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There was no way Gaby Sadeh was going to become a singer. Both his parents were opera singers, and as he recalls, "I hated it, all that yelling." However, memories of an opera-saturated childhood didn't prevent Sadeh from gravitating toward his destined career as an internationally acclaimed tenor. He is currently singing the part of Luigi in Puccini's "Il Trittico" (The Triptych) at the Israel Opera, the place he regards as his professional home.
The opera, which opened Thursday, is comprised of three one-act mini-operas. Luigi is the lover in "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak), the second dark and brooding act. He falls in love with the wife of the captain of his ship and the two plan to elope. Before they can escape, the captain catches the couple and kills Luigi.
Sadeh last sang the part of Luigi at the Hamburg Opera seven years ago, and says that with his character, "what you see is what you get. He's simple, earthy. There's lots of frustration and wishful thinking, but when he and his lover try to realize the fantasy they've built for themselves, they pay with their lives."
On the other hand, the role is "musically very difficult, because from the start it's on one intense emotional line that has to keep going. Vocally it's both dramatic and lyrical, and one must find the balance between the two. Very difficult."
In February Sadeh will come back to reprise his role as the merchant Ben Attar in Yosef Bardanashvili's "Journey to the End of the Millennium," based on A.B. Yehoshua's novel.
Unlike Luigi, "Ben Attar's character is real," says Sadeh. "He has depth. This is the kind of role I seek [and one that I've been] doing throughout my career. It's all opera, but it's theater in music.
'Die Gezeichneter' [in which he once performed] is classic musical theater. Salvago is a great character with great depth, and I needed to act my heart out [for that role]."
Salvago, a visionary Genoese nobleman, is the tragic hero of "Die Gezeichneter," an opera by German Jewish composer Franz Shreker. Sadeh performed the role at the Stuttgart Opera, and in 2001 a forum of 50 European opera critics voted him Classical Singer of the Year for his portrayal of "Salvago" and for Verdi's "Don Carlos" at the Hamburg Opera.
FRESH FROM his latest rehearsal, Sadeh clumps briskly to the opera cafeteria. He's wearing sandals, shorts and a fashionable camouflage shirt. He's sturdy, an easy, unpretentious, likeable man who likes to talk and to laugh. His speaking voice, honed by his years on the stage, is sonorous and melodious. His cellular phone rings. "I'm in an interview," he tells the caller. "I'll call you later," he says, lighting a cigarette and contentedly puffing.
A cigarette? Indeed, he says, "doctor's orders. I smoke three a day after meals. I used to be so allergic to smoke that if there was even a whiff of it anywhere, my throat would close. Nicotine is terrible for the lungs, but great for the voice."
Sadeh was born to his opera-singer parents in Bucharest, Romania. His father was a tenor and his mother a soprano. "She went to auditions when she was pregnant with me. I guess it's in the genes."
The family came to Israel when Sadeh was 12 and he was already learning cello. At 17, "without telling my mother, I sold my cello to buy a guitar. I had visions of becoming a folk singer, and it was thanks to the guitar that I was accepted into the Tank Corps entertainment troupe. They were always telling me, 'Your voice is too loud. We have to shut off the mikes,' and that made me realize I had a big voice."
For two years he fought the realization that his voice belonged in the opera. During that time, he'd finished the IDF and begun working on becoming a singing duo with a woman who'd been in the Nahal troupe. They started rehearsing, "one thing led to another, and we've been married successfully for 30 years."
The whole family has artistic inclinations. His wife is fashion designer Dorit Sadeh, his sister is actress Sandra Sadeh, his 21-year-old daughter, Mika, is working on her first solo album and his 16-year-old son, Uri, sings and acts too.
When Sadeh first decided that he was in fact destined for the opera, he went after it with customary determination. Two years at the Rubin Academy in Tel Aviv were followed by four on a British Council Scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music. He graduated in 1983 ("also with a music therapy degree in case I didn't make it") just in time to become the star tenor at the New Israeli Opera for most of its early productions. One of them was Kurt Weill's "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930), in which he sang the part of its hero, lumberjack Jimmy Mahoney.
"Mahagonny" opened the door for him in Europe. The Stuttgart Opera hired him to sing Jimmy in its 1990 production. He wowed the critics and since then has sung at all the great houses of Europe, including La Scala, Vienna and Paris. He's widely known in the US too, but hasn't sung at the Met "because I'm bad at auditions, and they won't come to your shows."
For Sadeh there are no first night nerves, "because the moment I'm connected to a character I'm so much in his world that I have no time to get nervous. The acting is what interests me most, and when I get connected with a character, the singing comes by itself. It's easy."
Starting as a lyric tenor, Sadeh, now 55, moved on to the dramatic repertoire as he matured - Othello, Pagliacci, Andrea Chenier, don Carlos, and most recently to the big one, Wagner's Tristan in "Tristan and Isolde," also at the Stuttgart. The role of Tristan nearly did him in. You need the stamina of a bull, he says, just to last the five hours "and the most gorgeous music ever written comes in a 45-minute aria near the end."
Sadeh commits to a project usually two to three years in advance, but after this engagement, he's taking six months off to study Scientology. He became a committed Scientologist seven years ago in response to what he mysteriously describes as "the most powerful revelation I ever experienced."
"Who knows," he says. "I may even change careers and become a professional Scientologist."
Not if his genes have anything to say about it.