My­op­er­at­ic­world­be­yondCar­men’

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - OPERA YE­HUDA SHAPIRO

IT’S NOT ev­ery day you meet a no­to­ri­ous femme fa­tale. The Is­raeli mezzo-so­prano Ri­nat Sha­ham is in Lon­don for her de­but at English Na­tional Opera, ap­pear­ing in a new pro­duc­tion of Verdi’s The Force of Des­tiny, but the world knows her best as Bizet’s Car­men. As it hap­pens, it was in the UK that she first took on the un­tame­able gypsy — at Glyn­de­bourne in 2004. Since then, her in­ter­pre­ta­tion has siz­zled across the world.

“Car­men is like tofu,” she says, making an ar­rest­ing cross-cul­tural anal­ogy. “She takes on the per­son­al­ity of the woman who is singing her, just like tofu takes on the taste of goulash sauce or curry sauce… The au­di­ence will have huge expectations of the role, but it’s about the charisma, tem­per­a­ment and imag­i­na­tion you bring to it.”

Off the stage, though, Sha­ham is nei­ther a vamp nor a diva. While she ex­udes a cer­tain in­ten­sity, there is no the­atri­cal­ity about her: thought­ful, lively and re­spon­sive in in­ter­view, she is look­ing for­ward to ex­plor­ing Brick Lane with her hus­band, the Aus­tralian mu­si­cian and film-maker Peter Buck­nell. Though she works pri­mar­ily in Europe, they make their home in New York, and it is nearly a decade since her last ap­pear­ance in Bri­tain, when she cross­dressed as the mis­chievous young page Cheru­bino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Fi­garo at the Royal Opera House.

Amer­ica has been her base since she left her home town of Haifa with a schol­ar­ship to study at Philadel­phia’s Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic, one of the elite US conservatories. Her fa­ther, now re­tired, was a mu­sic teacher and she de­scribes her older brother Ha­gai as “a phe­nom­e­nal vi­o­lin­ist… I grew up lis­ten­ing to him practising, but I found the frame­work of clas­si­cal mu­sic too strict for my cre­ative per­son­al­ity — what I liked was jazz, with its im­pro­vi­sa­tion. But then I dis­cov­ered that opera pro­vides a great plat­form for com­bin­ing art forms. I wanted to sing, I wanted to dance, I wanted to dress up. That’s all em­braced on the opera stage.”

She started study­ing voice at the Wizo High School for the Arts in Haifa with a teacher, Doki Atz­mon, “who al­ways em­pha­sised the text and ex­pres­sion, the heart of what you’re singing. When I got to Cur­tis, I found that the Dean of Vo­cal Stud­ies, Mikael Eliasen — who has be­come a friend — was more in­ter­ested in turn­ing out an in­ter­est­ing artist than just an opera star.” Like many pro­fes­sional clas­si­cal singers, she con­tin­ues to take reg­u­lar lessons: “It’s like hav­ing a per­sonal trainer — you need some­one to pick up on any small, bad habits be­fore they take over!”

Opera is an elab­o­rate busi­ness, and singers’ diaries are of­ten booked up years ahead, but it can also ex­ist on a knife-edge. “A long re­hearsal pe­riod for a new pro­duc­tion with a ge­nius di­rec­tor brings out some­thing new in me, but some­times you have just a few days to pre­pare for an ex­ist­ing pro­duc­tion. If it’s a very fa­mil­iar role, that can be per­fect, like when I did Car­men at the Vi­enna State Opera. In that sit­u­a­tion, we thrive on the spirit of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. It’s ex­cit­ing to be thrown on to the stage. When I was in Ham­burg, I got a call from the Ham­burg State Opera. Their Car­men had can­celled and I had to step in on no re­hearsal, but for­tu­nately I had worked with the Don José be­fore. All I really had time to say to him was: “Hi, how are you do­ing? How are you go­ing to kill me?”

Sha­ham is ex­cited about her forth­com­ing de­but as Ju­dit in Béla Bartók’s darkly beau­ti­ful Blue­beard’s Cas­tle. Its text is in Hun­gar­ian and she plans to get some coach­ing – via Skype – from her fa­ther; though born in Slo­vakia, he learned the lan­guage when he es­caped as a child to Hun­gary in 1942. For now, though, it is Verdi sung in ex­quis­ite English (thanks to coach­ing from vet­eran mezzo-so­prano Dame Felic­ity Palmer) at the Coli­seum in St Martin’s Lane. The Force of Des­tiny is set in Spain and Sha­ham’s char­ac­ter, Preziosilla, is nor­mally an­other sexy gypsy.

Here, how­ever, the some­times con­tro­ver­sial Cata­lan di­rec­tor, Calixto Bieito, has shifted the ac­tion from the 18th to the 20th cen­tury and she is an aus­tere, crazed widow, a vic­tim of the Span­ish Civil War.

This kind of rein­ven­tion is char­ac­ter­is­tic of much on to­day’s oper­atic stages. “There’s some kind of a buzz go­ing on in the world of opera, though money is short every­where. Young peo­ple are di­rect­ing, con­duct­ing, singing and there’s a lot hap­pen­ing on so­cial me­dia.” (Sha­ham her­self is a reg­u­lar on Twit­ter.)

“What’s im­por­tant for me is to work with peo­ple of tal­ent and vi­sion and to do in­ter­est­ing pieces… to evolve as an artist, so that I can give more to the au­di­ence. Af­ter 10 years dom­i­nated by Car­men, I want to do more con­cert work, like my recitals with the guitarist Na­dav Lev, more jazz, more act­ing, maybe even de­velop a one-woman show. It’s about ex­plor­ing my range.” For more in­for­ma­tion on re­main­ing per­for­mances, visit www.eno.org

In­tense:

Ri­nat Sha­ham en­joys the spon­tane­ity

of oper­atic per­for­mance

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