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Opera’s ‘Moses’ finds connection with his own history through role

CHEMNITZ, Germany, June 16 (JTA) — There is more than a minyan on stage: men in prayer shawls, women in head coverings, prophets and kings of the Torah. But out of 200 cast members of “The Eternal Road,” only one is openly Jewish. His name is Matteo De Monti, and he is Moses. “Here I am” is his first line. Forty-five minutes later, he has died without setting foot in the Promised Land. In between, he pours forth heavenly Kurt Weill melodies in his rich baritone, addressed to everyone from God to the golden calf. “They asked me to do Moses here because they had seen me in George Tabori’s ‘Moses and Aaron’ by Arnold Schoenberg in Leipzig in 1994,” says De Monti, 47, who was born in Holland. “What interested me about the piece at first was when I realized that ‘The Eternal Way’ was a cry of three assimilated Jews: who were kicked out of Germany: composer Kurt Weill, writer Franz Werfel and producer Max Reinhardt. “They were forced to see themselves as Jews because of the Nazi persecutions. “It’s also the story of my own family,” he said. “Like Werfel and Weill, my father was forced to stare at himself in the mirror: ‘Now we are Jews, and we don’t know what to do with it.’” De Monti feels that he has become more Jewish by confronting how the Holocaust affected his own family. De Monti is the son of Dutch and Italian Jews. His father, Hendrik De Leeuw, survived the war only because he missed train connections before the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. De Monti’s grandfather, Joseph, died in Theresienstadt. The rest of the family died in Auschwitz. De Monti’s parents met and married after the war, and moved back to Holland. He has been performing on stages in Europe, the United States and Israel, where he sang during the Gulf War with a gas mask in his pocket. He recently moved to Berlin, after 16 years in Salzburg, Austria. While rehearsing for a performance in Austria of works by the German Israeli composer Josef Tal, the singer visited the Salzburg synagogue in search of a Hebrew coach. “It had never even dawned on me that there was a synagogue in Salzburg,” he says. There, he met a rabbi from Detroit who taught him how to pronounce Hebrew words. Later, De Monti wanted to show his appreciation. “I said, rabbi, how can I thank you?’ “He said, ‘Come to temple.’ ” “But I am not at all religious.” “It doesn’t matter. We often need a minyan.” “So on many a Friday there would be a message on my answering machine, ‘We desperately need you.’ There would always be one man behind me who would help me. “He would tap me on my shoulder when I had to stand up or turn around, or when my kipah fell down. “It hasn’t converted me,” he admits. “When I am with religious Jews, I feel as goyish as I can be. But I think it was sweet, that all I had to do was be there.” In a way, De Monti has been preparing for the Moses role since he was 4 years old. “I played the Old Year, and I had to wear a long, white beard. I can still say my lines: ‘I’m the old year, an old man that can hardly walk any more, and not many days will be with me before the new year comes.’ “The next year, I played an old ‘Jew,’ an old pensioner who lives off his interest, a rich man who did not like to work.” Years later, he realized how anti-Semitic the role was. De Monti says that, aside from Israeli set and costume designer David Sharir, there is one Jewish cast member in the current production, who for professional reasons does not want to be openly Jewish. So when stage director Michael Heinicke has had questions about things Jewish on stage, he has looked to De Monti. “I said, ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t know,’ ” De Monti says, “ ‘but just when you are reading from the Torah, please remember to read from right to left.’ ”

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