The Vocal Power Suspending Time
Ayana Haviv is an incredible singer with a wide vocal range and astonishing interpretive power. Her specialties: Classical: opera, art song, oratorio, boy soprano, straight tone, atonal, choral. Pop, light jazz, light rock, indie/alternative, gospel, soul, R&B, country, musical theater, children’s voices, characters, ethereal/ambient, animation. Slavic, African, Celtic/Irish, Middle Eastern, Israeli, American, Jewish, Klezmer, Ladino, Bulgarian, Balkan, & Yiddish folk music.
In other words, "no boring day at the office” for Ayana. But how much work does it take to be so good at all of this?
Some genres take more work than others. My formal training is in classical singing. This is what took the most work to get to a professional level. I also sang for 3 years with a Bulgarian women’s choir and had formal training in that style.
I am largely self-taught in pop, Middle Eastern singing, folk, and a bunch of other genres. In practice it means I sang along with the radio throughout childhood and I used trial and error to improve my singing in those styles.
However, when I decided to take my singing in those genres to the next level, I supplemented my self-teaching with some extra lessons and a lot of listening, absorbing, and learning from masters of the genre. I did my homework. It’s very important to me to be the best singer I can be in all the genres that I’m good at, and I am never done learning.
For example, with Middle Eastern music, I grew up hearing it around me. I knew what it was supposed to sound like, but I didn’t sing it myself. When I decided I wanted to get more serious about learning it, I started listening and imitating a lot of records by Fairouz, Oum Khoultoum, and Natasha Atlas. Then I performed with an ensemble led by Yuval Ron, a master of the oud and an expert on Middle Eastern musical styles. Studying with him, I was able to get that genre of my singing to a much higher level. Now I feel confident improvising in that style as well. Just last week, I sang Middle-Eastern improvisations for composer Jeff Russo on the score to the miniseries Tut, which comes out in June on Spike TV.
Music for the 1st Hunger Games movie - Composer William Ross
What are you most passionate about with such fantastic variety of music?
I am passionate about my choral work with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. There is just nothing in the world like creating something beautiful, and at the highest level, in a community of friends.
I live for those goosebump-inducing moments when I am one of 100 voices thundering a fortissimo in the Verdi Requiem or whispering a pianissimo so quiet that the audience leans in and time feels like it’s suspended.
I have a good friend who tried to teach me to meditate (I failed hopelessly! Too many thoughts bouncing around in my head). When she described the feeling of meditation to me, singing in a choir was the first thing I thought about. For me, it’s like a meditation – you feel an intense focus and that you are part of a greater whole that is creating something beautiful, important, and transformative.
But I love any project to which I feel like I can really contribute something of myself. In recording sessions, you never know what you’re going to get – you show up and there are notes on the page, and it’s your job to transform them into music. Sometimes the music is very mediocre, and then the good thing about it is that you never have to see it again! But often there’s something beautiful or tender or exciting hidden in there, and I get to try to find it and coax it out – as part of a team with the composer (and the other musicians if they’re involved, and the director). When I feel like I’ve successfully done that, whatever the genre and whatever the project, it’s incredibly fulfilling.
Two weeks ago I sang solos on a short film called Debris for composer Nicholas Repetto. The session was unusual in that the director, Mary-Lyn Chambers, was there and giving direction as well as Nick. I also got to watch the scenes I was about to interpret and enhance with my singing. As a result, I really felt that I had so much to draw from for my interpretation, and we had a true collaboration. The music that ended up in the film was something I can be very proud of.
A completely different project in which I just recently got involved, which is extraordinarily rewarding, is Street Symphony. This is an organization founded by violinist Vijay Gupta of the LA Philharmonic, and it brings music performed at the highest levels to homeless shelters and jails. They have just added a chorus made up of LA Master Chorale members, including me, and we had our first performance at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row in downtown LA a month ago. It was a completely transformative experience for me. This is a community that has been largely forgotten by its neighbors, including by me, and because “the joy of music has the power to speak where words fail” (as it says on the Street Symphony website), we were really able to look at each other and recognize our common humanity. I’m so looking forward to performing more often with this truly remarkable organization.
"Unpolished" Ethiopian lullaby by composer Gareth Coker for the film "What to Bring to America"
Israel is your birthplace. Has this special connection with Israel had an impact on your music life?
I was born in Israel and moved to the US when I was 3. However, my grandparents started getting reparations money from Austria when I was a child, and with the money they flew us to Israel almost every summer. Israel always felt like home to me. My family moved around the US a lot, but Israel was my constant. I had no extended family around me in the States. But in Israel I had a huge clan of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom are still my best friends. I felt a real community there and still do. Music helped with that, of course. My mother spent hours teaching me the Israeli folk songs she grew up with, and the community she created of Israeli immigrants in the US cities we lived in would regularly get together to sing them, making up harmony parts, and accompanied by guitar or piano. In Israel, those “song evenings” were a regular occurrence as well, and knowing that music connected me to my friends and family there.
