Rihab Chaieb, Mezzo-Soprano: Rending and Mending the Family Bonds

“To my immigrant parents, playing in a heavy metal band and singing in the opera were the same thing: fine as a hobby, but not a serious profession.”

When Rihab was two years old, her parents emigrated from Tunisia to Montreal.  Both highly educated professionals, her parents expected Rihab, their eldest daughter, to pursue a highly paying career. But Rihab had a different goal. Music had entered her life.

Rebelling at the age of 17, Rihab joined a heavy metal band - her math teacher in high school had been a drummer, and encouraged her - before moving out of the house and traveling alone to Central America. This was just when she was about to enter the CEGEP, the mandatory preparatory school between high school and university or trade school in Quebec.

At CEGEP Rihab followed a double major in math - her mother’s profession - and in music, her own love - and graduated in three years while working as a lifeguard in a sports center. While there she was encouraged and supported by her sight-reading and theory teacher, Jo-anne Fraser. 

“Jo-anne was like an adoptive mother to me. I was having some difficulties at home at the time. My parents didn’t understand my needs, my feelings or my dreams. Jo-anne took my music seriously and also helped me learn to navigate the world, as a woman and as an adult.”  They say time heals. She has since reconciled with her family and feels that their bond is even stronger than before. Her mother recently came to hear her sing the role of Zulma in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at the Metropolitan Opera, a performance which the New York Times described as “vibrant.”

After CEGEP, Rihab enrolled in the Major Performance Voice Program at McGill University in Montreal and the roles, grants, accolades and awards started pouring in.  At 29 her resume is lengthy and impressive - but landing in New York last year at the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artst Development Program was overwhelming at first.

“Just the noise pollution of Manhattan - the ambulances, the trucks, the traffic. I share an apartment on 10th Avenue near the entrance to the highway and for the first time in my life I have to sleep with earplugs.” But the exigencies of managing a singing career in New York City are even more daunting. “There’s so much pressure, vocal demands, demands on your lifestyle, and you have to learn to take care of yourself, of your health, to be a better agent for yourself, to manage your gigs. You start from the bottom up here, wherever you’ve sung before.  But that’s the way it should be. It’s like a rice cooker: you have to get cooking and you can’t rush it. I have learned that you have to pay your dues and steadily improve if you want your career to last.  Life as a performer is only going to get harder and more complicated, not easier, so you might as well learn to deal with it early on.”

At the same time, being in the Young Artists program at the Met, the brainchild of Music Director Emeritus James Levine, has made New York a warm and welcoming place for Rihab. “James Levine has got your back.  A half-hour before each performance, he phones each singer in his or her dressing room, reassuring and encouraging us. Because I am also performing with him, my classes with him feel organic and put me at ease. Normally I don’t like to feel too comfortable for fear of becoming complacent. But with Levine that feeling of comfort leaves me feeling excited and strong.”

Rihab Chaieb kicks off her 16/17 season as she makes her Met debut as Zulma in L’Italiana in Algeri, and as Cretan Mezzo in Idomeneo, both productions conducted by James Levine. In summer 2017 Chaieb returns to Glyndebourne Festival Opera as Flora in Verdi's La traviata, following her successful Glyndebourne debut in 2015 as Mércedès in David McVicar's production of Bizet Carmen. This past season, Rihab Chaieb performed Tebaldo in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Opéra National de Bordeaux, and the season before, she sang Waltraute in Atom Egoyan’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Canadian Opera Company.  She made her role debut as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro for the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco. Her roles for the Canadian Opera Company include Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito, Juno/Ino in Semele, Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, amongst many others. She is a 1st Prize Winner of the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition, winner of the Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award from Opera Index, and 1st Prize Winner of the Christina & Louis Quilico Award competition. She was awarded the 2014 Bernard-Diamant Prize by the Canada Arts Council, which recognizes an outstanding young singer in the Council’s annual competition for grants to professional musicians.