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Singing with Bocelli ‘nerve-wracking but fun’, says former Linksfield chazzan

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South African-born baritone and former Linksfield Shul chazzan Colin Schachat never dreamed that he would sing two pieces with world-famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in front of more than 20 000 fans in Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium.

But on 8 June, Schachat, now based in Ra’anana, performed for the third time with the 63-year-old Italian operatic tenor.

“This type of event I had never done before,” says Schachat. “There were almost 24 000 people there. It was a hell of an experience. It was like a national event. It was a bit nerve-wracking and quite daunting, but also a thrill to perform with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which I had done before but not in these circumstances. As it was a home crowd for me, I knew a lot of people. It was fun.”

Eleven years after his last appearance in Israel, Bocelli also performed dynamic duets with his 10-year-old daughter, Virginia, his 24-year-old son, Matteo, and Israeli pop star Shiri Maimon.

Accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir, Bocelli entertained the audience with a musical mix that ranged from a rendition of Bizet’s Farandole and Verdi’s Di quella pira, to 18th century hymn Amazing Grace and Francesco Sartori’s Con te partirò.

The first half of the performance comprised a selection of challenging classical pieces from Bocelli’s broad repertoire, and the second his most popular hits in past decades such as You’ll never walk alone by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Schachat’s performance with Bocelli stems back many years, when he performed with José Carreras, one of the original Three Tenors, in Israel. “I started working with his management company and they got me some gigs around Europe and other places,” says Schachat. “I noticed on their site that they were also working with Bocelli, and I asked [Carreras] to try and get me to perform with Bocelli. In 2019, I performed with [Carreras] for the first time in Italy. I had coffee with Bocelli at his house. He said, ‘I’ve been to Israel a few times, and if I get to come to Israel again to do a big concert, I will invite you to perform with me.’ He remembered this, and that’s what he did. About three months before the concert last month, I got an email from his management company. He wanted me to sing two items with him in Israel. They sent me the two items to learn, and that was that.”

As Bocelli arrived in Israel only on the day of the concert, his sole rehearsal with Schachat was in the dressing room for a few minutes before the concert.

“He is a great guy, very easy-going,” says Schachat. “He makes you feel comfortable. I don’t know if it will happen again. These are very stressful events, but it’s on the world stage. It’s a huge privilege.”

Schachat grew up in Senderwood, Johannesburg, and spent his entire school career at King David Linksfield. As someone who always enjoyed singing, he was co-opted by Linksfield Shul to sing in the choir, becoming the regular soloist before serving as the chazzan for six years.

Schachat’s unique, rich baritone combined with rare artistic versatility has enabled him to build an international career beyond Israel, which has been his home since making aliya with his family in 1992.

“As Zionists, my wife and I wanted to make our future in Israel,” says Schachat. “We had one little son and felt that the longer we stayed in South Africa and built our roots there, the less likely it would be that we would make aliya.”

If you move out of South Africa, Schachat says, you either get lost amongst the competition or you are lucky enough to find new opportunities. “I was lucky,” he says. “Obviously, you have to work very hard, singing always and keeping up your training. You either move forward or backwards. There’s no staying the same. You need to put in a lot of effort, otherwise you just deteriorate.”

Schachat publishes recordings every couple of years, and he has done so in many different forms of music. “I have pretty much sung with all the great chazzanim in my lifetime — in  Israel, America and Europe. I’ve done projects in the Jewish music world with basically all the most famous cantors of all time. Another highlight was my recital at Buckingham Palace in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ve sung at big events with heads of state. I have a picture of me and Henry Kissinger after I performed for President [Shimon] Peres’s Peace Congress in Israel.”

When no concerts were held in Israel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Schachat made the most of his spare time. “I did a lot of online events, made some recordings, built relationships, and put together a whole recital series to give profile and some income to singers who had lost their source of income. I gave a lot of services to shuls around the world on Friday afternoons. With an orchestra, I did a whole recital, heard all over the world.”

Schachat loves South Africa, and regularly visits the country, sometimes to sing. Bocelli, on the other hand, has visited Israel many times. “I have wonderful memories of Israel, and I’m waiting for more,” he told Israel Hayom on 6 June.

The day after the concert, Bocelli went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, saw findings from the Second Temple period that had been uncovered in the Western Wall tunnels, and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites in Jerusalem.

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