It’s not all wine and roses

It’s not all wine and roses

Israeli-born diva Rinat Shaham talks to the Jewish Standard

Rinat Shaham

If you’re among the tippity-top opera singers, like Renée Fleming, maybe you enjoy a glamorous life, full of parties, fine food and fine clothing, sunny seas, and celebrities. Otherwise, says Israeli-born mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham, “It’s loneliness, baggage, waiting, cold, disease.”

And Shaham is one of the more successful young opera singers of today. She’s sung in opera houses around the world, and for the most famous conductors, including Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Andre Previn. (Her brother is not the violinist Gil Shaham, who is no relation, but the violinist Hagal Shaham.)

By the way, the voices of mezzo sopranos, like Shaham’s, are not so high as those of sopranos, but higher than those of contraltos.

Her key role: “Carmen,” the tempestuous gypsy in George Bizet’s opera. Says Rinat Shaham, with a laugh, “It might have to do with the chutzpah I have, coming from Israel.” She has covered for the lead Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House, a hint that someday she may assume the role there. She’s also sung Melisande in “Pelleas,” Charlotte in “Werther,” Dorabella in “Cosi,” Cherubino in “Nozze,” and many other roles.

For a diva, she seems very modest and unpretentious. And her down-to-earth blog has gotten plenty of attention. (A memorable line: “Lucky I just had a 2nd look at the full-length mirror…. Back side of my dress was well tucked into my undies….”)

She was born in Haifa, the daughter of a music teacher. And early in life she discovered she had a passion for performing on stage. She took music courses in Israel, which she says were quite good, but finished her musical education at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

She has worked with the famous mezzo Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West (the chief music critic of the New York Times once wrote that Horne was the best mezzo ever to sing at the Met). It was there that Shaham met her future husband, violinist and filmmaker Peter Bucknell, an Australian. She now lives in New York.

Here are excerpts from a recent phone interview:

Jewish Standard: You’re a mezzo soprano. Can you sing soprano roles?

Rinat Shaham: Sometimes. It really depends on the role and the orchestration. Where it lays most of the time.

JS: Can you sing contralto? There are hardly any contraltos around these days….

RS: It’s not a matter of ‘can you?’ Yes, of course I can sing parts that were written for contralto and sometimes for soprano, but it depends on the piece, how it sounds. Whether the voice is loud enough for the part written.

JS: There are fewer key roles for mezzos than there are for sopranos – isn’t that true?

RS: I think it’s almost equally divided. In most operas, you can find almost all voice types on stage. Baritone, base, mezzo, soprano, and everything in between. And for mezzo sopranos there are different categories within that title – there’s a lyric mezzo and a dramatic mezzo, there are many different voice types.

JS: How many operas have you learned?

RS: Around 20. In recent years, I’m pretty much typecast into doing “Carmen.” So it leaves me a lot of time to explore many other roles.

JS: Are there any operas you would love to perform?

RS: There are a few I’d like to check out, and I’d like to do some more concert work, not necessarily opera. Chamber music, concert work, even acting, some jazz, some crossover. And operas I haven’t sung – “Don Giovanni,” for example.

JS: What about “Cenerentola”?

RS: Well, that’s a Rossini opera. I could, but it’s not really my… niche.

JS: Did you get good music training in Israel?

RS: I grew up with music. My father was a music teacher, and my brother, Hagal, is a violinist. I started playing the piano when I was 6, then I went to a high school for the arts. I had a wonderful music education there. And then I left and came to the States, and did my bachelor’s and master’s in music at the Curtis Institute. All in all, I’m very happy with my education.

JS: When did you come to the United States?

RS: A long time ago! (laughs)

JS: Are you still an Israeli citizen?

RS: Yes. Of course.

JS: Are you a United States citizen, too?

RS: Yes.

JS: Are you familiar with the long tradition of Jewish opera singers? Right now there’s Natalie Dessay, who converted because she married a Jewish man.

RS: Yes, I just sang with him in Vienna. He [bass-baritone Laurent Naouri] was my Escamillo.

JS: Fritzi Jokl. Beverly Sills. Richard Tucker. Joseph Schmidt.

RS: I have studied the history of opera singing, so … we have a pretty good tradition of cantors, and so originally in Judaism if you are religious you grow up learning singing in the synagogue. The cantors actually use the same technique as opera singers.

JS: Do you think there may be something genetic? The cantors were popular, got married, and had a lot of children with good voices? That’s a theory….

RS: (laughs) I don’t think so. I think it’s a matter of technique, and technique is something that you can learn. Music has been a big part of Judaism, of this religion, and the way of living, playing the violin, that’s why you see so many Jewish violinists throughout history. So when you talk about the talent and the soul, you’re talking about something that passes through the generations. I think that being a good opera singer or a good cantor, on the top of the soul and on the top of the talent, you have to have a very solid technique.

JS: When you take a role, do you do historical research? For Carmen, the history of the Gypsies?

RS: Yes, a little bit, but not too much because I don’t believe it’s as important as getting into the character and understanding the action. I do research and read about the background, but my main work is in the translation of the piece into English or Hebrew, and then realizing what’s actually happening there, the undercurrent of the story, what are the motivations of the characters.

JS: When I go to concerts or operas in this country, it seems to me that I see mostly older people going there. Has that struck you?

Shaham: First of all, I think it depends on where. If you’re talking about the United States, it might be more true than if you’re looking at Europe, because when I sing in Europe I see a lot of young people who go to classical concerts and opera. In the United States, I just think we need more musical education, to educate young people. We need to emphasize the importance of studies of the arts and music with young children.

JS: Are any singers your favorites? You’ve mentioned Roberto Alagna.

Shaham: I like singers who are not really the old-type singers who just stand on stage and sing loud. That’s going away because we’re taking opera into the cinema, people expect to not only hear the opera singers but to see them. So acting skills are more important, as are the looks. So the singer today, you like to hear her and watch her. They’re not just great singers but great actors. So if you start with Maria Callas you go through today’s singers, there’s a whole array – Teresa Stratas, Julia Migenes – you can be fascinated by how they act on stage.

JS: If you ever stop singing, might you ever become a music teacher?

RS: No, I don’t want to teach. I don’t think I have the skill. But I could teach music therapy.

JS: Any roles you would like to sing in the future?

RS: There are many in the French repertoire I’d like to sing.

JS: Are promising Israeli singers coming along?

RS: Yes, there are. But somehow Israel has not trained a huge international stardom on the stage of opera. Yet. It depends on the vocal education in Israel. Exposure to opera there is getting better and better, but it’s still not like – if you’re born in Germany and you hear opera everywhere around you, there’s an opera house in every little town. Israel has just one opera house, so opera is not as approachable as it is in other countries, as well as the vocal studies. So now, if there is a good generation of opera singers, making great careers abroad, and they come back there and start teaching those techniques to singers in Israel, maybe we have a good chance. I don’t know.

JS: Thank you for a fine interview.

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