Her Way

Pop star Ninet Tayeb joins the Ra’anana Symphonette and takes a cue from Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Ninet Tayeb (photo credit: Rotem Vahnish)
Ninet Tayeb
(photo credit: Rotem Vahnish)
There was quite a stir in the normally far more sedate Opera House last Wednesday.
Staff members who normally devote all their working hours to facilitating various classical, mostly operatic, productions in the venerated establishment had heard that iconic pop star and actress Ninet Tayeb was on the premises and popped into the rehearsal room to get a glimpse of the singer, as she and the members of the Ra’anana Symphonette went through their initial paces.
The rehearsal was the first of several ahead of Tayeb’s concert with the orchestra at the Opera House on Monday, as part of the cross-genre Classical-Rock series which opened in January with a sell-out concert by rocker Asaf Avidan and the Mojos.
The excitement level reached fever pitch as the full ensemble, with conductor Ro’i Oppenheim at the helm, crammed into the rehearsal room along with several dozen members of the media and the aforementioned neighbors from down the corridor. Half a dozen TV cameras were trained on Tayeb and her colorful attire, as she sang a couple of numbers from her repertoire which, for the first time, will receive the full classical instrumental treatment.
Anyone who has followed Tayeb’s meteoric, if not to say meandering, career to date may have had a hard time keeping up. The Kiryat Gat-born 27-year-old started out as a largely unknown, somewhat rotund, 19- year-old, at the time still in the IDF, when she entered the first A Star Is Born TV talent contest. By the end of the competition the whole country knew who she was, and she has been a household name ever since.
In the intervening eight years, Tayeb has changed her appearance with chameleon-like frequency, moving between dress sizes and hairstyles with almost startling alacrity. But it hasn’t just been a matter of aesthetic tweaking; her artistic output has varied too. Does this capacity for flitting between corporeal shapes, haircuts and hair colors, and musical mind-sets indicate some sort of emotional maelstrom or, possibly, is Tayeb so well grounded that she can allow herself such freedom of expression on and off the stage? “I am trying to sort that out with my psychologist,” says the straight-talking singer. “She says that I am basically emotionally stable, with some oscillations here and there, but that all these things actually emanate from a secure place. I don’t really know myself, but I don’t like things that stay on the level and straight, that stay the same. My psychologist also says that I am addicted to emotional overloads.”
That, presumably, can make for a difficult yet exciting life. “That means that I keep putting myself in tough situations. I need challenges. I need the ups and downs, and the tempests. That’s what really gets me going.”
Surely that is a given for any performing artist. “I think so. There is no thrill that compares with getting on a stage in front of 500 or 1,000 people,” says Tayeb, although adding that it is not necessarily ego stroking that motivates her to strut her stuff in public. “For me it is, first and foremost, about giving to people. But it is also about what you do up there. For me the stage is like a holy of holies. I have to center myself and get up there. And, by the way, it’s not by chance that the stage is raised.”
While some in the “loftier” echelons of arts circles may look down on pop music as an inferior form of entertainment, Tayeb comes across as an intriguing mix of the smoldering emotions she dispenses on stage and in her acting roles, and a studied approach to her craft.
“I wonder sometimes about being on a stage, and performing for so many people, and where ego comes into all this,” she muses, adding that it hasn’t been roses all the way. “With me it’s not about ego. Don’t forget, I have been through so many upheavals with my audiences. To begin with, I was adored and then there was this powerful hatred. And now it is starting to balance out, I am starting to feel the give and take.”
Could that be because she is now more in balance within herself? “I don’t know. It changes from day to day. Some days I wonder to myself, ‘What do I need all this for?’” If, by any chance, Tayeb did decide she’d had enough of the entertainment business, she says she’d try her luck in a very different field. “I think that if I weren’t a singer, I’d do something in criminology, or maybe join the Mossad. I notice all the little details. That really interests me.”
