Paint me a song

Sivan Rotem combines opera with fine art.

‘Little Orush’ by Sivan Rotem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Little Orush’ by Sivan Rotem.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of Israel’s leading opera singers, soprano Sivan Rotem has been gracing the stages of the world’s most prestigious music houses for many a year now.
The list of her standout turns includes a debut with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta and performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with – particularly the “Queen of the Night” aria – and the roles of Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. The countries performed in range from the US to Uzbekistan via Finland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Canada, as well as solo recitals at Versailles, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, Prague and San Francisco. Rotem appears on a regular basis with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Haifa Symphony, Israel Chamber Orchestra, Israel Camerata, Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and Israel Sinfonietta.
The artist has been flexing her vocal chords to great effect from a very young age. While she says she didn’t get up one fine morning with a clear vision of herself blasting out arias, becoming a professional opera singer was basically just a matter of going with the flow.
“I think this sort of thing comes from inside a person,” she proffers. “You have this feeling that something is natural for you.”
Rotem never does things by halves. The opera singer has even developed a double-pronged approach to her artistic expression, adding a highly colorful visual string to her creative bow, as will become crystal clear to members of the public who go to hear her From Italy to Argentina concert at Beit Gabriel near the Kinneret on January 9. Before they make it into the auditorium the patrons will catch an eyeful or two of her debut as a painter in the form of the Hishtakfuyot (“Reflections”) exhibition.
Rotem spent the first seven years of her life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with her parents and two older sisters. Her father, she says, was a gentle soul with a yen for philosophy and the arts, including flamenco music and dance. It appears that Rotem had a good concept of what would suit her, and what she didn’t want to do, from the start.
“My sisters learned flamenco dance but I wanted to do something else,” Rotem recalls. “My father was a great Zionist, and when he said we were going on aliya, I said I would go to Israel as long as I could do ballet and learn to play the harp or violin.”
After securing parental guarantees, the ambitious youngster and the rest of the family came to Israel and settled on Kibbutz Afikim, near the Kinneret.
“I realized both my dreams,” Rotem continues. “I danced ballet – classical and modern – and I played the violin for 12 years, and became the first violinist with the Young Kibbutz Orchestra.”
Rotem’s introduction to the wonders of singing in public occurred soon after she got to Afikim.
“My music teacher there, Mania Rott, said I had a good voice and she asked me to sing the four questions on Seder night in front of the whole kibbutz,” she recalls.
Although debuting in front of an audience of 1,400 kibbutz members is a daunting venture for any sevenyear- old, she came through with glorious flying colors.
“When Mania asked me to sing the questions I had to learn everything from scratch,” says Rotem. “We were not religious in Buenos Aires, and we had never had a Seder night, so Mania taught me the questions. They put me on the stage and gave me a microphone, and when I came off the stage, I thought how exciting it was to be able to communicate with people with my voice, with singing. I will never forget that moment. It was a formative experience for me.”
Things took off from there, on all fronts. “Gradually I got more and more invitations to sing at all sorts of events, and I began to take professional lessons on violin. I’d go by bus to Tel Aviv once a week to take violin lessons. It was a three-hour trip each way, but I loved playing music.”
While her instrumental endeavors moved along nicely, Rotem’s vocal exploits were still strictly on an amateur – albeit talented – footing. Even so, she was determined to take her singing to the next level. “After I finished my army service I wanted to do something with my voice but I hadn’t had any formal training and I didn’t think any music institution would take me.” So she opted for her second love, and took a degree in English and English literature at the Technion in Haifa, as well as taking a teaching diploma.
But the singing bug was still hanging around in the wings, and she received a familial push in the desired direction. “My then motherin- law, Aliza, said it was great that I’d finished my degree but that I really should do something about my singing, which I loved so much,” she says. “But I didn’t think I’d be accepted.”
Try she did, however, and with some valuable tutoring, Rotem sailed through her audition for the Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University and spent four more years in an academic environment , this time in a very different field.
Shortly after Rotem completed her second degree, her first husband got a job with a hi-tech company in Silicon Valley, California. She was thus able to raise her vocal delivery another notch or two at an opera studio in San Jose.
On her return to these shores, at the relatively grand old age of 27, Rotem landed a role in Puccini’s La Bohème with the Israeli Opera, and the rest is musical history.
“Everyone has their own pace, and my operatic career started a bit late, but we all get there in the end.”
Rotem had more artistic goals in her sights.
“I wanted to dance and sing and play music from an early age, but I always had this feeling that I could paint too,” she says. It was actually music that led to her picking up a paintbrush. “One of my voice training students was a graduate of Bezalel, and she told me she had a studio and taught painting. I went to her studio and I was completely captivated by the wonders and joy of painting. I was hooked from the start.”
Rotem’s forthcoming concerts, at Beit Gabriel, near her childhood stomping ground, and her February 6 (8:30 p.m.) Two to Tango show at Heichal Hatarbut in Netanya will also feature the first fruits of her painting work.
The musical repertoire at both venues will feed off some of Rotem’s eclectic cultural loves, and take in tango and fado music from Italy, South America and other cultural climes. The paintings also reflect some of the sights she has picked up on her travels around the globe, as well as some closer to home.
“There are lots of rich, bright colors in my paintings because that is what I have experienced,” she notes. “And there will be paintings of the Kinneret too, because that is very much my home. You have to have a sense of connection.”