Saturday 21 August 2021

'Caro nome' from a balloon and laughing with her voice: I chat to soprano Hila Fahima about performing Gilda and Zerbinetta, along with her discovery of lesser known Donizetti operas

Verdi: Rigoletto - Hilda Fahima - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster)
Verdi: Rigoletto - Hilda Fahima - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster)

The Israeli soprano Hila Fahima is based in Vienna where she is a member of the ensemble at the Vienna State Opera, but during July she could be found floating in a balloon above Lake Constance in Bregenz. She was playing Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto on the Seebühne as part of this year's Bregenz Festival, and in June released her debut disc on the Orfeo International label, a recital of arias by Verdi and Donizetti. I caught up with Hila during a break from rehearsals in Bregenz.

She has been finding rehearsals intense, whilst Gilda is a role she has sung before, for these rehearsals they have to cope with the weather and the Seebühne, the floating stage, is so different that she has to be flexible. And at the first rehearsal, it was something of a shock getting used to the acoustic, singing outside and getting no feedback, hearing nothing of your performance. Add to that, the singers can't see the orchestra either. But she is very positive, commenting on the wonderful views you have when singing, the lovely atmosphere and the sense of peace. And of course, her having to sing 'Caro nome' from a balloon, certainly unique.

Gilda can sometimes feel a somewhat passive character in the opera, but Hila feels that though her father treats her as a child, in Gilda's own mind she is grown-up, smart and brave. She has dreams but is locked in a cage and the opera allows us to follow her development. Hila also comments that she feels Gilda is clear in her mind that she wants to meet someone, and of course, the church is her only opportunity. She is certainly not what her father thinks she is, someone clever, brave and looking for adventure yet wearing the mask of a little girl.

Verdi: Rigoletto - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Anja Koehler)
Verdi: Rigoletto - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Anja Koehler)

With a role like Gilda, the opera being so popular presents a challenge and each singer needs to find her own Gilda. But Hila works hard to sing it as herself, like no-one else and she certainly doesn't do it like a well-known singer such as Edita Gruberova. The different stagings can make a huge difference, and each production produces a somewhat different Gilda. And whether the opera is well-known or unknown, the process is the same, you need to take the role to yourself, dress and feel like the character.

The sheer scale of the production in Bregenz, however, requires some differences to the singers' approach.

For a start, the audience is such a long way from the singers, that to provoke a reaction in the audience members Hila needs to use big gestures. And vocally it is very different singing with a microphone, you have to be very precise and there is no natural feedback from the acoustic. It is a complex production, but they have had a long rehearsal period to prepare for it. It is indeed a huge undertaking, with lights, the lake and acrobats and more, and she is clear that it is a large-scale show rather than a traditional opera production.

In June 2021, Hila's debut disc came out on Orfeo International. A recital disc with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michele Gamba, which features opera arias by Verdi and Donizetti, mixing the well-known and lesser-known operas. Of course, Gilda features on the disc as do Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Marie from La fille du regiment, but so does Amelia from Verdi's I Masnadieri as well as arias from Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool, Linda di Chamounix and Rosmonda d’Inghilterra.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Hila Fahima as the Queen of the Night - Vienna State Opera (Photo Michael Pohn)
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Hila Fahima as the Queen of the Night - Vienna State Opera (Photo Michael Pohn)

When planning the disc she was clear that she wanted to include some bel canto roles, she has already sung several Donizetti roles and wants to do more. She has done Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore and Norina in Don Pasquale on stage and makes her debut as Lucia in Essen in November 2021. But she wanted to spice up the mix and including unusual pieces too and so she researched operas Donizetti's lesser-known operas. For Verdi, Gilda of course had to be there, the role is one that has grown with her, but she also loves I Masnadieri. The result, she feels, is a selection of characters that have something to connect them, though they are different each is in some way close to her.

She would love to do some of the lesser-known Donizetti roles on stage, Donizetti's music feels like home for her. She not only finds Linda di Chamonix an interesting opera but was excited to learn that its premiere was in Vienna (Donizetti premiered it at the Theater an der Wien in 1842). This made her feel close to the piece as she has lived in Vienna for eight years. 