Unsurprisingly, Tayeb’s first point of reference in sleuth-related endeavor comes from the world of show business. “I recently saw a documentary about Frank Sinatra on TV. He was a megastar with Mafia connections, with [mobster] Lucky Luciano. Sinatra was Luciano’s protégé. If Sinatra didn’t get a role he wanted in some movie, Luciano would get someone to have a word with the film studio heads and that was that.
I’m not exactly planning on getting involved with the Mafia, but it is fascinating stuff.”
TAYEB HAS at least taken a cue from one of Sinatra’s biggest hits and tends to do things her own way. Sometimes that has come at a price, such as at the Arad Festival in 2009 when she took the stage to a packed and expectant audience only to deliver a far more challenging program than fans brought up on her A Star Is Born performances and the pop-rock melodies of her first CD Yehefa (Barefoot) had been expecting. There were boos from certain sections of the crowd and some even left in the middle.
Tayeb is unrepentant. “I’d go so far as to say that there was real hatred in the audience that evening, but I carried on as if I didn’t hear the catcalls. But, deep inside, it was a real shock. But I was happy about getting a slap in the face, even though I wasn’t expecting it.”
Tayeb lays some of the blame at the door of the media, with which she confesses to have something of an ambivalent relationship. “The media have an important role to mediate between me, artists and the public. But people in the media constantly relay information through their own eyes. They grew up in certain places, in certain conditions and with certain parents.
So, with all this baggage, they see things which the artists did not necessarily intend. What happened in Arad was really tough, but the media made so much of it, as if the world had come to an end. They had their item and blew it up out of all proportion.”
It was a formative moment in Tayeb’s life and career.
“I was bothered by the way the media covered the Arad concert but, I guess, that’s the way it goes. The media create an item and run with it. And, anyway, I am part of that world so I just go with the flow and don’t let it bother me too much.”
“The flow” has brought her from Kiryat Gat to the hallowed home of the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv. That’s some ground coverage, in social elevation and cultural terms. When we met, Tayeb was still coming to terms with the significance of the forthcoming concert, and was doing her best just to deal with the artistic implications of fronting a 40-piece classical music outfit, and to digest the fact that she was in the Opera House, preparing for a full-blown concert. “I don’t really know yet how it feels, because we’ve just had our first rehearsal with the orchestra, but it’s very moving to be with all these musicians, with all those violins.”
Despite being a seasoned professional that first halfhour stint with Oppenheim and the Ra’anana Symphonette provided the requisite adrenalin rush. “I was very tense beforehand. I wanted to listen to them and the sound they produce. I expect things will be calmer at the next rehearsals.”
Eight years after that inaugural TV talent show triumph, with an emotive rendition of Zohar Argov’s “Yam Shel Dma’ot” (Sea of Tears) which drew an unprecedented nationwide response from the public, Tayeb takes things more in her stride, even if the Opera House may seem light years away from the stages of the municipal events she sang at as a teenager in Kiryat Gat.
“I believe that everything is a station along the road of life. I grew up artistically with A Star Is Born – that’s eight years ago, that’s a long long time ago. It was crazy for me to go for that monstrous contest at such a young age, and no one could prepare for that because it was the very first A Star Is Born. No one knew what it was going to be like. But I survived it.”
Survived is probably one of the understatements of the past eight years of what has been an incredibly successful career. Yehefa went platinum and her second CD, the harder hitting Kommunikativi released in 2009, was enthusiastically received by the critics. Now she is taking another artistic leap forward. “You’ve got to take risks. Spending a whole evening on stage with 40 classical musicians, that’s quite something. It’s a whole new world for me, but I like that.”
Before the rehearsal Tayeb went to check out the stage and to try to get the feel of the auditorium. She was suitably impressed. “This place is enormous, and well padded,” she adds with a laugh. “To tell the truth I found it a bit daunting.
But if you’re not open to new things, things you don’t know, you can’t make progress. I always have to move forward, first of all as a person, and then as an artist.”
