Talking with singers: Rihab Chaieb Photo: Fay Fox.

Talking with singers: Rihab Chaieb

Jenna Simeonov

Tunisian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is soon heading back to familiar territory: as part of this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival, Chaieb and South Korean tenor Mario Bahg offer up Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Gemma New.

Chaieb is a friend of Schmopera’s and she’s fresh off a Zerlina at the Metropolitan Opera, and the world-premiere production of The Phoenix at Houston Grand Opera. It was a treat to reconnect:

What have you discovered about Mahler’s music?

I’ve done a few Mahler pieces here and there, but I’ve never done a full song cycle. [Das Lied von der Erde] is my first one. It’s very alive, it’s like storytelling, very poetic.

It’s very spoken, in a way. It doesn’t feel like singing - of course it’s singing, and there are bits that are harder than others, but with Mahler, he wrote so well for the voice. For the alto part, it’s like speaking. You’re speaking the lines he’s given to you. It feels very human, almost motherly, like you’re enrobing the text with your voice. It shouldn’t be demanding, it should be warm and welcoming. Mahler writes it in such a way that is touching, and elegant.

What sort of reputation do Canadian singers have in the international opera scene?

Every time people learn that I’m Canadian, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re so nice!’ It’s the first thing people say. And it’s kind of true, most of the time. We’re not known to be massive divas with outrageous demands. It’s always really welcome, people are always so happy to have a Canadian in the cast.

Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano. Photo: Fay Fox.

What do you know now about the singing career, that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

I wish I had just focused more on my singing technique. I was just so eager to have a career, to be traveling and singing all over the world. A big part of why I did go to New York [for the Lindemann Program], taking three extra years after doing a major young artist programme, was because I felt like I wasn’t vocally prepared. So, in my late 20s and early 30s, I went back to another young artist programme to get more singing lessons, more technique, because I wasn’t actually ready for the demands of this professional world.

Now, I feel like I’m on a level where I am ready, but I still need the constant tweak and the constant going back to my teacher - I Skype with my teacher on a weekly basis. It’s not about me freaking out about my technique, it’s about, ‘I’m having a hard time with this part, I’m not sure why, but let’s fix it’. It’s about finding the tools. It’s about trusting that once I get my technique in place, everything else will follow.

I’m 32 now, and I’m getting it. It’s a very healthy timeline for me.

Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano. Photo: Fay Fox.

Why do you sing professionally, rather than pursuing something less demanding?

It’s easy to imagine that everything else is easy. I don’t think everything else is easy; I don’t think going back to school is easy, nor opening a restaurant is easy, nor being a mother is easy - everything is hard. When I realized that everything is hard, and nothing will be easy in life, the process became easier - easier to accept.

I’ve started listening back to my metal band that I was in during high school. That’s the whole reason I started signing, is to be in a metal band. I had this nostalgia of going back and starting a band again. It’s something in the back of my mind as a mid-30s project: create a metal band and tour the world after being an opera singer!

I’d love to assist or direct, I’d love to be a casting director. I think I have great ears and a great network of people that I know. I’d love to be an agent, I think I could be quite fierce. I’ve literally worked in telemarketing at the Canadian Opera Company between gigs. It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m in the world, it’s something I’ll be passionate about.

Chaieb performs Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde on August 1 at Koerner Hall.

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