Interview with Rinat Shaham

Born in Haifa, Rinat Shaham is recognized as one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos.  Having studied in Israel she also trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where she made her professional debut for Philadelphia Opera.  Known as an outstanding Carmen, Miss Shaham has also gained acclaim for her performances in the Mozart repertoire including appearances as Cherubino and Dorabella.  Recent and upcoming appearances include Carmen in Vienna, Moscow, São Paulo, Sydney and Pittsburgh, and further appearances as Preziosilla.  I caught up with Miss Shaham between performaces as a superb Elvira in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s fascinating staging at De Munt – La Monnaie.

RSPortrait Fadil Berisha
Photo: Fadil Berisha

Miss Shaham, you are currently performing in this production of Don Giovanni in Brussels.  Tell us a little more about this staging.

When I saw that Krzysztof Warlikowski was directing it, I felt this fantastic excitement running over me.  I love theatre.  I love good acting.  I adore good, credible acting on the operatic stage.  Knowing that Warlikowski comes from the theatre was a promising guarantee that our work would be special and thorough.  Bringing both this amazing music and the text to life under such guidance is a fantastic experience.

I was extremely excited about this project and it truly has been everything I expected and more.  We rehearsed for fifty days and then kept talking outside our rehearsal room hours, over lunches, over dinners.  Late at night, early in the morning.  We were in a non-stop dialogue.  Normally, for a new production you might rehearse over a few weeks, but two months is considered quite extensive.  Luckily I am one of those singers who loves to rehearse and experiment with all the different dramatic and musical options.  For a big role debut such as this, the more rehearsal the better.   This was the case for the entire cast – we milked every opportunity to work.  Rehearsals were always sung, by everybody, in full voice. No marking.  Not vocally and not mentally.  People were really trying out different things. Sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  Always giving everything and growing, every day.

Peter de Caluwe, the Intendant here in Brussels, has been visionary in finding this cast – all of us but one are new to our roles.  Some of us might not be your ‘typically-cast’ singer for the role, but I think we were individually ‘hand-picked’ as he was looking for fully responsive artists who would work well with Warlikowski’s vision and theatrical demands.  The fact that we were all new to our roles, helped us to create something absolutely from scratch – no preconceived ideas, no pompous attitude, no routine acting or singing.  I am very grateful for being a part of this and for being given the chance.

Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira) © Bernd Uhlig
Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira) © Bernd Uhlig

The show has had a bit of a mixed reaction from the public – there are those, like me, who thought it an important piece of work while there are others who were less open to it.  How do you feel about the reaction that it has received?

I must say that I’m really happy it’s receiving such a vocal expression from the public.  I don’t necessarily mean vocal in a physical way, but I am very happy that it’s a production that the audience either loves or hates, there’s nobody who is indifferent – people feel very strongly about it.  For me that’s a sign that it is a special and rare production.  I am quite certain that this Don Giovanni has left a mark.

Regarding the booing – I think it’s harsh. It’s harsh on us as singers when we’ve been rehearsing for so long and putting so much of ourselves into it.  During certain shows it might have affected our morale.  Each of us is dealing with it differently.  On a night where I couldn’t get sufficient sleep before, and was feeling fragile, it has been quite unpleasant for me to end a show and feel hostility, where all we’ve done was give our all on stage.  This is the first time I am experiencing this, and even though I have not been booed here personally, being a part of such a close team, any booing hurts me a lot.

There has also been a great deal of pressure with this production.  It’s a new role for everybody, it’s a new, high-profile production and for every show there is something important happening – we’ve had Intendants and casting directors from all over the world coming to each and every show.  We’ve had radio recordings, we had the video recording for the internet streaming and then it was recorded and broadcast on live international TV as well.  We’ve also had critics and bloggers in each evening.  We cannot really let our hair down at any moment and so I’m doing everything to survive the pressure.  It’s quite immense.  People need to understand that that’s what we’re going through and I’m always hoping for enough positive reaction, so that we can enjoy being on stage and do our job to the best of our ability.  Support is always helpful.

It is undoubtedly a major contribution to our understanding of the work and the commitment of this wonderful cast is undoubted.  You give absolutely everything to it and it saddens me that some people are not willing to think about it or discuss it.  One thing I noticed about this staging is that the ladies are very strong – it’s really the ladies who hold the power. 

I think part of Warlikowski’s genius is to know how to use the cast.  He has not cast this himself and part of his ability is to look at the material that he was given and to build something that’s derived from that.  He knows exactly how to take the ingredients of his cast and get the best out of us.  He examined our personalities and realized what we had to offer.  I had some of my own ideas about how my Donna Elvira should be, before coming here.  I really wanted to do Elvira as this tragic, fragile, frail, weak, destroyed woman.  I know a few women like this who destroyed their lives because of a Don Giovanni.  Women who became a shadow of themselves.  Then when we started rehearsals, and as I began to create a pathetic Elvira, I was immediately questioned, challenged as to why I was portraying her in this way.  I needed to keep her dignity, she is after all a dignified woman, or at least she’s trying to be.  Even if she’s broken, it doesn’t mean that the brokenness needs to be shown at all times.  The tragedy will emerge naturally through the text and the music – in fact it would be stronger that way.  The weakness leaks through anyway.  I believe that part of the reason Warlikowski directed me the way that he did, was because he saw that naturally I do have quite a strong personality in real life, and he wanted to use it.  He was right.  Also vocally, it is easier for me to keep the strength on stage.  His method was similar with my colleagues.  I think he really looked at what we are able to give and combined with his own ideas, he built the show around it.