NATURALLY, YOU don’t get very far in show business if you’re not driven. Tayeb says that can sometimes make her demanding, both of herself and the people she works with. “I am very judgmental when it comes to myself, and I won’t accept anyone – myself included – not taking their work seriously.
If I sense someone is being disrespectful of their role in some project of mine, that can drive me mad. It is simply unacceptable to me.”
She hastens to add, though, that it’s not a matter of trying to be perfect. “I am talking about not giving your all, not about making a mistake. Mistakes are welcome for me, but if you don’t respect the work, if you don’t respect the music, that for me is unforgivable.”
Her colleagues in next week’s concert certainly respect the music, and Tayeb says she is very grateful for having such consummate professionals with her for the ride. “Ro’i [Oppenheim] is wonderful; he is really holding my hand here and I am learning so much. Before this project I never really understood the role of the conductor. I thought the music is written down for all the musicians anyway, so what is the conductor supposed to do, what does he add? I keep watching Ro’i. It is mesmerizing.”
While Tayeb follows her artistic development continuum, there are plenty of gossip columnists and starry-eyed youngsters who monitor her every move, what she wears, the hairstyle she goes for – currently an elegant mix of pale blonde and her own natural dark-brown hair – and where and with whom she hangs out. Here, too, she just gets on with the job in hand.
“Of course I am aware that people are constantly checking me out, including young kids, but I am not here to educate anyone. That’s not my job. I sometimes think about the possible implications of something I want to do, because I know I am being watched, but that doesn’t make me change my mind or the way I behave. I’m not the minister of education and I’m not going be either. By the way, politics is not my thing at all. Yes, I am a public figure but, hey, I’m a person just like anyone else, so leave me alone.”
MUSIC MAY take up the major part of Tayeb’s working hours, but she has developed a nicely burgeoning acting career too.
She spent four seasons on long-running soap My Song and in 2009 played a role in a full-length feature film called Kirot (Walls), by Israeli director Danny Lerner, alongside Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko. Kirot was screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
Typically, for Tayeb, making the movie was not exactly a walk in the park, although she got some help along the way.
“That was also quite a challenge,” Tayeb recalls. “We did loads of rehearsals and Danny was wonderful and held my hand all the way. I was emotionally totally exhausted after the first week, with all the tension and not really having any idea how to behave in that setting. But it all worked out in the end and I really enjoyed the experience.”
Kirot also offered Tayeb an opportunity to spread her songwriting skills and horizons. “I wrote the song for the soundtrack, in English, and I met some amazing people.”
Tayeb felt she had something to prove with Kirot. “You know there are some people in the business who think, what does she know, all she’s done is A Star Is Born and My Song and reality TV. They really belittle that sort of thing. But, I tell you, My Song was the best place to learn about acting. Again, I understand people will always judge you based on their own baggage, but I would hope that they would try just to see a little way beyond that, like listening to a new kind of music and letting the sounds enter your ears without analyzing them.”
Other than mixing it with classical musicians, Tayeb is also looking to break new ground abroad. “I have written a whole album in English. I really love the language and I read a lot of books in English. I am reading a biography of [1990s singer-songwriter] Jeff Buckley at the moment. When I was a kid I only listened to non-Israeli music, the great singers like [R&B icon] Aretha Franklin, [R&B-pop singer] Mariah Carey, [French Canadian star] Celine Dion and [country pop singer] Shania Twain. I had an album of Shania’s which I listened to the whole time. And there was a period when I was into grunge – Pearl Jam and Nirvana – and Phil Collins.”
The lyrics of English-language songs are ready and Tayeb says that work on the album will start in the very near future.
A new adventure beckons. “We only live once and we have all these weird experiences, and we meet different people the whole time, and it’s really interesting. People really interest me. I love watching people and learning about them. I told you, I could work for the Mossad.”
The Classical-Rock concert with Ninet Tayeb and the Ra’anana Symphonette will take place at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on March 14 at 9 p.m. For tickets and information: (03) 692-7777 or www.israel-opera.co.il.