"Singing is an immense pleasure," says, or more precisely, chants, mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham as she rests after a day long of rehearsal of Bizet's Carmen at the Israeli Opera, where she will appear in the lead.
"I am thankful to God, or however you call it," she adds with light laughter, "as well to all those people who encouraged me. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. This is the highest joy for me - and my name Rinat [Hebrew for 'joy'] is proper for that reason."
Today, the Israeli singer, who makes New York her home, appears on the world's best opera and concert stages - but as a child she never dreamed of becoming a singer. Born in a Haifa's suburb of Kiryat Bialik into a musical family (her father was a music teacher, her big brother is violinist Hagai Shaham), she started playing piano at the age of six. Yet things did not go smoothly.
"It was clear to me that I had a kind of musical talent and I wanted to do something with it, but at the same time I was becoming more and more resentful, confounded by the structure of classical music and the fact that you have to practice so much until you get to the point that it becomes second nature," she muses.
Quitting classical piano in her early teens, Shaham started to wander off to the world of jazz, pop music, rock n' roll and other genres that allowed her to express herself better than classical music. "I owe a big 'thank you' to my parents, who encouraged me to be creative and sent me to a lot of drama and acting courses; I never felt anything was suppressed."
As an almost-religious fan of the Fame TV series depicting life at a New York Arts school, Shaham dreamed of studying art in all its aspects and enrolled in the WIZO Arts School in Haifa. "At that time, they didn't have a drama department, so I decided to enroll in singing and move to the drama department within a year, when they opened it."
Which never happened - she fell in love with classical singing. "I was lucky to meet Dorit Azmon, an incredibly inspiring teacher who not only taught me my artistic skills and technique, but also artistically showed me the way; we just listened to recordings of singers together for hours."
SHAHAM, WHO completed her vocal studies at Curtis Institute of Music and made her professional operatic debut as Zerlina with the Opera Company of Philadelphia while still a student, says that French repertoire is her favorite.
"I don't know why, I wasn't born into a French family - I think my voice feels at home singing French," she says and dreamily chants the names of her favorite roles and pieces: "Melisande, Charlotte [from Werther], Blanche [from Dialogues des CarmÃ©lites], L'enfant et les sortileges, Sheherazade by Ravelâ€¦ But as my voice changes and matures, I will switch to other channels, I am sure."
Shaham admits that she is really happy to be able to sing Carmen: "It is very demanding on every level, and interesting as a character. It is easy to portray her as a flat femme fatale, but for me she is a multi-dimensional character: She has a lot of different moods and almost different personalities. She is like an animal, a lioness - she can be calm, sweet and gentle, and then she sees something and jumps there. The relationships around her are not the usual empty, opera onstage relationships; it's not TV, it is a real story, and the music is so rich and so familiar to the audience - you will never see people in the first row snoring away," she bursts into laughter.
Doesn't Shaham get tired of singing Carmen so many times on so many stages? "Not at all. I see her as a living person and she grows together with me. I am not a genius, I am learning all the time; I am very lucky to have had all these directors who instructed me about the character. In any production that I do I get new ideas from directors, conductors, designers, from my other colleagues."
The singer muses that quite often, music becomes "just a profession" for performers. "I don't feel that this is what happened to me. If you don't keep it alive, it becomes something that you do and not what you are. So even when I sing every evening with the same cast and conductor, I will never, ever be the same. I will try to find some new nuance - I will pinch somebody's butt - because it awakens my character and of course their character. I will try and to surprise them, because this is what makes art true."
Carmen, a revived larger-than-life Metropolitan production starring Shaham in the title and Neil Shicoff as Don Jose, runs at the Israeli Opera from May 25 to June 13. For reservations: (03) 692-7777.