Do you brag about the fact that your name is associated with the movie industry or is it just another facet of your work?
The wonderful thing about movies is that they tell a story, and the music is there to help tell the story. When I get to be a part of that, and especially when I get to see the picture while I’m singing my notes, it’s such a thrill. Besides music, stories are my great passion. I was actually a Comparative Literature major as an undergraduate. Uniting the two, stories and music, is extremely gratifying.
Of course, it’s also fun on a different level to sing on high-profile projects. I won’t lie – it’s great to see the recognition in people’s faces when you mention that you were part of this movie or that. However, I think I’m pretty good at separating, in my mind, the projects that are truly rewarding musically from the projects that are rewarding for the prestige. When they overlap, that’s great!
Something I hear all the time is “you’re so lucky to have this gift.” Of course this is true, but it goes beyond that. I’m lucky to have been able to develop my gift. What good is being born with a gorgeous Stradivarius violin if no one teaches you how to play it? My grandmother, Mathilde Yary, was born with a glorious coloratura soprano voice. Unfortunately her family was desperately poor in interwar Vienna so she couldn’t take lessons. Finally, she was “discovered” by the Vienna Opera and given free lessons. But then the fact that she was Jewish made her get kicked out of the apprenticeship program. She was lucky to escape to Israel with her life, but she never had the opportunity to develop musically ever again. She became a nanny and a maid, and the only people who ever heard her sing her beautiful German lieder were her immediate family.
This is a long way of saying – I only need to think of my grandmother to have some perspective about what I do! It’s wonderful to get to make a living by singing, but much more than that, I am so lucky to get to sing at ALL.
Do you ever get starstruck or are you accustomed to meeting famous people through your gigs?
I’m probably most starstruck by my boss at LA Opera, Placido Domingo. The very first opera I ever saw was the movie version of Carmen with him as Don José when I was a child, and now I’ve not only performed under his baton several times, I’ve actually been right on stage next to him when he debuted one of his latest baritone roles. I can’t think of anyone with a more inspiring career – he’s in his 70s, still sounds amazing, and continues to learn new roles every year. He always says “If I rest, I rust.”
I also continue to be starstruck by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and composer John Adams, even though I have now worked with them through the LA Master Chorale many times.
Probably my biggest brush with fame was when I got a phone call one day from Babs herself asking me to coach her in Hebrew pronunciation! The person on the phone said, “Barbra Streisand would like to talk to you about her pronunciation of the Hebrew song for the concert [it was for a private fundraiser in which I was one of the back-up singers] – can you hold please?” I was not one of the Jewish kids who grew up with their parents playing Babs records all the time (my parents’ taste tended toward the Beatles and Pink Floyd), so I handled it just fine. I got major street cred with the extended family, though!
You have won a Grammy® as part of the chamber chorus Cappella, recording a baroque choral album, PADILLA: SUN OF JUSTICE, for Best Small Ensemble Performance. How great was that?
I am very lucky to have been involved with this particular project. Although I’ve been on the roster of singers for Cappella for 10 years, this was my very first gig with that choir! Since then, I’ve sung with these same singers in LA Master Chorale, LA Opera, and numerous recording projects. And I’m singing with Cappella next month again, June 27-29 at various venues in LA. It truly is one of the best ensembles singing early music in the country.
What are some of the events you are looking forward to be part of and promote?
I’ll be in four of the Hollywood Bowl concerts this season with the LA Philharmonic and LA Master Chorale, and I’m most looking forward to performing Ligeti’s iconic score to 2001: A Space Odyssey live to picture on August 18. Two big movies in which I sang as part of the choir, MINIONS (composer Heitor Pereira) and GOOSEBUMPS (composer Danny Elfman), also come out this summer – those were exceptionally fun choral sessions.
Street Symphony is planning to perform Handel’s Messiah on Skid Row, on the back of a flatbed truck, in December, and I can’t wait to be part of that. Next season I’m also really looking forward to the West Coast premiere of Julia Wolfe’s coal-miner-inspired piece “Anthracite Fields,” which just won the Pulitzer, with the LA Master Chorale, and Pagliacci with Placido Domingo in yet another new baritone role at LA Opera.
What are your favorite summer spots for arts & fun in the sun?
I love going to the Twilight Dance Series on Thursday nights at the Santa Monica Pier. I have two kids and they love to dance, and the little one loves “music from places,” as he calls music in different languages. And of course, the Hollywood Bowl!