Q & A: Hila Fahima Ruschin on Israeli Roots, Maintaining Vocal Versatility & Favorite RolesBy Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Photo Credit: Lizelle de Wit)
The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact for many opera singers and companies all over the world.
Not only were performances canceled left and right, but there were concerns over when and how singers might be able to get back on the operatic stage. As the months passed by, we saw online performances, socially distanced productions, and other companies taking on new systems for producing fully staged operas.
For young Israeli soprano Hila Fahima Ruschin, who has appeared on the major opera stages such as the Wiener Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Real, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Staatsoper Hamburg, and the Theater Basel, among others, there was always hope.
“In a way, these challenging pandemic times forced us to go back to the roots of classical music,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview in which she discussed her Israeli roots, maintaining vocal versatility, and her favorite roles.
OperaWire: Let me start this conversation by asking how you are doing these days.
Hila Fahima Ruschin: I am doing fine. All is well at the moment. Yes, we have undergone very dark times, but I have found my ways to stay positive and productive even during the darkest moments. It was not easy, but things are as normal as they can be.
OW: The last few months have been very difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world almost to a standstill. Where did you find your sanctuaries during such a dark time?
HFR: I was lucky to have few important things that have kept me happy and energized through these challenging times. My most important sanctuary in my life is my family – my husband and my son. I am so very much grateful for them. I have spent lots of time with them during the lockdown. That is usually not the case, because of my performing schedule and all the travelling in between. In that way, I have experienced even closer connections with my family.
Another thing that has kept me on a productive and positive side was my first CD that I am planning for the next year. This incoming CD will feature arias from the bel canto repertoire. I have already sung some of these arias onstage, but the CD will also showcase some very rare arias, which I have never sung up to this moment. This combination makes me very excited. I had to focus on my technique a lot, and to work hard to learn these new arias. That was quite an amazing process for me. It is actually very exciting to touch the repertoire that is kind of rare.
Finally, I engaged in a lot of sport activities, which always do good for my body and my soul. Exercising has become a part of my daily routine, to keep me strong and energized.
OW: You were born in Israel. How did you discover your love for the classical music?
HFR: I was born in a small city of Karmiel. My parents were not professional musicians, but our house was always full of music. I was not very familiar with opera during my early childhood. And then, I started to sing. At first, these were folk songs, and traditional songs of the people of Israel.
My older sister started to sing in a choir, and when I was six, I started to sing in a choir too. At that time, I was very shy. The choir seemed like an ideal place for me, in a sense of combination of music and being part of a group. I did not have to be really exposed, as a solo singer. I enjoyed singing in a choir a lot, and that was going on for ten years. I also took voice lessons along the road.
At some point, the voice teacher told my parents that I had a talent for classical music that needed to be explored much more deeply. I was very curious about opera as well.
OW: Tell us more about your educational trajectory. How did you develop your vocal capabilities over time?
HFR: Well, as I was singing in a choir, I began to perform in some smaller concerts when I turned eleven. I then started my education at the High School. The High School had a collaboration with the Music Conservatory in Karmiel, designed for students who wanted to take the degree in music. I graduated from the music and opera section. I sang arias of Gilda in “Rigoletto” and Olympia from “The Tales of Hoffman” at the end of my high school studies.
After graduating at the High School, I served in the Army in Tel Aviv for a period of two years. The Israeli Army has a special program in order to allow young talents in some area of life, like the arts or sports, to continue with their careers while in the army. In that way, I was able to go on with my studies at the Academy of Music and Dancing in Jerusalem while serving the army in Tel Aviv. I had to travel a lot between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to make it a success. After another two years, I graduated at the Academy of Music and Dancing in Jerusalem.
I then enrolled for the Young Artists program at the Israeli Opera for the period of two years.
OW: How did you know that you would like to be an opera singer?
HFR: I did not even dare to think that I would become an opera singer when I was a child. That looked like something very big to me, and also very far away. When I finished my university studies, at the age of 21, I stepped on the big stage of the Israeli Opera. It was a performance with the big orchestra, and then I knew that I would like to become an opera singer. It was a magical feeling, and I was so moved with it. Those four minutes that I spent on the big stage of the Israeli Opera were encompassing my whole life.
That was my breaking point.
OW: Your passion for opera led you to Europe – more precisely, to Germany. Why did you choose Germany as the next step in your career?
