have to want to join in. They have to want to play in your sandbox.”
Guarino saw that in Ben Seadia. “Omer is a special human being,” she said. “I just set challenges for her. She came to us fully formed.”
She had worked in Israel after completing her undergraduate degree and her required military service, but wanted to expand her career in the U.S. while earning her artist diploma. At CCM, in addition to her on-campus work, she did projects with the Cincinnati Opera. Artistic director Evans Mirageas, noticed. “There is a spark in her. She has a lively independent mind,” he said. “I wanted to find something we could do together as she was getting started.”
That project is the new production of “Ariadne,” which Ben Seadia is first to say is not exactly a beginner’s assignment.
“It is my pleasure and my head scratcher,” Ben Seadia said in describing the 1916 piece, which in many ways is two operas in one, down to including both German and English. It demands comic timing as well as heartfelt pathos, strong actors and singers in every role and a deep understanding of the score and the libretto.
“I feel like we have all the rewards to reap,” Ben Seadia said. “We have a great conductor, great singers” and a concept that struck Mirageas as he waited for his luggage at the Cincinnati airport last year.
He saw a Crosley car, for the first time, parked there during Union Terminal’s renovation of the Cincinnati Historical Society’s displays. One of a limited number produced, the car reminded Mirageas of Crosley’s role in the Cincinnati community as an eccentric inventor as well as an arts patron.
“So it’s become a tribute to this town, this city,” Ben Seadia said. “Instead of seeing the home of the richest man in Vienna,” the audience will be placed in Pinecroft, Crosley’s College Hill home (now an event space). With well-placed nods to his interests in radio broadcasting and manufacturing, the Cincinnati Reds and other Crosley legacies, the production is more than a backstage story.
It is set in 1958, with costumes and movement inspired by opera diva Maria Callas and movie star Marilyn Monroe. As Ben Seadia puts it, it was a time when those kinds of celebrities were household names. The worlds collide in the piece when a troupe of comics and an opera company, booked to entertain a wealthy patron’s guests after supper, must rush to perform. The operatic tragedy of the deserted Ariadne, led by the brilliant Composer, unravels into a crazy slapstick world led by leading lady Zerbinetta.
Mirageas said Ben Seadia, with her outsider perspective, could offer a fresh take on Cincinnati lore, and she was ready to go beyond directing someone else’s work – often a mainstay as opera directors begin their careers. “She knows these people,” he said of the characters (singers and benefactors) depicted in the piece. “I knew she could bring to it something that is touching and thoughtful.”
It was also an opportunity for Ben Seadia to indulge in some visual feasts, inspired by the glitz and glamour of a full-out production of “Norma” or the technicolor wonder of “White Christmas” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
“It was a great time in culture and a great time in music,” she said.
Ben Seadia, whose schedule is filling up with projects across the U.S., worked with Cincinnati Opera and the Vocal Arts Ensemble on the 2017 production of “Considering Matthew Shepard.” She likes projects that inspire and thrill, but she’s not afraid to make the audience laugh. It’s one of the reasons she was drawn to “Ariadne.”
“Ariadne” has not been performed in Cincinnati for 60 years. Ben Seadia said its absence from standard repertoire is a shame. “It is one of the best pieces of the 20th century,” she said. “It’s a beautiful meeting of the music and the text. It could be performed as a play or as a symphonic piece. It’s that complete.”
While “Ariadne” is substantive, Ben Seadia wants to make sure the audience has a good time. “Because I grew up in the theater, I want to challenge the backstage tropes, but I also want to play with the standard backstage shenanigans. What are they doing when no one’s watching? There are a lot of personalities in a small space, and disastrous things can happen. The key is that the audience has to be in on the joke. You have to be true to the way we all live our lives.”
“Ariadne auf Naxos,” by Richard Strauss, July 6, 11, 13 & 14 at School for Creative & Performing Arts. cincinnatiopera.org
MORE ON OMER BEN SEADIA
On the road and in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Parents Udi and Anat and a college-aged sister “who holds me accountable.”
What she doesn’t leave home without:
“Coffee! I never go anywhere without my little coffee machine.”
Training for the Houston marathon in early 2020 has kept Ben Seadia focused on a running regimen no matter where her schedule takes her.
Rarely opera. Instead, it’s podcast after podcast. Favorites are “WTF with Marc Maron,” “Lovett or Leave It,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and any true crime podcast. If she needs a good beat, she turns to Beyonce or rock music from the 1980s or 1990s.
Reading she’s recommending:
The three books by Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” The blend of history, philosophy and wit is a journey into “what we mean in the scope of the universe,” Ben Seadia said.
A good day in Cincinnati:
After a run including a route over an Ohio River bridge, Ben Seadia enjoys a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. Coffee at Coffee Emporium, a wander through Mount Adams and a meal or two in OTR (Bakersfield, Taste of Belgium and Holtman’s are favorites) are also ingredients for a great day. She is somewhat proud of having graduated from CCM without relying on Skyline Chili.
What motivates her:
Israeli author Etgar Keret put it this way: “He misses the feeling of creating something out of something. … Because something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. … Something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before.”
Ben Seadia was in Utah for a project celebrating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. During a performance in an old train station, the fire alarm went off and everyone had to clear out of the building and into chilly darkness. The singers grabbed some props and an upright piano, and Ben Seadia led them, before hardy audience members waiting in the parking lot, in completing their performance. “It’s a night I will remember forever,” Ben Seadia said.