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Jewish Journal

Mezzo’s Kibbutz roots

by Tom Tugend

May 14, 2013 | 3:22 pm

Rachel Frenkel. Photo by Marco Borggreve

Rachel Frenkel. Photo by Marco Borggreve

It’s a long way from Kibbutz Dalia, where Rachel Frenkel was raised, to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, but the mezzo-soprano is completing that journey this week.

The slim and youthful wife and mother will sing and act the role of the count’s amorous page Cherubino in Mozart’s comic opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, opening May 17.

Frenkel was born in 1981 in Haifa, but raised by her Brazilian-born mother and Argentinian-born father on Kibbutz Dalia (also spelled Daliya), about 20 miles southeast of the port city.

Both parents absorbed their Zionism through the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, so Rachel and her three siblings were raised in the old ideologically correct kibbutz style. From the age of 3 months to 6 years, she saw her parents only three hours each evening, otherwise spending her days and nights with all the other kids in a communal building.

“Both my parents had full-time jobs on the kibbutz, but they were very musical, with my mother always singing,” recalled Frenkel, sitting near a swimming pool at the Palazzo West apartment complex.

According to her elders, Rachel started to hum herself to sleep when she was 1 year old, and she made her debut at 8 in the kibbutz dining hall, singing (secular) Passover songs.

After finishing the Dalia high school and working in the kibbutz’s kindergarten, she enrolled and graduated from the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University and then joined the New Israeli Opera’s Studio.

Six years ago, the newlywed Frenkel won a scholarship and moved to Berlin to improve her technique and further her professional career, accompanied by her husband, Lior.

She was accepted as a member of the Berlin State Opera and in 2009 got her first real break in true storybook fashion.

“I was the understudy for Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and when the designated singer became ill, I stepped in,” Frenkel said.

Although she has performed in a half-dozen countries, Frenkel makes her home in Berlin and is somewhat conflicted about her choice.

“I have found a very welcoming atmosphere in Berlin,” she said, “but when I see the stone markers in front of houses, listing the former Jewish residents who were expelled or killed
by the Nazis, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

But being Jewish and Israeli is rarely an issue for Frenkel during her performances in Germany, Austria, Japan, Scotland and France.

An exception was her stay in Denmark last year, at a time when the fighting in the Gaza Strip escalated, eliciting international criticism of Israel, as well as from her fellow singers while watching Danish television reports.

“We had some conversations, and I told my colleagues that there was another side to the conflict,” she said, but added, “Criticizing Israel does not necessarily make a person a Jew hater.”

Her career got a boost when she won a prize at a contest for “New Voices” in Germany. One of the judges was the director general at the venerable Vienna State Opera, who engaged Frenkel for the role of Rosina in “The Barber of Seville.”

With her opera and concert career taking off, a new dimension was added to her life with the birth of her daughter, Ruth, now 2 years and 9 months old.

Frenkel decided from the beginning that she would not be separated from her daughter and husband despite her frequent travel, putting a special spin on the conundrum facing women on how to balance family and career.

Fortunately, Lior, her husband, is a music composer for films and a Web programmer, allowing him to work most of the time from home.

“Lior and I have always shared the housework and raising Ruth on a 50/50 basis,” Frenkel said. “When we travel, we never stay at a hotel but rent an apartment for a short time, where we both do the cooking.”

She considers raising a young child a plus, rather than a drag, for her career.

“Being a performer is not psychologically easy,” Frenkel said. “But when I get home and Ruth gives me a hug and I give her a bath, that grounds me so I don’t fly away and don’t deal constantly with my own ego.”

The Disney Hall appearance marks her first trip to the United States, and she was taken both by the pleasant weather and her first rehearsals with Dudamel. “When he walks into a room, he projects joy and fills the place with life,” she said.

Among her future engagements, she will perform in “Figaro” at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival at the Lincoln Center as well as in Budapest and Vienna. Next year, she will appear in “La Finta Giardiniera” (The Pretend Gardener) at the Glyndebourne Festival in England.

Asked how she sees her life 10 years from now, Frenkel responded thoughtfully.

“My professional goal is to keep singing at the highest level,” she said. “Personally, I would want a more stable lifestyle, more children and a sense of home. I miss Israel every day, and my dream is to live there permanently.”

For tickets and more information on the May 17, 19, 23 and 25 performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” visit www.laphil.com or call the Walt Disney Concert Hall box office at (323) 850-2000. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000.

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