Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann has played with many of the world’s top orchestras, won a Grammy Award and sung solo on the blockbuster Hollywood movie, The Da Vinci Code.
Plitmann is about to put this right with a debut album released this month entitled The Ancient Question; A Voyage Through Jewish Song, which features songs in both Yiddish and Hebrew.
The 38-year-old singer – who moved to London in the summer with her husband, composer Eric Whitacre, and their son – is excited about the work. “There’s a part in my heart and gut that always seems to thrive on music that comes from a Jewish source. We all have a connection to our childhood, and that seems to be mine,” she says.
The album came about when her record company, Signum, suggested she record a CD. She had previously worked with celebrated clarinettist Julian Bliss and had an idea about what they might perform together.
She recalls: “There’s a lot of fabulous repertoires for clarinet, piano and voice, but we didn’t want to do just Schubert – we can keep that for another time. I started searching and I found all these pieces, some of which fell into my lap accidently. It became this journey of exploration into Jewish-inspired music, which became the thread of the whole CD. I’m really glad I did it because some of the music is just so magnificent and special.”
Born in Jerusalem, Plitmann comes from a musical family. Her mother played piano and her father played guitar and had a “beautiful singing voice”. But she did not initially embrace her musical education. “Like good Jewish parents, they sent me to piano lessons when I was six and I hated it, of course. But my mum heard of a choir in Israel and had me join. That changed everything for me. It’s funny, but if it’s not the right instrument, you don’t enjoy practising. If it’s the right instrument, it doesn’t even feel like you’re practising.”
Plitmann says she was a lively, extrovert child and her enthusiasm for music and life has clearly endured. She speaks fluently and ebulliently in the American-accented English she acquired when she studied at the Juilliard School in New York. Here she met Whitacre, with whom she is working on a new production of his work Paradise Lost; Shadows and Wings.
Whitacre and Plitmann settled in Los Angeles. It was there that she met composer Hans Zimmer, who asked her to sing on the soundtrack of The Da Vinci Code. “We immediately found we had a connection. I’m not the biggest fan of the film but I think the music is unbelievable. It adds a layer of psychology and depth to the relationships which wasn’t necessarily there in the script.”
Although classically trained, Plitmann feels that she has done some of her best work in contemporary pieces. “What’s funny is that my career has been nearly all non-mainstream stuff. I mainly do new orchestral works and in a way these are pieces which are non-traditional, but still have a lot of traditional flavour to them.”
She adds: “I tend towards the 21st century. I like pop music and popular music. If it’s too left-field, I tend not to respond to it too well.”
The material she sings ranges from classics like Mozart, Bach and Puccini to new composers. The diversity of the music is matched by the number of languages she has to learn. So what problems does singing in a foreign language present?
“Six years of Juilliard training helps of course,” she laughs, adding: “I speak Spanish, so I’m used to the Roman languages, which all sound familiar. I always try to translate everything I sing initially. You might not convey feeling as you would in your own language but hopefully you can transmit something.”
Even more diverse than her work, however, is her background. “My mother was born in Mexico City so I heard Spanish spoken all the time. My father’s mother came from Greece. I was born in Israel, educated in the US and live in London. So yes, I guess you could say that identity is an issue for me.”