Arianna Zukerman: "You've got to live your truth." Photo by Tim Coburn.

Arianna Zukerman: "You've got to live your truth."

Jenna Simeonov

The daughter of Israeli violinist, violist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, soprano Arianna Zukerman has had an unique and enviable musical history. She is currently giving a series of concerts from her Grammy Award-nominated album, Annelies, written by James Whitbourn, based on The Diary of Anne Frank. She’s also a mother of two, and a strong survivor of breast cancer. She gives a beautiful and wise interview about “bopping around” to her father’s recordings, and learning how not to sweat the small stuff.

“As much as I love singing and constantly working to hone my craft and improve and present excellence, I’m not getting a hug from a perfectly turned phrase at the end of the day.”

Can you tell us about your musical background, growing up in such a musical family?

Growing up in and around music made it part of the vernacular in my household - kind of another family language! We got to bop around the room to bootleg tapes of my dad playing showy violin repertoire (not the same as bopping around to Bruce Springsteen but that was kind of what made it awesome). We got to sit in on rehearsals with some of the greatest musicians around - I will never forget hearing Jessye Norman rehearse the Brahms Viola Songs with my dad, for example, but I also got to be a kid and figure out what I liked. My very first boyfriend got me Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which kind of blew my mind. And music was part of the curriculum in school so what ended up interesting me is what I found myself - a great love of singing.

What drew you to the story of Anne Frank for Annelies?

I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. My grandfather survived the forced march from Auschwitz. So, when one of my oldest and dearest friends, Daniel Hope asked me to come sing Annelies with him playing the violin in the debut of the chamber music version of the piece, it was a no-brainer. We performed it in the Hague - very close to Amsterdam - on the occasion of what would have been Anne Frank’s 80th birthday. That was 2009. It blew my mind then that she really wouldn’t be so terribly old even seven years later. My own grandmother is about to be 102 (I realize she’s not the norm) but had the story of Anne Fank’s life turned out differently, she could very easily still be with us. A few years after the first performance, the composer, James Whitbourn contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in recording the piece. I’d had my first daughter by then (we had our second in 2014) and I couldn’t say no in large part because as a mom to little Jewish girls, my perspective on the horrors of World War II somehow felt and feel more potent. Closer.

Singers are known for being intensely focused on their work - what kind of perspective did you find about your career when you received your diagnosis?

When I received the diagnosis, it was like everything around me faded away and what I became first and foremost was a cancer patient. The only other thing I thought about being was a mom. I fought as hard as I did - and I kept as much humor in my life as I could - because of my daughters. My baby was really so young - just six months old - so I didn’t have time to worry about my career or the implications cancer might have on my singing. I realized fast and it has stuck with me, that life is short and precious. Not having balance is destructive and at the end of the day, as much as I love singing and constantly working to hone my craft and improve and present excellence, I’m not getting a hug from a perfectly turned phrase at the end of the day. If I can’t be present as a mom, wife, friend, then I’m not going to be the singer I want to be either. Also, I have learned truly not to sweat the small stuff.

Do you have words of advice for singers who balance their careers with big personal tasks (illness, caring for a family, etc.)?

You’ve got to live your truth. There isn’t a single job that doesn’t require attention and energy. That said, I think we forget that sometimes saying no to a gig in order to say yes to a loved one who is ill or dealing with adversity may pay dividends. While there are once-in-a-lifetime gigs that come along for us singers, it’s maybe more important to be there for once-in-a-lifetime moments with the people we love.

Why did you begin to sing professionally? Has that motivation changed for you now?

I started to sing because I had to. I quite literally couldn’t fathom not singing. And I felt my most honest on stage. I felt (and feel) that music is the common denominator of mankind and to be tasked with bringing music to people is a responsibility. With age and life experience, I have become a more private, and maybe guarded person publicly because my most honest self I now find with my family. That said, I am now able to create sounds the way I want to - the way I hear them in my head - and so I feel more in control of the process which makes the motivation more to help people in the audience find their most honest selves.

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