Répétiteur to the Stars of Opera: Rakefet Hak

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Rakefet Hak has emerged as one of the most sought-after répétiteurs to the stars of opera. Her outstanding coaching skills and impressive pianism have resulted in collaborations with such elite artists as Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Carol Vaness, and Deborah Voigt, to name but a mere few. Her early music studies took her from her native Israel to the bright lights of New York City. As one of the youngest members of the Metropolitan Opera's staff, Hak worked as assistant conductor and coach on a variety of productions, including, Die Zauberflöte, Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata, Aïda, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia under Maestros James Levine, Jun Märkl, Sebastian Weigl, Placido Domingo, Bruno Campanella, Carlo Rizzi, Paul Nadler, Patrick Summers, Edo de Waart, and Julius Rudel. Alongside an extremely busy performing schedule, the Israeli also holds a lecturing position in the vocal faculty of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, is Music Director of UCLA Opera Studio, and a principal coach with the USC Thornton School of Music.

Hak takes a break from productions to chat about her move to the US, and share her thoughts on the role of the répétiteur in the world of opera today.

Growing up as a child in Israel, what were your musical tastes, and what led you towards Western Art Music?

This seems so long ago, and my taste in music has changed so many times since then. I started taking piano lessons when I was 7 years old. During my childhood and teenage years I mostly listened to popular music — basically the greatest hits from England and the US, as well as Israeli Pop singers and groups. The more I got involved with classical music through playing piano, and then later singing in choirs, the more I started listening to piano classical music, orchestral works, chorus music, and operas.

What pianists inspired you at this early stage of your musical development?

Since my teacher came from Poland, I mostly listened to Eastern European pianists, such as Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vladimir Horowitz...but also others like Murray Perahia, and Glenn Gould, to name but a few.

How has Israel's musical landscape changed since you left?

As I have been living in the US for more than 20 years, I have not been so involved with the musical scene in Israel. Israel has always had great musicians, and provides wonderful training for instrumentalists. Israel has world-renowned orchestras, and a long tradition of choral singing. The biggest change I have seen is in opera. The New Israel Opera, after going through many transformations, is still the only opera company in Israel. It has always given opportunities to many great Israeli talent, as well as invited many renowned opera singers, conductors, and directors, from all over the world.

Thanks to the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, which has been bringing world-class voice teachers, opera coaches, stage directors, conductors, etc..., the training of opera singing and the culture of opera has really bloomed. The Israeli Opera also has a Young Artist Program, which trains talented young opera singers, with the help of local and international teachers.

The Music Academies in the Israeli universities have always offered a high-level of musical education for instrumentalists and singers. The High School for the Arts I attended used to only accept instrumentalists to their music program, but now it also has a vocal program. The Russian immigration to Israel provided a huge contribution to the opera culture in Israel, as it brought many great voices with a very rich operatic tradition.

Your talent and determination earned you scholarships to the Hartt and Manhattan Schools of Music — what were the crowning points of your time here?

Throughout my life I’ve been blessed with meeting really good and influential people who wanted to help me. I was trained as a solo pianist, but I also had a love of singing, and sang in various choirs for many years. When I got out of high school, I knew that I wanted to combine the two, but I didn’t know how. In the summer of 1989 a friend told me about the IVAI (a summer opera-training program ran by a renowned Metropolitan Opera coach and prompter, Joan Dornemann). After observing her in one Master class, I knew I had found my answer. I began working there (for free) the following summer (during my army service), and did that every summer for 6 years.

In that program I met the renowned voice teacher, Patricia McCaffrey, who was teaching at the Hartt School of Music at the time. After finishing my army service, I started investigating my options for higher education in Israel. I knew that I didn’t want to go through the traditional training of 4 years as a solo pianist before I could pursue my passion for collaborating and working with singers. The music academy in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offered some flexibility in regards to certain courses etc..., but I knew that wouldn’t satisfy me. Ms McCaffrey told me about a great teacher in Hartt, Irma Vallecillo, who specializes in collaborative piano. With the help of her recommendation, as well as some other professionals, I worked with in the IVAI, I was accepted on the Artist Diploma course at the Hartt School in the middle of the 1993/94 academic year without an audition, and with a partial scholarship.

I took all the money I had saved and went to Hartford Connecticut. That money was going to get me through one semester. I told myself that I was going to do so well that they would have to like me enough to want to give me a full scholarship. And that’s what happened! I did very well in school, drove every weekend and every break to NYC with Trish to play for her voice lessons (I slept on friends' couches.) And by the end of my first semester, thanks to my hard work and Irma’s strong support, I was offered a full scholarship as a contract-major in vocal accompanying and coaching. Due to Irma’s resourcefulness I was able to test out of many music classes, because of the high level of musical education I had received in high school, and within 2 years I finished my Bachelor of Music degree with first class honours.

