From rebellious teen to opera star
Iris Karlin inspires children to believe that the art form can make the world a better place.
Israeli opera singer and producer Iris Karlin is a busy woman. She's currently producing two shows in New York and singing in several other productions (when I first spoke to her, she was preparing to sing in New Jersey, Westchester and the acclaimed Carnegie Hall over the weekend).
“There’s nothing like it. Absolutely nothing like it,” she told From the Grapevine. “There’s nothing more beautiful than just disappearing from this world for a moment and disappearing into the stage.”
Karlin started singing for a very good reason.
“I was a rebellious teenager who just wanted to upset her father,” she remembered. “He hated high notes.”
Her father didn’t disapprove of music per se, but he disliked loud noise. So he encouraged his musically talented daughter to become a composer. She studied composition at Israel’s Haifa University, but she missed singing.
“I just had to sing myself,” she said. “I couldn’t stop it.” So she switched to studying singing at Tel Aviv University. She went on to sing in Europe and the United States, and she’s now a professional opera singer in the New York area.
Singing is only really luxurious when “you’re in a really fancy gown on the stage,” she laughed. Otherwise, there’s no money in it, nor do opera singers typically find fame in their art because recognition in opera is fleeting. Karlin feels like a star on stage. But when the performance ends, she walks down the street, and nobody around her has the faintest idea that she was entrancing an audience moments before.
“Unless you are in the top five or 10, there’s no glamor in it,” she said. “I will never be considered a celebrity, and I don’t mind that at all.”
Rehearsal time is also a huge challenge. Opera singers spend months rehearsing for a performance that ends all too quickly. Frequently, the pay just about covers the babysitter Karlin needs to hire while she's busy rehearsing.
“No one does it if they don’t want to do it,” she said. “You must be crazy to do it or just be completely in love with what you are doing.”
But for Karlin, that stage time is worth it. When she gets in costume, she becomes “someone completely different.”
“Every moment on the stage is so cathartic," she told From the Grapevine. Even the worst moments sometimes lead to the best ones. Karlin remembers one production of German operetta “Die Fledermaus” in which one singer’s voice cracked and she couldn’t go on stage. So Karlin took her place.
“I was there and prepared and ready, and I just went on. I ended up doing two different roles," she said. "It was crazily amazing ... It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
This musician who performs in operas around the world has another somewhat unexpected side to her: she teaches preschool and takes care of two toddlers.
Being an opera singer is hard enough on one's own. But Karlin has to juggle auditions and rehearsals with babysitting appointments and school field trips.
“No one wants to cast a pregnant woman," Karlin explained. "But that’s the life
of an opera singer.”
It took her son years to learn English because Karlin sang in so many other languages at home.
“I messed him up completely,” she laughed (he’s 4 years old and speaks English as well as any other 4-year-old now).
Karlin ended up doing something surprising with her two worlds of opera and childcare: she merged them.
Opera may seem like a very grown-up pastime, but Karlin has found that kids have no problem enjoying opera, especially if it’s presented in a kid-friendly manner. Her own children are fans of Curious George’s rendition of "Hansel and Gretel," the 19th-century German opera.
“Kids love any good music that they hear," Karlin said. "It doesn’t matter for them if it's nursery rhymes or opera.”
This realization inspired her to bring opera to more children. She found herself introducing much more than “Mary Had A Little Lamb" to her preschool students.
“I found myself luring them,” into opera melodies, she remembered. She celebrated Halloween in a pretty wacky way: she brought in "Hansel and Gretel," the opera.
“They reacted so beautifully to it,” she said. “They were so interested. Later on, they started singing with me.”
So how did the parents feel about their baby Mozarts?
“When their parents heard that their music teacher taught them opera, they almost freaked out,” she said. "I did not send my kid to preschool to learn opera," the parents complained.
But the parents gradually came around as Karlin taught them and their children about how different types of music are inextricably linked.
“All genres of music go together,” Karlin said. “Any genre has its magic.”
Karlin thinks this is important not just to musicians like herself, but to the growing brains of today’s children. If we "expose these little ones” to different kinds of music, Karlin said, their thoughts could become more fruitful and make kids happier, smarter or even "just give them a better picture of the world.”
Karlin’s now involved with organizations that try to bring opera to children. Amore Opera in New York, for instance, brings kids to productions and even lets them perform. The organization is currently working on an opera with a cast composed entirely of children.
“It’s unbelievable how so many kids are falling in love with opera,” Karlin said.
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Related Topics: Music