Q&A: Rihab Chaieb Talks ‘The Wake World’s’ World Premiere And Metropolitan Opera Appearances

By Francisco Salazar

Rihab Chaieb is a rising star in the opera world having won the 2016 Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition and becoming a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program.

The Tunisian mezzo-soprano has quickly earned praise singing a number of houses including the Canadian Opera Company where she was a member of the Ensemble Studio and participant in San Francisco Opera as a Merola Program fellow. She has also sung at the Glyndebourne Festival and Opéra National de Bordeaux.

This month Chaieb takes on the world premiere in David Hertzberg’s opera “The Wake World” and later this season returns to the Metropolitan Opera for three productions.

The mezzo-soprano spoke to OperaWire about singing in a world premiere and what it is like to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

OperaWire: What is it like to sing a world premiere when you have the opportunity of working with the composer?

Rihab Chaieb: It is like tapping directly from the source. Working with David [Hertzberg] has been a one-of-a-kind experience; getting into his head, and understanding where he finds his inspiration, how he hears the music and how he feels and breathes emotion is so exciting. He has been there every step of the way, not only as a musical leader but also as a friend.

OW: Talk to me about David’s music and his writing for the voice? What composer is it similar to and why is it great to sing?

RC: David’s music reminds me of Strauss’, Wagner’s, Scriabin’s, and Ravel’s. Or maybe it’s the other way around! Ha! The breadth of texture he creates in the chorus is undeniably magical. He transports you into his imagination and into this jungle of intertwined sounds that resonates directly into your soul. For the part of the Fairy Prince, his writing is extremely luscious. I can only describe it as crushing waves of warmth and lyricism. How he makes the voice play with the words is ingenious. Also, the Fairy Prince’s final aria, which is the end of the opera, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever sung. It is powerful, ravishing, almost apocalyptical. If Octavian (“Der Rosenkavalier”) and Komponist (“Ariadne auf Naxos”) were to have a baby, the Fairy Prince’s aria would be it.

OW: This is being done at Barnes Foundation. Why is performing opera in alternate spaces so beneficial? Do you find it to be more intimate?

RC: The Barnes Foundation has commissioned Opera Philadelphia for a piece exclusively for the Barnes Foundation. RB Schlather and David Hertzberg have decided to bring the experience of opera to another level. We get to follow Lola in her dreamlike voyage, where actual works of art jump off the gallery walls and become physical creatures instead of untouchable visions. By doing this, RB and David bring us directly into the minds of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and poet Aleister Crowley making sense of their vision of the world, a very mystical world. Opera doesn’t necessarily have to be done solely in an opera house. I think now in the 21st century, we should be able to expand our vision of what traditional art is, and be able to adapt, change, and experiment with a different aspect of the form, including the location. Here at Opera Philadelphia, David Hertzberg, RB Schlather and the Barnes Foundation have created more than an opera. It is an interactive experience.

OW: What excites you about chamber opera and is it giving you new opportunities? Is modern music more challenging than the classic repertoire?

RC: I think new music is very exciting. Not only do I get to work on a blank canvas, but I also get to put my stamp on a role that has never been done before. And because the opera hasn’t been done before, we get to experiment so much vocally and dramatically to not only fit David’s wish, but also ours. We are shaping the opera to make it our own, which is incredibly thrilling. For example, if I personally think there should be a diminuendo here or a forte there, there is a conversation to be had with David. Unfortunately, I can’t have a dialogue with Mozart or Handel!

OW: What is it like to work with Opera Philadelphia?

RC: It has been one of the most positive experiences of my life. The atmosphere and team spirit that David Devan and Michael Eberhard have created for this company is so inspirational and invigorating. It’s beautiful to work in a place where everyone is not only incredibly talented but super nice!

OW: Talk to me about the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and how has it helped your career? How has the program guided you and what advice has it given you for your career?

RC: The Met’s Lindemann program has been a pivotal point for me, as it’s really helping me in honing my craft before the “big leap”! It has given me the opportunity to work with James Levine, who is a living legend. I also get to see the opera stars of today, and how they work and sing, and it inspires me to get to the next level, you know? Vocally, but also dramatically and emotionally.

OW: You’ll be singing in three productions. What are you most excited to perform?

RC: It’s really hard to choose because each production is special in so many ways and for so many different reasons! The role of Sandman in “Hansel and Gretel” will be super cool dramatically because, in this Richard Jones production, Sandman is an old man, almost creepy looking. It will be interesting to sing with a mask on! Vocally, Lola in “Cavalleria Rusticana” is a perfect fit for me. The bel canto lines really suit my voice. Laura in “Luisa Miller” is amazing because I get to share the stage with Sonya Yoncheva, and Plácido Domingo conducted by Maestro James Levine. You can’t have a more powerhouse lineup in an opera than that!

OW: The music in these three productions comes from three different periods. How do you adapt your voice or cope with the challenges of each period? Do you have a preference for repertoire you sing?

RC: Vocally it’s the same! I sing the repertoire with the same voice. The legato is the same and vocal technique must be the same. The attention to the text is no less important. I’ve always sung my repertoire with the same technique and voice. The change is heard in the repertoire, in the music, in the style.

OW: You’ll be in the Met’s HD in “Luisa Miller.” Is it your first time in the series and what excites you about that?

RC: It will be -officially- my second time. I was the Cretan Mezzo in last season’s “Idomeneo.” I am very much looking forward to it, as Laura has more to sing than my previous experience, and she has a little scena at the beginning of Act three with the women’s chorus which I think will be a beautiful moment.

OW: What are some of your Dream roles? What are some of your dream houses you would like to perform at?

RC: Charlotte, Octavian, Komponist, Nicklausse, Carmen, Adalgisa, Romeo to name a few. I really am a full, lyric mezzo, and I think it has some of the most interesting repertoire. Unrealistically, I am totally in love with the [incredible] Sopranos: Salome, Elektra, Elettra, Vitellia, Queen of the Night. But a girl can dream, right?

I’m already privileged to be singing in the house that creates the most dreams: the MET. I literally fell in love with this house and its people. Houses like Covent Garden, Houston, Frankfurt, Salzburg, Paris, Madrid, Munich, Chicago and San Francisco are definitely dream houses for me. But honestly, these are just the big, obvious ones. I think that every house has something exceptional and singular to give, and that’s what’s exciting in making a debut with a new company.


InterviewsStage Spotlight