HFR: Well, I did not choose Germany, but vice versa – Germany chose me. I had plans to stay in the Israeli Opera Young Artists program for the period of two years. During the first year of the program, I met a very nice lady who was a coach at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She told me that the Deutsche Oper was looking for young singers for its own Young Artists program, and that I should come for the audition.
I did not really know much about the auditioning process at that time, as that was my first audition in Europe. I got the permission from the Israeli Opera to go to Berlin, and I went to the audition. I sang “Caro nome” and both arias of Die Königin der Nacht, “O Zittre Nicht,” and “Der Hölle Rache.” Immediately after the audition, the opera house asked me to stay, and after six months I got the invitation to move to Berlin and to sign a contract with the Deutsche Oper.
That was a very big move for me. I was living in a small city of Karmiel, and all of a sudden I had to move to Berlin, one very big city, with a very rich operatic life. I had no relatives in Berlin, and I did not speak much of the German language at that time. But you know, it was a dream come true. I was dreaming about the career of an opera singer, and I was offered such an opportunity. The Israeli Opera agreed to let me go, and I went to Berlin. At that time I did not even realize how big that change was for me. I can see that in a retrospect now.
The Deutsche Oper Berlin became my new family for the period of three lovely years.
OW: You have sung so many roles. How do you maintain vocal versatility over such a long period of time?
HFR: I think that the main factor behind maintaining the good vocal versatility is a properly chosen repertoire. Singer needs to be very careful with a repertoire, in order to be able to stay flexible and adaptable. That especially holds for the young singers. When we are young, we often have lots of motivation and energy, and we literally want to sing everything.
My vocal teachers have taken good care of me, and the first thing they taught me was to choose my repertoire very thoughtfully, in order to keep my voice fresh and healthy. We need to sing things that suit our voices well. It resembles me to a mirror – I just look at it, and I accept what I see. For example, I did not sing the arias of Die Königin der Nacht right away. I had to sing other things first to be able to get to these demanding Mozart’s arias.
By following these guidelines, we can keep the voice fresh and healthy for years, and then take more challenges step by step. Once that happens, we’re more able to explore different musical perspectives – bel canto, Mozart, or dramatical. And of course, there is just lots of practicing. Opera singing is not a magical thing. A singer can possess a talent, but needs to practice in order to fully develop it.
OW: Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is a very popular opera. You have portrayed the tragic heroine Gilda more than once. What did you find in the character of Gilda?
HFR: Gilda is the role that takes a special place in my repertoire. I have sung “Caro nome” since I was 13-years-old. At that time I did not know much about “Rigoletto.” Being a young girl, I just had the opportunity to see Gilda through the aria “Caro nome.” From the very first moment I felt something special for Gilda. She is very naive, very positive, and also in love.
Now, after so many years of portraying Gilda onstage, I can tell that I see her as a big ray of light and the hope in this dramatic story. Singing Gilda brings me back to my youth, to my teenager years. It brings me back to the first love. It is always exciting. I always feel like a 15-year-old girl when I sing Gilda.
But as the opera nears its climax, you can really feel that Gilda is older. She is developing through the course of the opera, and that is very touching. Gilda at the end of “Rigoletto” is not Gilda from the beginning.
I vividly remember now, when I sang Gilda for the first time at the Wiener Staatsoper, we got a really big applause at the curtain call. But I was not able to smile. I felt as if something horrible had happened. It is such a tragic story.
Vocally, singing Gilda is also a challenge. For example, that famous high e-flat with which Gilda caps the duet “Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta” with Rigoletto had not been written by Verdi. It is a part of tradition. I have a big respect for the tradition and the way the duet has been traditionally sung by the coloratura sopranos over time. I do think that there should be a good reason to change what the composer himself wrote, but the tradition over the years brings some other spices to the opera.
OW: Sticking with Verdi, you have performed Nannetta in “Falstaff,” a character who traverses a path from a Fairy Queen to the Merry Wife. She is sweet, but determined. How did you switch, both vocally and dramatically, between those complex traits of Nannetta’s character?
HFR: Nannetta is in transition from a girl to a young woman. She is a sweet girl who becomes a determined young woman with her opinion, and she is enjoying both sides of her character. She enjoys playing, and she also enjoys the transition.
And these two traits of Nannetta’s character make her very interesting. She is also very intelligent, she has a lot to say, and she wants to be a part of the world around her. I feel very secure in the role, as I have sung it a number of times. And both the vocal and the dramatical switch can go seamless in that way.
OW: You have also performed “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which is an opera within an opera. Zerbinetta’s aria frequently keeps audiences holding onto their seats. What did you see in the relationship between Zerbinetta and Ariadne, and how did that observation influence your performance as Zerbinetta?
