'My operatic world beyond Carmen'

It's not every day you meet a notorious femme fatale


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 cross-dressed 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."

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