Having previously sung Zerlina, this also marks your debut in the role of Elvira.  How do you approach this role vocally?

Now here I’m doing something new.  For Elvira I needed to find a slightly lighter side vocally, keep my own voice of course, but perhaps add a little more ‘lift’ and ‘flight’ in the voice.  As much as I love to sing low notes with a heavier, chestier mezzo sound, it’s almost impossible to sing Donna Elvira the same way you would sing Carmen.  There are a few technical adjustments to be made.  To tell you the truth, I’m happy that we’ve had so many rehearsals and so many shows, because there was plenty of time for me to discover what works and what might not work as well.  My year of preparation with coaches and pianists never prepared me as much as when we started to rehearse here, of course.  I discovered that if I gave too much, even only acting-wise, I was actually making the show much more difficult for myself.  So it’s a really fine balance that one has to find by doing.

As Cendrillon at De Munt
As Cendrillon at De Munt

We talked a little about you doing Elvira and I also noticed that you have sung Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites in the past.  Both are roles traditionally sung by sopranos, how do you approach roles like this and what is the decision-making process that you go through before committing to a role?

First of all, I have to know whether I like the music, whether I like the character, if I like the opera.  Then I take the score and I sing through it. If it feels technically doable, I’ll do it.  My voice has always been considered a Zwischenfach when I started singing.  Over the years I have concentrated on the operatic mezzo parts because they feel very comfortable for me.  That isn’t to say that roles like Blanche or Mélisande or Cendrillon or Donna Elvira are uncomfortable however.  It’s just a simple switch in my state of mind.  My instrument is able.  I would love to explore as much range and repertoire as I can as long as it’s healthy and right for me.  Why not?

You mentioned Carmen and it’s seen as your signature role and it’s one that you have sung all over the world and you’re recognized as one of the finest interpreters of the role around. 

Carmen has become my best friend and a big, big part of me, and of my life.  I think from the first time I did the role I recognized it was like a second skin for me and since then I’ve developed a long-term relationship with that part.  I generally love singing French repertoire, which always feels very suitable for my instrument.

As Carmen. Photo: Heloisa Ballarini
As Carmen. Photo: Heloisa Ballarini

You also recently acted in a play in Germany, Carmen Disruption.  Tell us a little more about this project.

Thinking about it now, I realize that doing the play was a great preparation for the work with Warlikowski.  I’m really thankful for having had that opportunity, which is quite unusual for an opera singer to have.  How it came about was that while I was singing a revival of Carmen in Stuttgart, the stage director, Sebastian Nübling, came to see me and over drinks afterwards we started talking.  He realized that I’ve been performing Carmen over and over again in different cities around the world.  Same role, different place, different people, same role, different me, same me, and he was fascinated by that fact.  He told me that he would love to create a play inspired by that.  Sebastian then asked the wonderful playwright Simon Stephens to write our play.  After we were given the green light to go ahead with this project by the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, we all met together with a dramaturg, set and costume designer, and a theatre composer.  I was interviewed extensively about all aspects of my life for over six full days.  For the next year, Stephens worked on writing the play and then half a year after that, I went to Hamburg and for around six months, we rehearsed and performed it.  Acting on the theatre stage is something that I had always wanted to do.  Carmen Disruption is not autobiographical in any way but the play certainly does have some quotes from my interviews and describes some of my experiences. It’s actually going to play in London in April 2015 at the Almedia Theatre.  Unfortunately, I won’t be in it as I’ll be singing opera then, but I do hope to be able to go see it.

How was it different for you being an actress in a play and being a singing-actress?

Ah! Some fun differences! Without the music you have many different options to choose from.  For example, silence is one – what do you do with silence?  We singers are not used to it at all. Also in opera, even if I sing a recitative in a slightly different interpretation every time, there will still be the same exact notes.  In a play you can improvise, you can incorporate silence, you can play with timing.  It’s probably more similar to singing jazz than to singing classical music.  Happily we are given the chance here in this production in Brussels to be a hundred percent singing-acting, fully engaged.

Acting in Carmen Disruption   Photo: David Baltzer
Acting in Carmen Disruption
Photo: David Baltzer

What are the exciting things that we can expect coming up from you?

Well, my love Carmen will be repeatedly returning into my life.  It can be a blessing to be typecast but it’s also important to strive to do as much else as I can so that I can evolve as an artist.  My skills and craft and artistry have improved so much by working on Donna Elvira, doing something new, exploring, expanding.  I hope that this role debut will help to open up some other operatic options and routes for me.  I am also keeping myself available for other, mixed projects, such as duo concerts with a wonderful Israeli guitarist – Nadav Lev, or more recitals or more jazz performances, or some more theatre acting.  I also have some more orchestral work planned – my next concerts will be the Rossini Stabat mater in Dresden.  Life is so colourful and exciting and I am looking forward to adding many more colours and shades to my musical and dramatic life on stage.  That’s the plan.

Rinat Shaham on Facebook


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