Steal a Pencil for Me: Meet Gideon Dabi

Gideon Dabi in Opera Colorado’s world premiere of “Steal A Pencil For Me.” January 23, 2018. Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

By Kelly Maxwell

Gideon Dabi is an opera singer with a dry sense of humor, a love of professional wrestling, and an almost mathematical approach to his craft. He’s also making his Opera Colorado debut in the world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me, singing the role of Jaap Polak—a man who finds life-sustaining love amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. Today we speak with Gideon and get to know how he became an opera singer—accidentally, it turns out—and how he approaches preparing for a new role.

Since you are originating this role of Jaap Polak in Steal a Pencil for Me, it’s yours to build. What’s that process been like, preparing for a world premiere?

My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. When watching the 2007 Steal a Pencil for Me documentary (available on Netflix!), the real-life Jaap reminded me a lot of my grandfather, even down to the ears. So I relate to this. I can play him. But as far as the process is concerned, I don’t feel any extra burden or any real difference in preparation. The only difference here is that when you do Don Giovanni and those kinds of roles, you have other legendary singers in your ear, whether you want it or not. So this role is a clean slate in that respect, but that actually makes it a little bit harder. You have to do more of the work on your own. But as far as whether I approach the role differently, probably not.

Dramatically, as far as an arc is concerned, I tend to be a by-the-numbers kind of guy. You won’t get this whole, “I feel more emotional when I do the whole journey” thing. That’s just not me. The emotion is in the preparation, but the execution is always technical and dispassionate. But that’s me. I know Inna [Dukach, who sings Ina Soep in Steal a Pencil for Me] is much more of an emotion-driven singer. If I think about the emotions, a) it’s inconsistent, and b) it doesn’t translate to a good tone. Those are my general thoughts on my whole philosophy of singing and of life.

Baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap Polak). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

What’s it been like working with Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto and Steal a Pencil for Me Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia?

This is not my first time working with either of them. In fact, I worked with both of them during the same summer in San Francisco. So this is a nice coincidence. As far as working with Ari, he is incredibly accommodating, but he’s not a pushover. We all have so much pride in this performance, and you really do get more bees with honey than with vinegar. You feel like he’s really pulling for you. I’ve had conductors where there is an adversarial relationship, and there is perhaps something to be mined from that, but you can easily lose the room. So working with Ari is just wonderful and I enjoy working with him a lot. With Omer, I almost have to recuse myself in the sense that we were together in San Francisco Opera at the same level. There’s a friendship first, but there’s a healthy respect as well. There’s a certain degree of trust we have. She’s great.

When you’re on stage, what does it feel like for you to address such an intense subject as the Holocaust? What do you think your responsibility to the audience is?

Generally, I actually don’t like to be involved in something that has political realism to it, but as a Jew, it is actually important. I’m not really answering your question, not dismissively, but because I don’t know if I really feel that much of a responsibility for it. I feel like I’ve furthered the Jewish cause in other ways, from cantoring at synagogue and things like that. But, I suppose if this piece can steer people in a better direction, we can move people towards the idea that this hatred still persists. I don’t walk down the street looking over my shoulder, but it’s still very pervasive and always has been. Despite what anybody says, it doesn’t go away. That’s the duty that I feel. If somebody comes in and gets that message, wonderful. If somebody comes in and just has a really moving experience and is happy, great; I’m also happy. I leave it to them.

The cast of “Steal A Pencil for Me.” Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

This is your Opera Colorado debut, so tell us a little about your background. What made you want to be an opera singer?

My stock answer is that it started as a joke. I follow that up with, “If you’ve seen some of my auditions lately, you’d think I am one!” Growing up, I would always imitate my family members. Or, we’d get together when I was 10 or 11 years old, I’d imitate my teachers, and then my mom would go into the parent-teacher conference and say, “Oh my god,” saying, “I had to bite my cheek [to keep from laughing], I was just hearing your imitation.” And so anyway, my grandfather, God rest his soul, he took me to a musical. I was 15 years old and I came back and said, “That was so cool,” and I started imitating the singers. But my mom wasn’t really laughing at it. Instead she said, “You know, you actually sound pretty good.” Then she signed me up for the school choir. While there, I heard some of the good singers, and I was very pleasantly surprised that their serious voice wasn’t as good as my joke voice.

When San Francisco Opera asked me this same question, I said to them, “You know, they say you should let your kid burn their fingers on the stove, so they can really feel that it’s hot.” I think of some of the opera business mistakes I’ve made in the past and I think I really just rolled my face all over the stove to figure it all out.

Baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap Polak) and soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep). Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver 

Part of the business of being a performer is dealing with rejection and bouncing back. How do you deal with that part of the business?

Some rejections sting worse than others. I think that the real key is to just look forward to the next opportunity. There were several times where I thought, “That’s it. I’m done.” But invariably, something else came up. I’m a big professional wrestling fan, and these two older wrestlers were talking, and they asked each other, “Why do we still do this? We’re in our 40s and we just beat the hell out of our own bodies.” Then one says to the other, “Because we’re too stupid to quit.” And that’s how I feel about opera. I’m just too stupid to quit. [Laughs]

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