Towards the end of my degree, I began to receive job offers, which I couldn’t accept because I did not have a working visa. I was feeling quite desperate as I did not know what I would do next. And again, luck was on my side. During my last year at Hartt, I accompanied in a Master class taught by another world-renowned teacher, pianist and coach, Warren Jones. One morning I received a call from Warren, telling me that he was going to start teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and asked if I would like to be one of his four students. I said yes, moved to NYC, and studied towards my MM for the next 2 years with a full scholarship. At the same time I was able to support myself by playing for voice lessons, working on small local productions, and coaching privately at my home (on a rental piano). The highlight of the time I spent in both schools was working with my teachers, Irma Vallecillo and then Warren Jones.

Was the move from Israel to the US difficult?

It was very difficult. My parents were in no position to help me financially and I didn’t have any family in the US. But I already set my goal to be a coach and rehearsal pianist at the Met, and I knew that staying in Israel would not get me to that goal, or at least not within the time frame I was hoping for. So in a sense, I felt I had no choice but to spend all the money I had and to succeed. I was lucky to get a lot of support from people I worked with, and friends I made while working with the IVAI. Through the help and encouragement of highly-regarded music professionals in Israel, I received some scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which up to that point only supported solo instrumentalists. And that’s how, after 2 years of army service, I left home for the first time and moved many thousand of miles away to start this journey.

What drew you into the world of opera?

My love of classical singing started when I entered the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and met a young charismatic coral conductor called Steven Sloane, who just moved to Israel from LA. I sang in the school choir under his direction, and then auditioned for his youth choir at the Tel Aviv Conservatory. Singing in the Conservatory Choir was one of the highlights of my musical and personal life. We were an amazing group of mostly teenagers, led by an inspiring conductor. Very strong friendships were formed, and we had an unbelievable musical experience. One day I attended a rehearsal Steven conducted at the New Israeli Opera...I remember catching myself with my mouth wide open... The Opera was La bohème, and my love story with opera began.

Tell us about your experience at the Metropolitan Opera?

Working at the Met was my ultimate goal, and one that I didn’t know I would achieve, and certainly not for many years. The fact that my dream came true so soon (I was in my mid-twenties when I officially joined the Lindemann Young Artist Program,) is a joy I cannot describe. The quality of singers and level of work and professionalism was unparalleled. I had the privilege of working with the best singers in the world, in the best opera house in the world.

As a young artist, I got the best training any young aspiring vocal-coach could hope for. And the opportunity to work with young singers in the YAP, and also with older more experienced singers on the main-stage, was such a privilege and a great education. I was lucky enough to be contracted to work on a main-stage production during my first year. It was a huge privilege, and I remember being really nervous to work with people who were much older, and much more experienced than I.

I will never forget the first time I was scheduled to coach for the main stage. The singer was John Del Carlo, who sang at the Met for many years. I was terrified because I had no idea what a young beginner like me could possibly say to this veteran. There were many moments of insecurity such as these, as I was so much younger than the rest of the coaches and the singers I worked with.

For you, what is the primary role of a vocal coach?

A coach’s task is to focus on musical interpretation. There are different levels and layers for coachings, and different coaches focus on different things. But my belief is that since music always came after the text was written, whatever a coach teaches should always be in relation to what the singer wants to express. The text and the music are not two separate entities, and the singers need to figure out how to use the music to express the text.

I truly feel that the musician's job is to respect and serve the composer's creations. We are interpreters of the compositions we are performing. I try to stay loyal to what’s written on the page, while using the tools of expression (such as ornamentations, appoggiaturas, portamenti, and rubati) which are appropriate for each specific style. Many singers, including recording artists (and very famous ones), don’t sing what’s on the page, and sometimes it’s because of sloppiness. The problem is that then young singers listen to that, and then copy what they hear. I make sure they sing what’s on the page, and find creative ways to express what they want to express, while following what the composer actually wrote. It’s sometimes harder to do, but always more accurate...and I think always better.

What is your personal coaching ethos?

The reason why I chose this profession instead of remaining a solo pianist, was mainly because of my love of singing and singers, but also because of how much I love the feeling of creation and collaboration when you’re working on a production. When I coach I very rarely tell singers they have to do things my way. Of course if they’re not singing what’s written on the page, or don’t follow the diction rules, I tell them they have to do it a certain way...but for sections that are open to interpretation — then I love to explore options together.

I don’t like telling singers what they should do. I like to challenge them to think for themselves and come up with their own ideas. However, those ideas need to be based on research and correct information. I love when a singer comes to me with a different or even opposite idea than mine, or something different from how everybody else sings that certain aria. As long as they express what the text means and who the character is, they just need to be convincing in their portrayal. I love being able to learn from my students that way. At the end, they’re the ones who need to convince an audience and therefore must make every piece their own, and not just a copy version of someone else’s performance, or of what their coach told them. It needs to be genuine and personal.

