Meeting Maya Yahav Gour on our Zoom call – she is in Tel Aviv, I am in Berlin – is like taking in a gust of fresh (h)air: long flowing blonde locks fill the screen before her brown eyes and welcoming smile say hi. She is the antithesis of the perfectly styled opera diva of yesteryear, and that is what makes her personable and authentic.

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Maya Yahav Gour
© Eduardus Lee

Mezzo-soprano Gour is one of the current members at Dutch National Opera Studio, a two-year traineeship aiming to prepare young talent for an international opera career. Although she has been expressing her feelings through singing ever since she can remember, she does not come from a particularly musical home as her parents are professionals in the fields of medicine and psychoanalysis. “My parents listened to a lot of music,” she tells me, “but neither opera nor jazz were on the menu. My dad occasionally put on a Brandenburg Concerto on a Saturday morning but that's about it. I went to an arts-oriented high school and there I discovered jazz, listening to the early Frank Sinatra and Charlie Parker.” In her late teens she started to sing, with Sarah Vaughn being her big inspiration. 

When entering the required military service in Israel, which takes place after high school, Gour decided to apply for the position as “excellent musician”, an army program also available for athletes and ballet dancers which would allow her to concentrate on music. She was accepted, but it still meant she had to go to basic training for six weeks, learning how to use a rifle, guarding a base in the south of the country, sleeping in tents. “A crazy experience for a young girl of 18,” Gour remembers. After that bootcamp, and in order to complete the two-year service, she joined a military band, singing and entertaining the troops stationed in many different locations. It was one of her teachers at the time who introduced her to Wagner's music: “I sang super popular tunes for the soldiers and in my own time I listened to classical music. It was like day and night for musical styles,” she says. “I thought Wagner was amazing – harmonically it was so interesting – and I immediately began exploring opera. During high school, I had sung some Schumann Lieder, but I was mostly doing jazz and I was not aware of opera at all.” The fact that Wagner was a persona-non-grata in Israel didn't even enter her mind – the music was glorious! Gour was hooked, not only on Wagner but on opera in general: he had opened the door to a new world for her. “It was really a discovery, his story and the history of his music not being played in my country,” she says. “It was then that I decided to take classical voice lessons.” 

A few months after the end of her service, Gour was almost 20 and planning to move to New York to embark on a degree in jazz at the New School, where she had managed to get a scholarship, but her voice teacher encouraged her to try out for admission at the prestigious Mannes School of Music. “Surprisingly, I made it,” she tells me. “I was lucky that they believed in my potential because I certainly had no technique and repertoire!” A scholarship made it possible for her to complete her bachelor and master's studies there. “I remember the gossip that went around at the time – the girl who got a scholarship for jazz but then did an about-face and went to opera...” – she smiles when she thinks about it now. 

During her studies in New York, she was still not totally sure where she would end up. “I was going with the flow, receiving encouragement from competitions, getting a little gig here and there,” she says. Was she a mezzo or soprano? “My voice moved a lot. I was told to sing only Mozart and Rossini, then Strauss. It was not a clear journey, with lots of ups and downs,” she recalls. 

She did notice, however, that she had less and less time to go to jazz jam sessions in clubs. “It became clear that staying up all night singing jazz was not compatible with singing opera the next morning,” she laughs. Especially because “I was improvising a lot with my jazz singing on harmony, creating my own ornaments and that, which in turn has led me to improvisation in belcanto. Bepop, for example, is a melodic language where you can improvise on the spot, and that language can be translated into the harmonic language of belcanto, which becomes very exciting,” she explains. “In order to do that, I have been learning the language of embellishment. I would love to have a project so that I can try that out. Every opera is a recreation of something that already exists, but when you can also play how the melody sits on top of the harmony, that's something that really excites me.”

In addition to all these activities, she even found time time to train as a yoga teacher and indulge in her passion for old classic movies. “I'm a film geek and love to see how people used to be and perceive history, so anything from Chaplin to Fellini to Bergman, I watch them all!”

Upon completion of her Masters Degree at Mannes, came the big question 'what next'. In the meantime, Gour had been signed on by an American agent and was getting engagements here and there – Angelina in Cenerentola at the Opera in Williamsburg, as a Young Artist at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival in Switzerland under the direction of Cecilia Bartoli, the title role of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges with Opera on the Avalon, Tisbe in Cenerentola at the Seattle Opera and more. A role she really enjoyed during this time was as the Stewardess in Jonathan Dove's Flight, with Opera Parallèle in San Francisco: “it had a lot of cool rhythms,” she tells me. 

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Maya Yahav Gour in Der Zwerg at DNO
© Marco Borggreve

“I would love to do a newly composed piece,” she adds, “but one that touches the audience emotionally and breaks the ice, not just play to the intellect.” Is opera too elitist in her opinion? “There's a lot being done to break down barriers,” she says, “but I'm not sure that it is enough. The world is changing so fast, we need to think what can be done to preserve the integrity of the music while making it something that kids can connect to, and that has to do with education and exposure at an early age. I hope that the collective effort that is being made makes this art form relevant and successful in the long run.” 

When Gour took part in auditions put on by the Premiere Opera Foundation in New York, Rosemary Joshua, the artistic director of the Dutch National Opera Studio, heard her and invited her to audition to become part of her program. Because of her father's family being of Portuguese-Sephardic Jewish origins, Gour was entitled to a passport from the European Union, making it possible for her to work in the Netherlands without many bureaucratic hurdles. That was in March 2020 and everything was shutting down, so she first returned to her home in Tel Aviv and sang online again for DNO's director Sophie de Lint and the head of artistic affairs Damià Carbonell Nicolau. By September 2020, she was finally able to travel to Amsterdam and stayed there for the entire season. Even though there were no live performances, the work at the Studio continued with many lessons, coaching and recordings, primarily online. “I felt super lucky to have gotten into this program and that Rosemary saw my potential,” she says. Currently at the start of the second year of the program, she looks forward to the role of Flora in a new production of Traviata and the Page in Salome. Gour also hopes to be involved in some outreach activity where youngsters can get involved with opera and classical music.

Having experienced the pandemic and its complete shutdown of all artistic endeavors has made Gour also think of alternative career paths. “My plan B would be in a therapeutic profession. Many members of my family are psychoanalysts and I have grown up in that environment. I will always want to give and connect with the public,” she thinks out loud. “Opera is a profession that is not easy, and even if you reach what you want, it doesn't get easier. There is never stability, but I don't think I would ever stop making music”. With a shrug and a smile she concludes: “I don't think any decision for me is the final one. I can end up in many places musically, I don't like to put myself in a box. This is were I am at in my journey now".


This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.

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