Saluting Hitler in Tosca

November 14, 2014 by Michelle Coleman
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Imagine being Jewish and having to give the Nazi salute in front of hundreds of people. This is the discomfiting challenge faced by Sitiveni Talei in Opera Australia’s 2014 production of Tosca.

A scene from Opera Australia's 2014 Tosca Photo: Jeff Busby

A scene from Opera Australia’s 2014 Tosca               Photo: Jeff Busby

Originally set to the backdrop of Rome during the Napoleonic wars, this production of Giacomo Puccini’s celebrated operatic tragedy has been re-imagined to take place in Rome in 1943, during the nine-month Nazi reign of terror after the fall of Mussolini. The opera is dark, disturbing and brilliant, adding yet another layer to the tragedy already envisioned by its creator.

Director John Bell, most famous for his Shakespearean work, said he was inspired to update the original setting as there is something particularly potent about setting an opera in an era of living memory.

The story of Tosca, revolving around two lovers and an escaped prisoner, adapts particularly well to the Nazi era, with its backdrop of war, torture, cruelty and terror. Angelotti, the escapee, is dressed in the blue and white striped uniform of a concentration camp inmate, the evil Baron Scarpia and his henchmen are Nazi officers, and the little shepherd boy who sings “lo de’ sospiri” (“I give you sighs”) wears a yellow star.

Sitiveni Talei

Sitiveni Talei

For Jewish opera singer Talei, whose father is Fijian, being part of this production has proved just as confronting as it is for the audience.

There’s a moment in the opening scene where Scarpia stares down all the singers on the stage, and the first time I saw it I was just quaking”, he said. In one scene he, along with others playing Italian citizens, are called upon by the German occupiers to give the Nazi salute. They do so with obvious reluctance. When Bell congratulated Talei on his fine acting in this scene, Talei’s response was, “I don’t know that it was acting”.

Talei’s story is perhaps even more interesting than the opera’s. He was brought up in Canberra by his Jewish mother and Fijian father, but did not find out that he was Jewish until he was 16. His grand-mother had been a Sefardi Jew from Damascus, whose own father (Talei’s great grandfather) had been in France during Kristallnacht. He was so traumatised by what he saw that he had everyone in the family baptised Anglican shortly after.

Talei’s grandmother, who is now 91, married a non-Jew and never revealed her Jewishness until her husband passed away when, according to Talei, she brought candle sticks out one Friday night and told him about his Jewish background.

Talei himself had been brought up “with no religion” and felt quite comfortable with the bombshell dropped by his grandmother. “I’d always been looking for some sort of religion,” he said, and soon after began attending shule in Canberra and learning more about his background.

Today Talei is exceptionally proud of his Jewish heritage and has spent time in Israel after winning a music scholarship to study in Tel Aviv. While in Israel he reconnected with his mother’s family there, some of whom are ultra-Orthodox.

Talei has been an Opera Australia chorister for four years, and said that it’s about one of the toughest jobs there is. During the summer season in Sydney, they perform seven times per week as well as rehearsing for at least three hours per day.

Being Jewish in this role has its own particular challenges: Talei recalled having a performance towards the end of the Yom Kippur, and how he kept checking the time to see when he would be able to go to his locker and eat the chocolate bars he had stashed there for after the fast.

He’s not complaining though – “Chorus is the best full-time position you can achieve in Australia,” he said.

Tosca is showing in Melbourne at the Arts Centre until 13 December. See for further information.





One Response to “Saluting Hitler in Tosca”
  1. Adrian Jackson says:

    Its called acting !!

    The US comedy film called “The Producers” could have attacted similar concern and it was written by a Jewish funny man who write for thwe TV series “Get Smart” too.

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