HFR: Ariadne and Zerbinetta obviously have two very different lives, and very different experiences about life. The way I see it, Zerbinetta is a very attractive young woman who have never had any problems to get what she wants. And that especially holds true when it comes to men. She is aware of her charming personality.
On the other hand, Ariadne is a very serious, romantic lady, who believes that the true love can happen only once in life. She is awaiting for the prince charming who will come and rescue her. And this dissonance between Ariadne and Zerbineta brings a lot of excitement. The two ladies set up a competitive tone right at the beginning, and maintain the dramatic tension throughout the course of the opera.
At the First Act Zerbinetta shows another part of her character in the duet with Der Componist. She says that she can also be in love, and that she can also feel lonely sometimes. I believe that this is the real Zerbinetta, without masks and games. And that is very important for the development of the character of Zerbinetta. Both vocally and dramatically, the role is not easy to perform, as it requires lot of energy.
OW: You have performed Dalinda in Handel’s “Ariodante” at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Real, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others. The character evolves in a complex manner during the course of the opera. Who is Dalinda?
HFR: Dalinda is a poor girl. She is young, and she has a boring life. She is looking for some excitement. Being a servant, she has to behave very formally. She is very close with Ginevra and I do think that she wants good for her.
Unfortunately, Dalinda goes the wrong way, and falls in love with the wrong guy. Polinesso is ultimately that bad guy in the whole story, and Dalinda is unable to resist her feelings. This brings an additional layer of tragedy, as Polinesso has zero feelings for Dalinda. He is just using her for his own evil schemes.
In that way, Dalinda is really at the wrong place in the wrong time. I portrayed Dalinda as a very intelligent young woman, but also the woman who is very unlucky. And you can hear that in the music as well. Handel’s music reveals that melancholy from the very beginning.
Only in the end Dalinda finds her happiness, in a duet with Lurcanio. That duet is a big hope for her. But it takes a lot of misery through the course of the opera to get to that point.
OW: We can’t overlook your work as the Queen of the Night in “Die Zauberflöte.” You performed the role many times. What is most compelling for you in the Mozart’s timeless music, and especially the arias of the Queen of the Night?
HFR: We have been talking about tradition. The role of the Queen of the Night carries a lot of tradition, and a lot of history with it. Each and every time you go onstage, high expectations set in. This role is very special, because coloratura must be very clean, and have to be sparkling and ultimately very precise.
Before I sang it for the first time, I was a bit afraid of the role. The biggest opera divas sang the role and set some very high standards. I had some very big shoes to fill. When it comes to the Queen of the Night, you just have to be sure about the high notes. It is all a matter of a very lengthy and a very hard practicing process. There are no shortcuts within that process, but just lots of hard work and dedication for the role.
As the role is technically so challenging, very little depends on the staging. You frequently see Queens who just stand on the stage and sing. Sometimes I just had to remind myself about the staging, as I was focused on the subtle technical details of singing the role. The Queen of the Night has to show lots of emotions, and that must be felt in the coloratura. However, regardless of the staging, she has to offer profound dramatic expressions in order to fulfill original Mozart’s intentions.
OW: Which of the characters that you have performed so far do you identify with most?
HFR: That is not an easy question to answer. However, if I had to choose, I would say that it is Gilda. That is partly due to the fact that I have sung Gilda since I was a 13-year old girl. Gilda and I have been through a lot together, and the music of “Rigoletto” is deep in my heart.
On a psychological level, I feel there is some similarity between Gilda and myself. In that way, my dramatic expressions onstage when portraying Gilda come almost naturally.
OW: What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome to this point in your career? How did you overcome it?
HFR: I vividly remember that day. I was asked to jump into the cast of “The Ariadne auf Naxos” in the role of Zerbinetta, in the last minute call. I was the cover for the role, and I knew it very well. Still, that was a huge challenge, especially because it was the performance at the Wiener Staatsoper. It was a huge responsibility.
I was a bit nervous, but I was not stressed. And when I got onstage, I simply put aside all the anxiety. The stage was that familiar place for me.
OW: What are your expectations for the future in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
HFR: Classical music actually started in living rooms of a castle or a palace as the variety of a very small forms. In the beginning, classical music did not have large orchestras and many singers onstage. There was usually one piano and few singers.
I hope that we will learn to appreciate more the moments when we are healthy and able to work, and that after these challenging times we will be in a better place.