Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Talking to opera singer Enas Massalha

On December 29th 2010, I had the pleasure of talking to operatic soprano Enas Massalha. Born in Deboriah, Israel, Enas is a graduate of the vocal department of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

PH: Enas, do you come from a musical family?

Enas Massalha: We have always had a tradition of singing at home – my immediate family as well as aunts, uncles and grandparents all like to sing. Singing was an important part of life, as was discussion about music. To cite just one incident, my maternal grandfather suffered a stroke and heart attack and his condition caused him to have a major loss of memory. To calm him, we would sing songs he had known and loved; he would remember the lyrics and sing with us. This was our way of communicating with him and the way he engaged with us. He would be enthusiastic to sing more with us and would request songs. This is always a constant reminder to me of how important music is in life.

PH: When and where did your musical training begin?

EM: When I was five years old, my mother wanted me to learn the piano. I loved music but was not keen to play piano. What I had always wanted to play was the harp, but there was no harp teacher in our vicinity. I had always loved singing and sang classical Arabic music at school and for school events, also performing as a singer of traditional music. A friend told me about a conservatory in Emek Yizre’el (Jezreel Valley) close to where we lived. At age 17 or 18, I enrolled to take voice lessons there, although I had no idea about European classical singing. I figured that by taking lessons I would improve my singing of Arabic music. Nancy Nagan was my first teacher. However, when I started lessons, I discovered a whole new world of singing – the technique, the sounds - a totally new method of voice production.

PH: Were did you go from there?

EM: I had a lot of thoughts and questions running round my mind but had not considered taking up music as a profession. However, when I was studying at the conservatory, the principal suggested I audition for the Academy of Music. Not confident I would be accepted, I decided to discuss the matter with my father. He said he did not know what the life of an opera singer would hold, but if that was what I wanted, we should give it a go! Together he and I went to Jerusalem, I auditioned and was more than surprised to be accepted.

PH: So you had chosen to be an opera singer.

EM: I always feel that the life of a classical opera singer had “chosen me” and now my life was to shape itself around this new opportunity. My teachers at the Jerusalem Academy were Gila Yaron, Miriam Meltzer and Marina Levit. The Academy was a warm and supportive school, connecting me to the life of professional singing; it gave me so much confidence and opened doors for me; in short, it was much more than just a place to study.

PH: You came to the Academy with a very different background to that of other students.

EM: Yes, indeed. I was one of very few Arab girls studying there and I was away from my own culture. I was often asked why I was studying opera and whether my own music was not good enough. Today, they are proud of the first Arab opera singer trained there. I do feel I am an ambassador of my people.

PH: What followed your graduation?

EM: I took part in the Aviv Competitions. I did not win, but the manager of the Israeli Opera was present when I sang there and invited me to join the Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera. After passing the audition I was given a two-year contract to sing at the Opera Studio. They were to be a very interesting two years for me. However, life becomes more difficult when you take a leap up from being a student to a singer dealing with all the responsibilities of being on stage, from having “potential” to getting work, to finding one’s own niche and understanding what one wants. The classical repertoire is so broad and complex; I needed to know “who I was”, where my voice wanted to go and what I was looking for. The Opera Workshop was my first important professional experience and it provided me with many professional tools.

PH: Enas, you talk about “finding your own voice”.

EM: I am constantly looking for what this voice wants to say and asking myself where I am going. No longer the same person, I am now a collage of cultures – international, more sophisticated, more aware of the world. I was raised to be open to music and cultures, as a girl I spoke languages (today I speak five) and I was prepared to be part of a new experience. But being exposed to all these different cultural experiences does change one.

PH: You had left the Opera Workshop. What next?

EM: It was 2006. Once again, I was looking for direction. I now had a voice teacher in Berlin – Mrs. Abbie Formansky. She mentioned a program for young artists at the Berlin Staatsoper (State Opera) and suggested I give it a try. This situation found me at a crossroads in life and I needed to make a decision. Should I return home to the way of life expected of me – marriage and children – or continue with my singing career? I felt the need to further my career and called the Staatsoper Berlin to request an audition with its musical director, Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim, they said, was not there: he was in Ramallah. I decided to go to Ramallah. A few days later, I was at the conservatory in Ramallah. I was working in a rehearsal room with Barenboim’s assistant when Barenboim entered. He listened to my singing and then asked me three questions: what were my plans for August, what were my plans for tomorrow and would I accompany him to the Salzburg Festival. (At the Salzburg Festival, Barenboim was organizing a concert featuring some of the world’s greatest singers – Dorothea Roschmann, Waltraud Meier and Thomas Hansen. I also sang there; in fact, I sang two Mendelssohn songs, with Barenboim, himself, accompanying me at the piano.) I swallowed my tongue! The next day I was to sing for Barenboim and Zubin Mehta during a break at a rehearsal for the concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. All the musicians had left the stage; it was just Barenboim, Mehta, myself and television crews from all over the world! This was my audition and I felt it was a matter of “life or death”, but I managed to control my nerves. Following that, Barenboim organized a scholarship of two months of lessons for me with people working at the Staatsoper. I was then a member of the Staatsoper Studio from 2007 to 2009.

PH: Would you like to tell something of your time at the Berlin Staatsoper?

EM: I was one of the first to make a debut there as Papagena. A bigger role was in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s “The Gambler”. A few months after the premiere, we spent a month performing “The Gambler” seven times at La Scala in Milan.

PH: What are you doing now?

EM: I live in Berlin and freelance in projects that interest me. And the search for direction goes on. It is ironic that all a singer’s work and life revolves around the voice: you listen to it constantly and ask yourself what you want of it. The present and future mean reinventing oneself, searching and thinking. On one hand, I am a woman with the desire for a family and a “normal life”; on the other hand, I want more. The journey of ideas is to take the singer where he/she wants to go, but one does not know where it will lead. And it’s a tricky journey, demanding courage. The performer is a “nomad”, traveling where his/her voice or instrument will travel.

PH: One final question: what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

EM: I love to cook and am very keen on attending movies and theatre.

PH: Enas, many thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts and the many sides of your singing career. I wish you continued joy and success.

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