Black belt soprano

In love with performing and signing: Grammy award winner Hila Plitmann When Hila Plitmann’s name was announced last week at Los Angeles’s Staples Center as a Grammy Award winner, the 36-year-old Israeli operatic soprano was across town at a birthday …

In love with performing and signing: Grammy award winner Hila Plitmann

When Hila Plitmann’s name was announced last week at Los Angeles’s Staples Center as a Grammy Award winner, the 36-year-old Israeli operatic soprano was across town at a birthday party for a friend of her three-and-a-half year old son, Esh.

“We didn’t RSVP in time for the Grammy ceremonies, and in any event, Esh loves his friend, so we decided to go to that instead. I wasn’t even thinking that I would ever win the Grammy. We did go to a party that night thrown by a friend of ours who scored the soundtrack to Juno, so that’s how we ended up celebrating. For me, that’s always preferable,” said the refreshingly unaffected Plitmann from the LA home she shares with Esh and her husband, composer Eric Whitacre.

Plitmann received her Grammy for Best Classical Performance as vocalist on a recording of Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000), an original composition for full orchestra and amplified soprano by John Corigliano using the lyrics of Dylan and performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnne Falletta.

The piece, featuring reworkings of classic Dylan lyrics from the title song as well as All Along the Watchtower, Blowin’ in the Wind, Chimes of Freedom and others, according to one review “boldly refashions texts by the iconic songwriter into a compelling monodrama, by turns savage, yearning and hallucinatory.”

“I’m still a little surprised we won,” said Plitmann. “Just thinking about the level of artistry and the level of respect I hold for the others who were nominated in the category – I didn’t really expect this.”

On the other hand, Plitmann’s entire life had been leading up to the Grammy Award. Growing up in Jerusalem, the daughter of a Hebrew University professor in botany and an administrator at the university, she was immersed in music from a young age.

“Music was a huge part of my life from the beginning. My mom has a degree in musicology and my father has an incredible voice and plays guitar. At age six, they pushed me to take piano lessons, which I hated. But it gave me a good base. Then, at some point, I became somewhat of an extrovert and I fell in love with performing and singing,” said Plitmann.

Recognizing her vocal talent, Plitmann’s mother enabled her to join the Moran Children’s Choir in Jerusalem when she was 12, which led her to audition for and be accepted to the Rubin Academy of Music high school.

A burning desire to be a performer

“Both of those experiences changed my life. They were incredible experiences,” recalled Plitmann. “After high school, though, I decided to study in the US. Part of it was my burning desire to be a performer. Intuitively, I felt that I would be stunted a little if I stayed in Israel, I needed to go further with it.”

One of Plitmann’s teachers – Pnina Schwartz – arranged a meeting for her with a teacher at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, which led to another audition and acceptance to the school.

“Being Israeli, naive and young, I don’t think I even knew about Juilliard and its reputation,” she said with a laugh.

She learned soon enough, however, and completed both undergraduate and graduate studies there. Since her graduation in 1997, she has become a staple on the international music scene, regularly premiering works by leading composers while cementing her reputation in film, musical theater and recordings.

For her extensive soundtrack work as a soloist for the The Da Vinci Code, CNN reported “Plitmann’s glissandi sail above the petty pulpits of earthly doctrine with an ethereal ease that argues for Plitmann’s pairing with [Kathleen] Battle or Dawn Upshaw.”

She’s worked with many of today’s leading conductors, including Kurt Masur, Robert Spano, Marin Alsop, Esa Pekka Salonen, Andrew Litton and Steven Sloane, and has appeared as a headliner with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the New Israeli Opera.

Ironically enough, her involvement with Mr. Tambourine Man resulted from the vocal problems of another soprano, Silvia McNair, and a long friendship with 70-year-old composer Corigliano.

“John was one of the composition teachers there – he taught my husband Eric composition. We became friendly through those years but didn’t have any working relationship,” said Plitmann.

