One mezzo's Met debut: "I just can't wait." Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano. Photo by Dario Acosta. Hair & Makeup: Affan Graber Malik.

One mezzo's Met debut: "I just can't wait."

Jenna Simeonov
Canadian-Tunisian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Programme, and this season, she makes her official debut under maestro James Levine, as Zulma in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri. The show opens October 4th, and she spoke with us about how she can’t wait “to let my voice fly in this spectacular, historic hall.”

What do you look forward to most for your first opening night at the Met?

I just can’t wait for that evening to happen, as it will be very special and emotional for me as a Met debut. For one, I get to join the roster and the history of this establishment, in a way. To let my voice fly in this spectacular, historic hall, where every greatest voice of every decades has sung in, and to “join them”, in a way, is something very special.

The other thing is that I get to make my Met debut with no other than James Levine at the podium, and that is a priceless gift and honour! It’s a cast made in heaven, consisting of old friends and new ones. I have to say that it has been such a smooth and fun rehearsal process, because we are all having a Rossini kind of fun that binds a cast together like spaghetti and bolognese (hint hint to one of the scenes in our production!).

Lastly, my friend Jenna Siladie pointed out the other day: “Hey! You’re making your Met debut before the age of 30!” So I guess I’m happy about that too!

How has your time in the Lindemann programme prepared you for your role in L’italiana in Algeri?

We are still officially in pre-season, so I have only been back at the Lindemann program for a couple of weeks, and already was straight into Italiana rehearsals. So I worked on the role this summer with my voice teacher Edith Wiens, and with Ken Noda and Sophia Muñoz when I was back in NYC in September. But what I’ve learned from my first year at the Lindemann is to always come prepared to the first rehearsal, no matter what. There is absolutely no reason one shouldn’t know their music off book on the first day of rehearsal. None.

Also, being able to go see every single performance of any opera at any time has helped me watch and learn from other singers and conductors. I feel that much more prepared and confident being on that stage myself. It is such a big stage and there are such preconceptions that you have to “push” your voice to be heard. On the contrary - it is a very carrying hall. Seeing how the other singers are dealing with the hall’s acoustic, and how the voices with the most “ping” and projection wins the hall, not the loudest.

So, all my Lindemann coachings on diction and text have helped me project more, instead of thinking only in matters of volume. They also have integrated in me, along with my voice teacher, a musical sense of style and integrity that I hope carries while I sing on stage.

What aspects of working at the Met are similar to what you expected, and what surprised you?

The quality and the high standard of what is being produced here was no surprise at all. I already knew it was the best opera house in the world, but seeing how everyone works their part to put together a show is somewhat of an eye-opening moment. The people - from the singers to the conductors to the costumes, hair and make up and crew - they are all the crème de la crème of this industry. They really love what they do, and it shows in their work.

As a young singer, coming to NYC and the Met was a big step for me. I had absolutely no clue of what to expect from working at the Met, and being in the Lindemann program. I thought that the overall energy would be strict, like many big “machine” companies. But on the contrary. They have only been supportive and caring of their young Lindemann singers, and also very proud of us, which was very nice to see.

We carry a flag, the Metropolitan Opera flag, but also the opera flag in a general sense. We are ambassadors of this art form and everyone really knows this, and they are so helpful and supporting of our jobs and of the fact that we are here to learn from them. They always get so happy and excited when I tell them I’m one of the Lindemann singers!

How has it been to work with Levine?

Absolutely not enough words to describe this. Working with a historical figure of opera and classical music has been enlightening, to say the least. He is someone with immense energy and a limitless imagination. It is truly amazing to see him achieve his goals with us singers, and with the orchestra. He knows exactly what he wants, and how to explain it to everyone.

He also has a staging mind that’s very funny and endearing. He always thinks about the demands of the staging and is very accommodating to the singers in spots where staging might be a bit tricky. You can feel him breathe with you, and you simply trust him from the beginning. He has your back, and you have his.

There’s no other person who knows the opera repertoire better than him. I have secretly written into my score all his notes for every single Italiana character! What he says for one can be applied for the others in so many ways. His devotion not only to music, but to the text is quite remarkable, and obviously not surprising. He asks us for more text every time because he truly believes it’s the catalyst of emotion, not only the music.

Also, seeing him conduct the Metropolitan Orchestra, and what he brings out from them is quite magical. He makes everything sound so organic, pure, and rich in so many aspect. He’s a true magician of music. And for anyone who wonders about his health, I dare you to come watch the show and see the tempi he’s taking and the energy he expels. Those are the tempi and the energy of a young and vibrant soul!

What will you do before and after the performance on show day?

I’m not one of those singers who has a “routine” pre-show. I usually try to get a good night of sleep the night before, wake up when I wake up, eat healthy, not too much though (I do like to snack on almonds, fruits and popcorn during long shows), spend a day of rest, not talking too much, but not being a nun neither ;).

You have to live your life, and being scared of everything won’t make you perform or sing better, if you ask me. Just being mindful of what you do. I like to stretch and do a little bit of Alexander technique before I get good vocally. warming my body before warming up my voice.

When it’s all done, I usually spend some time with my friends, family, and whoever is there backstage who came to see the show. They have made an effort and a commitment to spend their evening with us, so I like to take my time to really greet everyone. It’s the best part of what we do!

After opening night the whole cast of a Italiana is invited by Peter Gelb and Ann Ziff to a dinner at the Lincoln Ristorante. Just between us, I will make sure there’s a big, big glass of Cabernet Sauvignon waiting for me. Just sayin’.

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