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Rina Schenfeld (Bottom) and Barbara Hannigan collaborate in ‘Ophelia’.(Photo by: KENZA KOUTCHOUKALI)
Updating ‘Ophelia’
Opera giant Barbara Hannigan and Israeli dance icon Rina Schenfeld team up
Walking into a room to find an 80-year-old woman doing splits might be jarring, surprising or shocking for many, but for singer and composer Barbara Hannigan it was a clear sign she had found a friend.

“I walked into rehearsal on the first day and, like every day after that, Rina was there, stretching. Probably she was doing the splits. And I thought, ‘My kind of colleague!’ Even though I am not a dancer, I use my body in a very physical way and prefer to push myself, as an opera singer and conductor, to explore and ‘incorporate’ the sound in every expression that my body allows. So, even just being around Rina in those first days was an inspiration, and as we began to work it was clear we had a deep connection which didn’t need words.”

Hannigan is one of the most sought-after contemporary opera singers and artists on the planet. A soprano, she has performed lead roles in dozens of operas on the world’s most renowned stages for three decades. Born and raised in Canada, Hannigan gave her first major performance at the age of 17. Tireless, multi-talented and intensely driven, her illustrious career has reached heights many can only dream of.

The “Rina” Hannigan speaks of is legendary Israeli dancer Rina Schenfeld. An integral part of the Israeli past and present dance scene, Schenfeld has consistently performed since her teenage years. She was a classmate of Pina Bausch’s at The Juilliard School, a soloist for the Batsheva Dance Company, specifically selected by Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham, and reigned over her own dance company for four decades.

Hannigan and Schenfeld worked together last year in a production of Berenice at the Palais Garnier in Paris, where Schenfeld became the first Israeli to perform on the celebrated stage.

“I would sing the role of Berenice and I saw the name Rina Schenfeld on the cast list, as the person playing Berenice’s confidante,” explains Hannigan. “I thought, ‘That name rings a bell,’ and realized it was THE Rina Schenfeld, the dancer! WOW! I have always loved working with dancers from early collaborations; in Toronto with Peter Chin, Marie Josée Chartier, and Bill James, and more recently was working with Claude Bardouil in opera productions directed by Warlikowski and also sang and danced in two productions with Sasha Waltz Company from Berlin. I have always felt a sense of ease and comfort being with modern dancers... and so, knowing that I would get to work with Rina Schenfeld every day for weeks on end was a great gift.”

For the weeks of the production, Hannigan and Schenfeld stayed close to one another, both on and off stage. When Berenice closed, both women were skyrocketed back to their busy schedules. But a desire to keep the connection alive persisted.

“WE KNEW that we wanted to share a performance space together again as soon as possible. So, I guess the inspiration was each other and our love of sound and movement in space. We looked at our calendars and chose the first possible date to perform together. That’s always the first thing, finding a date, especially as in my classical music world, concerts are often booked three and four years in advance. So making this event happen in less than a year was an unusual occurrence.”

At first, Hannigan and Schenfeld communicated via email, sending ideas back and forth. Pieces of music were proposed, listened to and either added to the list of potential segments or chucked. “I think the first piece that was definitely on the program was Berio’s Sequenza 3. I had given Rina my CD recording of it in the first weeks of our rehearsals in Paris, and it spoke to her kind of dance language. Later, Rina and I communicated mostly by messages and emails. I would send her recordings or suggest pieces, and she would listen and say if it was something she thought she could use. And then she also found pieces she wanted to use which I hadn’t imagined, like the excerpt from Hans Abrahamsen’s Let Me Tell You and the Bachianas Brasileiras aria by Villa-Lobos.”

Slowly, as the musical collection came together, a narrative thread emerged. “Rina decided that Ophelia would be the central character and that, in a way, every piece is a reflection and development of some aspect of her. She is a very dear character to me both from the Abrahamsen piece... which is about Ophelia, and because I played her as well in the opera Hamlet by Brett Dean in 2017. I like to think of Ophelia now, today... and how things might have played out differently for her than in Shakespeare’s play,” says Hannigan.

In Schenfeld’s words, this Ophelia is, “unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Our Ophelia is not a nymph floating on the water and disappearing among the flowers. She is a peacock shedding its pretty feathers, spreading flowers around her body in order to beautify the world and bring it closer to nature. She is like me, shedding my ornaments.... At my age I feel that time and again I shed the unnecessary, trying to reach unto myself by being naked, exposed.”

The two women will be joined on stage by Israeli-born guitarist Nadav Lev. “We talked about whether to have a piano or other instruments, and once Rina chose the Bachianas piece I suggested we try to find a guitarist. Israeli friends recommended Nadav Lev, and though he lives in New York and we had never met, he was enthusiastic to join the project and make sure he would be in Tel Aviv for our rehearsal [and] performance dates. The project came together like a quilt made with love,” says Hannigan.

Rina Schenfeld and Barbara Hannigan will perform Ophelia at the Suzanne Dellal Center on September 4. For more information, visit
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