Whilst Gilda in Rigoletto and Amelia in I Masnadieri are two of the Verdi roles most suitable for Hila's coloratura voice, I was interested to find out what she thought about the differences between the composers, especially as there are only five years between Donizetti's Linda di Chamonix (1842) and Verdi's I Masnadieri (1847). For Hila, it feels as if Donizetti was writing for light voices, whereas her role in I Masnadieri is much more on the lyric side. She also loves the comic aspects which come in Donizetti's operas and enjoys being able to bring humour to the stage,  whereas Verdi's writing is more dramatic, more serious and less joyful so that even with 'Caro nome' you feel the drama in the music.

The vocal writing in Italian bel canto operas can be notoriously technically complex, particularly role written for a coloratura voice like Hila's but rather than feeling that this inhibits her ability to make the opera dramatic, she finds that it helps. The sheer excitement of the technical side of the performance brings something to the voice when on stage and helps the drama. She has also done challenging things on stage during productions, and if you have a confident technique then these challenges can be helpful too. In any performance, she needs to build an image vocally and physically, and then bring them together. Certainly, she has no interest in the style of opera presentation which is more of a concert, it is the mix of drama, acting and the voice that makes it an opera.

If you look at Hila's repertoire on her website she goes from Baroque through Mozart to Italian bel canto and French grand opera right up to Ravel and Richard Strauss. She loves mixing styles and finds it important to sing both Mozart and Verdi, each brings something different. Baroque music was a rather later discovery for her, but she loves it and would like to do more and one of the things on the horizon is her role debut as Morgana in Handel's Alcina.

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Hila Fahima as Zerbinetta - Vienna State Opera (Photo Michael Pohn)
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Hila Fahima as Zerbinetta - Vienna State Opera (Photo Michael Pohn)

Hila has performed Zerbinetta in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna and has further performances of the role planned. She enjoys the contrast of the serious and comic in the opera and comments that the first time she heard Ariadne auf Naxos was the first time she had heard humour in opera in the way that Zerbinetta uses her voice. Hila has been able to sing high/coloratura roles since she was young, but it was a novelty to use her voice to laugh and it was through Zerbinetta that she discovered this, the way the character plays with her voice (Of course, Adele in Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus does the same, another role that is now in Hila's repertory). 

The combination of the tragic and serious Ariadne with the light and funny Zerbinetta is, she thinks, a combination like real life. Zerbinetta's approach is 'this is life, let's laugh about everything' which means that Hila finds it really fun to play her.

Hila's operatic experience has moved from New Israeli Opera to the Deutsche Oper Berlin and now to the Vienna State Opera. But opera is her business, and wherever she performs she has to make the piece work in the way that that particular house works. Flexibility is important, and you have to get used to being 'here' wherever 'here' is. When performing in a new house she tries to match herself to the place; each opera house is different and it is her job to match the system.

She has always sung but never thought that she would end up as a professional singer. As a child she loved music, and it was enjoyable that there was lots of music at home. But she was very shy, and didn't like standing on stage and didn't believe that she could do it as a professional. It took some years for her to understand that she was good at it and to realise she enjoyed performing. By the age of 20, she was performing because she enjoyed it, and didn't think much about plans. She was very lucky that chances happened naturally, and she did not have to look around too much. She is very grateful and knows now how fortunate she was. And she was always a coloratura, the high notes were a natural place, one where she felt at home and enjoyed the most. She sang the Queen of the Night's arias and those of Gilda from quite a young age.

Verdi: Rigoletto - Hilda Fahima - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster)
Verdi: Rigoletto - Hilda Fahima - Bregenz Festival (Photo Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster)

When I ask about heroes she says she has many. The first person she names is the American soprano Anna Moffo (1932-2006), who she finds has a beautiful voice, sings elegant bel canto with every not precise. Nowadays there are many singers she admires. One she mentions is mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca who sang Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Vienna State Opera when Hila sang Sophie. Hila describes Garanca as the most amazing artist, very professional and making art at a very high level. Hila loved standing on stage with her.

After Gilda in Bregenz, Hila has her stage debut in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in Essen in November, and then she returns to Zerbinetta in performances of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Montpelier in April 2022 (with Katherine Broderick as Ariadne), with more exciting things to come. See her website for full details.

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