Yehoram Gaon, Turning 75 and Still Singing in Full Voice'

One man said he'd never be a singer. No matter. His new album shows his voice remains flexible, strong and wide-ranging.

Ilya Melinkov

A few months ago Yehoram Gaon attended Charles Aznavour’s performance at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, and to this day he can’t get over it.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says enthusiastically. “No, it’s inhuman. He’s 90 years old. When he talks he’s hoarse, but when he sings he sings in full voice. He was so convincing that I thought that maybe they beef up his live singing with a little playback. Maybe they insert an old recording of his into the present show. After the performance I asked his sound people whether such a thing is possible. They laughed and said it’s impossible. It’s him. He’s 90 years old and he sings in full voice.”

The words “sings in full voice” are also true of Gaon himself, who in a few weeks will be celebrating his 75th birthday. The voices of most singers burn out, fade, become hoarse and sometimes even break on the way to that age. And because Gaon didn’t record any albums for 17 years until issuing “As on the Day of His Birth” (“Keveyom Hivaldo”) last year, we might have expected his voice to lose some of its power and beauty, too.

But the new album, which was written for him by Amir Benayoun, as well as his live performances, have made clear that Gaon’s voice has been preserved amazingly well. It's as flexible, strong, clear, vigorous and wide-ranging as it was.

“I take care of it; I practice constantly,” says Gaon. “Not every day. Mainly before performances. You go to a performance the way you go to wrestle. If you get into the arena without having practiced, that’s how it will look.

"I’m always asked if after all these years I still get excited before a performance. When you’re an unknown quantity you’re very anxious, and when you acquire credit and an audience you’re always afraid of losing your reputation. All my efforts are made in order to hear what you just said, that nothing has happened to my voice.”

When Gaon’s voice is the subject of the conversation, we naturally get around to the famous barb by Uri Zohar, who told the 20-year-old Gaon, at least according to legend, “You’ll never be a singer; an actor - maybe.”

“It’s one of those stories that become true over time,” smiles Gaon, and still he puts things into context and tries to explain how such a ridiculous idea – after all, Gaon was a wonderful singer at the age of 20 – could have crossed Zohar’s mind.

“It happened in the Nahal Brigade entertainment troupe, and the [army entertainment] troupes at the time were entirely different from today’s,” explains Gaon. “Today’s troupes arrive at the army base with an entourage, and if there’s a star there, then a hairdresser travels with her. We were a group of kids with an accordion who performed eight times a day.

“We were hoarse but nobody cared because what they were interested in was the skits. The songs acquired their status slowly when amplification came into use. We were in the days before the cables, and after a few performances our voices were finished. We probably arrived at that rehearsal after several performances, and I was a little hoarse, and then he said what he did.”

But it’s not only that. What’s interesting in the story is that it reflects different approaches to singing, different approaches to how one should sing. Maybe Zohar had doubts about your singing because he objected to coloratura, quasi-operatic singing? Maybe it sounded too old-fashioned and pompous to him, and to others in the Tel Aviv crowd of the time?

“You’re right," Gaon says. "I’ve always been preoccupied with what’s called ‘bel canto.’ In our house we listened to opera all the time. We didn’t listen to popular songs. Beautiful singing was operatic singing, according to the rules. Rules that were made in Milan, say, in the 19th century. If Ray Charles had tried to be accepted there, he wouldn’t have passed muster. Nor [Frank] Sinatra. Because you need range. If you’re a tenor, then the range has to be from a certain place to a certain place. Those are the rules.

“For me bel canto is the essence of beauty,” continues Gaon. “I hear Pavarotti and I tear up. There’s no explanation. It simply grabs your emotions. It touches some string that causes the emotions to shed a tear. But there’s also opposition to this style, and I’ve heard this criticism not only in the Nahal troupe but throughout my career, to this day. People will always say that there’s some kind of pathos in my singing. Today it’s enough for the listener to receive lyrical information, and that’s not enough for me. Apparently between the lines I also insert my personal pride, as though to say ‘Look how beautifully I sing.’”

Not everyone would admit that.

“I admit it.”

Humility presumably requires the singer to conceal his pride at his abilities.

“No, I admit it outright because that’s what I have. That’s what there is. If it were only a matter of conveying lyrical information in any possible voice, I don’t think I would have stayed in music. I would have focused on acting. I sing in a singing style that’s not informative, but rather tries with all its might to be bel canto. The way a singer is supposed to sing, or the way a singer was supposed to sing in the days when they sang.”

A song for two

Gaon is the total opposite of the characters who will be starring on Thursday in his performance at the 16th annual Piano Festival in Tel Aviv. The show, which will travel all over the country after the debut at the festival, is called “A Thousand Kisses” and is devoted entirely to the subject of love.

Gaon will, of course, perform his famous love songs, and between them he will read famous love letters from the past 100 years of Israeli history. He says he finds that part even more interesting than the songs themselves.

Two by two, and often in threesomes, they will make their way to the stage: Itamar Ben Avi and Leah Abushdid, Zalman Shazar and the poet Rachel, Haim Nahman Bialik and Ira Yan, David and Paula Ben–Gurion, Yitzhak and Shulamit Shamir, Avshalom Feinberg with Sarah and Rivka Aronson, Alexander Penn with Hanna Rovina and Rachel Luftglass, Natan Alterman with Rachel Marcus and Zila Binder, and many other men of vision and intellectual giants with their partners, who in many cases were cheated on.

Gaon’s eyes sparkle when he talks about those stories. “Since we decided on this concept and I started collecting the material, I’ve been on a trip,” he says.

In the cover song of his latest album, “As on the Day I was Born,” Gaon sings “I’ve already worn the familiar crown / There was a scepter and a magnificent outfit / I’ve already tried the entire royal spectacle.” I can’t help asking him if in those days, several years after the Nahal troupe, when he was the leading Israeli singer and produced one hit after another, he felt like a king.

“You don’t have to believe what I’m telling you,” says Gaon. “Feeling like a king is not directly related to your quality or your popularity or the power of your voice. Being a king is your own personal feeling even if you’re not worth a red cent.

"I never felt like a king, not then either, and I can’t feel like a king, because I always feel threatened by the audience’s criticism. During my entire career. My whole life is one long ongoing battle for the affection of the audience. That’s why I can’t feel like a king even if I want to with all my might. On the other hand, anyone who’s not interested in the audience and its opinions can easily feel like a king, even if he’s not equal to the least of his servants.”