Born to sing

Hila Baggio has been performing – and loving it – for as long as she can remember.

HILA BAGGIO 370 (photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
(photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
Hila Baggio has mastered the art of becoming different people – sometimes in the span of just a few days.
“Two days ago, I was playing a child, so I had to take everything off,” she says in the midst of a manicure. “But now I need to be onstage with nail polish on. I have to be a woman again.”
Fresh off performing in the title role of Gil Shohat’s Israeli opera The Child Dreams in Germany, Baggio returns to Israel in Orfeo ed Euridice, an 18th-century Italian opera, opening May 11 with the Israel Opera. The manicure, of course, is just the fun bit of the work that goes into Baggio’s expanding career as an international opera singer. From learning new languages to a steady regimen of healthy food and exercise and keeping up with her young daughter, the soprano keeps as busy offstage as on – and that’s saying a lot. This season alone, she’ll perform with the Israeli Opera, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Camerata Orchestra; she’ll appear in the Masada Festival in Israel and the Rossini Festival in Italy, as well as singing in Germany.
Baggio was born and raised in Jerusalem, and musical talent came early.
“I was two years old and singing,” she says. “I took piano lessons, but I wouldn’t play – I’d just sing.”
By the time she was 10 years old, she was singing in The Ankor Children’s Choir of the Jerusalem Rubin Conservatory of Music and Dance; Baggio was a professional, world-traveling choral singer before her Bat Mitzvah.
“I didn’t have a normal childhood – not at all,” she says. “Most children don’t spend hours singing in a choir every week, six days a week. And my younger sister, well, younger sisters usually imitate their older sisters. For mine, the singing annoyed her. I had to practice when she wasn’t home.”
At 12, Baggio first heard opera, and the sound sparked something inside her, as “there was acting involved, not just singing,” she remembers. “I fell in love. It was the perfect combination for me.”
But the budding singer was largely stuck inside the repertoire of Ankor – mostly classical and liturgical music. It wasn’t until Baggio studied at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University that opera finally took center stage.
“I felt this second revival of opera music in me,” she says.
From the Academy, Baggio was picked to join the Israeli Opera Studio in 2002, a selective perform-and-study opportunity that was “a straight path to the Israeli Opera,” says Baggio. “The Academy was theoretical stuff, but the studio was actual experience: small roles onstage, learning what goes into a production, learning the combination of singer and conductor. I figured out how it all works.”
A decade ago, Baggio was landing small roles through the Studio; today, she’s one of the opera’s anchors, with her performance schedule lined up well through 2013. In 2002, she sang supporting role Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, in 2012, she’ll sing Orfeo.
Her rise is due to more than just a great, melodic voice – though that certainly helped. Rather, Baggio approaches opera singing like being an athlete.
“It’s all about working the right muscles,” she says. “I train my muscles and my body, sometimes with yoga and pilates. My instrument is my body. But I need to be strict in my private life as well. Everything that has to do with my mental states can also affect the voice; how many hours I sleep, what I eat, if I had an argument with my husband the day before. It all affects my singing.”
What it all means is that opera’s combination of acting and singing makes for a living, breathing performance. There’s no faking it, no posing. And that’s exactly why Baggio insists on reading and understanding the entirety of every libretto for every show she’s in, even if the text is in a language she doesn’t speak.
Conversational in Italian and German and fluent in Hebrew and English, Baggio is sure to read “all the other characters’ parts,” she says. “I want to know my relationship with each character. Can you imagine singing in Italian about loving someone, but not knowing what you were singing? If I don’t speak the language, I have to translate, and learn the libretto by heart.”
While Italian is Baggio’s favorite language to sing (“There’s a reason the opera was born there,” she says), Hebrew falls farther down the ladder: “I think it’s the hardest I’ve sung, with all the ‘ch’ and ‘ah’ sounds.”
In Hebrew or not, though, the Israeli public is picking up on the art of opera. Last year’s annual Israeli Opera performance, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park, drew thousands.
“There’s been a nice revival here,” says Baggio. “Our performances are selling out. For us, it’s so nice to sing in your home country to an audience that appreciates you. Israeli audiences at the opera are really warm – singers from abroad love coming as well.”
Baggio believes part of the surge is the Israeli Opera’s insistence on modernizing a stereotypically stuffy medium. Orpheo ed Euridice, a mythological tale about a poet who loses his wife and gains a chance from the gods to revive her, was first performed in the 1700s. This month’s production, though, “is very modern. The show treats everything with real emotion,” says Baggio. “This isn’t the traditional idea of the fat lady singing onstage. It’s all very real.”
Baggio finishes her manicure as she gets off the phone. Her nails are deep red. She’s ready for her latest role, and whatever comes next.
Orpheo ed Euridice runs through May 22, Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, 19 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard. (03) 692-7777 or