“When he was premiering the work in 2002, he had a wonderful soloist, Silvia McNair, but he needed a backup and he asked me. Then later, Silvia developed some vocal problems and John called and asked me to come to New York and record the work with him. It was amazing: We fell in love with the pieces and fell in love with each other. A great bond was created.”

Although Corigliano had never heard the original Dylan compositions before composing his own work, Plitmann said she has been a longtime fan of the rock poet.

Deep respect for Dylan

“I’m very much a product of my generation. I love pop music and have a deep respect for Dylan. I knew some of the songs in their original versions, but not all of them. I always thought his lyrics were full of depth and meaning, and to be able to sing them in this new setting was a really thrilling opportunity,” she said.

Separating Dylan’s lyrics from his music is an exercise that might not sit well with some, and Plitmann said she could understand how Dylan purists would be put off by the project.

“I tried to remove myself totally from the original music and tried to learn the lyrics separately. For some people it’s jarring to hear Dylan’s lyrics in another context; it can be a bizarre experience. Some don’t like it, or it may take them a few listenings to begin to understand it,” she said.

Although efforts have been made to deliver the Grammy winner to Dylan’s management, Plitmann said she had no idea whether he had ever heard Corigliano’s interpretation.

“We really don’t know. We tried to get it to Dylan a number of times, but it’s not easy. Obviously, we received permission to use the lyrics. I’m not sure, maybe he didn’t want to hear it, I could understand that. Maybe now that it’s won a Grammy, he’ll reconsider,” she said, with another infectious laugh.

While Plitmann and husband Whitacre have carried on successful separate careers, their paths have crossed on at least two occasions.

In 2007 she originated the role of Exstasis in Whitacre’s electro-musical Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings Plitmann sang, acted, danced and fought in long martial arts battles nightly for a seven week sold-out run in Los Angeles.

“I never felt as exhausted as after that run of shows. It’s a very taxing story, dramatic and tragic. The vocal and physical demands are in some ways insane. But it was very satisfying and has been my dream role, and not just because of my husband,” she said.

And three years earlier, Plitmann collaborated with Whitacre by writing and singing the original poems for Five Hebrew Love Songs, a collection of Whitacre compositions.

From singing to writing lyrics

“Eric forced me to write the poetry,” she laughed. “We had a friend from Germany who had come for a year to Juilliard to study. He wanted us to come to a concert in his hometown and wanted Eric to write a new piece. And Eric decided that I would write the lyrics. I had written some poetry before, but they were completely self-contained.

“The funny thing is that because Eric doesn’t know Hebrew, I wrote it out phonetically. So when he was reading it, he didn’t realize there was a rhyming scheme. Only when I read it out loud to him did he say, ‘wait a minute, now I hear the music.’ He wrote the piece for violin and piano and we went to this little town in Germany and it was a very moving experience.”

Proudly calling her husband “one of the most popular chorale composers of his generation,” Plitmann demurred when asked if the two got along while working together. “Oh, you better ask him,” she chuckled.

It may be in Whitacre’s interest to defer to his wife on creative decisions, however, since Plitmann holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the result of her training for her role in Paradise Lost. For her, it was the culmination of a teenage dream.

“Embarrassingly, when I was growing up, I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in my fantasy life I always wanted to learn some kind of martial arts. I knew it would be a boost to my self confidence,” she said.

Paradise Lostturned out to be the catalyst. I knew there was going to be some martial arts in it, so I decided to study Tae Kwon. I found a wonderful master in a small LA studio named Master Lim and I studied with him for five years and got a black belt. I stopped when I became pregnant, and haven’t really had the chance to go back, as motherhood has taken priority. But I hope to continue one day.”

And having already achieved so much in such a relatively short time, it’s likely that Plitmann can accomplish whatever she sets her sights on, even sending back her RSVP on time on the occasion of her next Grammy nomination.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.