How did the invitation from Placido Domingo to join the Los Angeles Opera evolve?

I had the great privilege of meeting and working with Placido at the Met. When he heard that I was moving to LA, he promised to help me, and I was contracted to work right after I moved.

In terms of your own pianism, how would you describe your style of playing?

My years of working with singers have really complimented my playing. I was always a very expressive performer, with great attention to tone and musical phrasing, and with the ability to play with a very large range of dynamics and colours. My teacher used to make me sing what I was playing while I was playing it, and that’s what I think about when I play. The human voice is the most amazing and most natural means of expression. Any other instrument is external, and couldn’t possibly match the ability to express that a voice has. I try to sing as much as possible through my playing of the piano. Also, after working with orchestral scores for so many years, I tend to hear every piano piece as an orchestral one. It’s almost as if I orchestrate it in my head. It helps me bring out many different colors and details.

What was your involvement in the 'Young Artists Program'?

As a pianist in the program, you serve three different purposes — student, accompanist and teacher. As a student, you take the same classes the singers do in language, diction, etc... In addition, you work on your skills as a pianist, coach and accompanist, which include taking conducting lessons, working with pianists and coaches on your playing and on repertoire. As an accompanist you accompany the singers in Master classes and recitals. And as a teacher, you actually coach the YAP singers on repertoire.

Do you have a preference for the role of accompanist over that of a soloist?

I love the collaborative aspect in the job of an accompanist — of making music together. Being a solo pianist always seemed like a lonely career to me.

What advice would you give to any young musicians interested in a career as a répétiteur?

Just like I was told when I asked: “how do I become a coach”, I will say to those who want to: a lot of the work is something you need to do on your own. You need to create your own program. When I was looking into colleges, I found out that not every university has a collaborative program, and those that did focused mostly on instrumental accompanying, which wasn’t what I wanted to do...at least not mainly. Those places that did offer a collaborative program, that focused on vocal accompanying, mostly focused on art songs and not opera. So I made the most out of the two programs I went to, and the rest I did on my own.

You need to listen to and go see operas. You need to learn languages, and play through opera scores. Get yourself into situations where you could observe people coaching, and observe rehearsals. You will learn a lot by observing, as well as by teaching. Try to find a voice teacher to play for, as it’s the best way to learn the repertoire, and a great way to make contacts with singers who might later hire you to play for their auditions, and recitals. You need to be your own agent. Find a good teacher who could teach you how to play piano reductions, while still working on your pianistic technique. Playing piano reductions is very difficult. It requires excellent technique, but certain knowledge about how to simplify difficult passages which could only be played successfully by orchestral instruments, while knowing how to still create orchestral sounds and the illusion of an orchestra. Take voice lessons to better your understanding of the voice.

There’s so much an aspiring coach could do on their own, while still getting help from experts in the field. And you learn A LOT by teaching, even if it’s just teaching the notes and the rhythms at the beginning. Be willing to do some work for free, if that’s going to gain you important experience, knowledge and connections. I did it for years at the IVAI. I worked morning until night 6 days a week for 5 weeks every summer.

As a busy musician and coach, how do you juggle family life with performance and teaching?

It is not easy, and I had to make many sacrifices, and willingly so. I used to travel much more for recitals and opera productions. Traveling to work on an opera production is especially hard, since the process is so long. For a concert, you could be in and out in 3 or 4 days, but for an opera, it’s an average of a month and often longer. I’ve always known that I wanted to have children, and knew that I would want to be there to raise them. One of the reasons I chose to be an opera coach, is that I knew that even if I gave up traveling to work on productions, I would be able to teach at home, which I do.

I stopped working at the LA Opera towards the end of my pregnancy, and stopped teaching right before I gave birth. After my daughter was born, I gradually got back to working, first at home, then part-time at UCLA when she turned 2. I didn’t start traveling again until she was 5, and that first time was VERY difficult. I still love traveling and working on professional productions when I can, but since opera companies started getting into such financial difficulties, they don’t invite out-of-town coaches/pianists as much as they used to, so I guess that’s a blessing in disguise.

I’m grateful that both my freelancing career in LA and my job at UCLA gives me a certain level of flexibility, that I can work my schedule in such a way that allows me to still spend a lot of time with my daughter. I’m also grateful to have such great and supportive colleagues and work environment, so that I could bring her with me when needed. She traveled with me for work before, and has performed on the UCLA stage in two of our operas years ago, starting when she was 4. She is now 12, and it’s becoming easier to leave (logistically, but not emotionally.)

What are your career aspirations going forward?

2015 is still not completely clear, but for now, I’m going to stay in LA. I would love to continue to guest in various opera companies in the US and strengthen my ties in Europe. And I could see myself reconnecting with the musical life in Israel and getting involved somehow. I have a few ideas, the question is just when!

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