photography by DUDI HASSON
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
israeli actress hen yanni and her girlfriend, dutch dancer imre van opstal, on loving freely, without expectations or fear. an intimate portrait of the couple shot in their home, in the arabic neighborhood of jaffa, the oldest part of tel aviv.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say love is the most important thing in life?
HEN YANNI — Love is what holds you and keeps you going. I don’t think I would exist without love. I feel very lucky to have love in my life, especially in this time. I appreciate it so much. Besides having a partner, which is a real gift to have, love is in the intention I give when I do things, and the moments and experiences I share with the people around me. Love is a powerful force of energy and source to connect to within yourself and others.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — I think love is the most important thing because it’s our true nature. We all need love in our lives. It’s one of the most basic needs for humans. It gives us a sense of belonging. It’s an act of peace, and it connects us to ourselves and others.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What has been your most life-changing event?
HEN YANNI — For me, the most crucial encounter in my life was my first experience with a boy. I was only 15, and it was the first time I really opened my heart. I was super naive, and we were crazy in love, but he eventually broke my heart — he was a troublemaker, and I was the “girl” fighting for the relationship. It was life or death for me. It left me with a black, empty hole in my heart that took years to heal. I realize I was more in love with the struggle, pain, and the idea of being with someone. Another crucial encounter that eased the pain was falling in love with a girl. I found myself opening my heart again, but in a very different way. This is where I discovered a different side of myself and my sexuality. It felt like a dream in which I discovered a new possibility of love.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — I count a couple of very meaningful and crucial encounters in my life. But one of them, for sure, was falling in love with a girl for the first time, in New York City. It was a crucial encounter because it was an intense and mind-blowing love that I had never experienced before in my life. It opened a door to look at my sexuality differently. It was a turning point in my life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does love change as you get older? Has that happened to you?
HEN YANNI — Of course, my perspective on life changed over the years, and so did my choices. The way I see love changed, and the way I love changed. Today I feel it’s way more layered and deep, and I definitely feel it as I get older. I know that the real change started within me — to love and accept who I really am — and from that point on, I could start seeing the other person. Not just to receive love, but to be able to give it back. I think today I experience love so differently than how I used to. I can feel the change with my family and close friends, and especially in the love I have with Imre — I really believe it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had because I met her at a point in my life where I’m way more balanced with myself.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — I don’t think love changes, but I do think we evolve inside of love and maybe have a better understanding about ourselves and our needs when we grow older. Love is not something fixed and solid — it’s always moving and transforming. I think with age I learn what it means to love someone and be loved.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your secret definition of love?
HEN YANNI — It’s whenever I feel harmony, when things go with the flow and without effort. It’s when I get inspired and passionate about something or someone.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Vagina plus Hen Yanni. Kidding! I do think the secret definition of love is letting go. A lot of letting go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What could be a new model for love today?
HEN YANNI — I’m still trying to figure out this question for myself as I totally have a monogamist side in me. I am also very open-minded, and I came to understand that love can be expressed in so many different ways. I believe we can love more than one person, but I also believe in the idea of building your life with someone and growing old together. I think the most important thing is to be able to listen to each other’s needs, and to give the freedom to be who we are without trying to change each other.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — A new model for love to me is to be able to love whomever I want, freely, without judgement or fear. My human soul is just searching for a connection to another soul. It’s purely a matter of the heart, and that’s not connected to my physical traits. Love is love, punto! I believe people can be committed to each other while also knowing that the world is full of new experiences. I’ve promised myself to always feel and trust whatever arises.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is love something totally arbitrary or necessary?
HEN YANNI — So necessary. Maybe I’m saying that now because I’m in a relationship, but at the same time, it’s important to know how it is to be alone.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Nature versus nurture? I always question everything in life — the rules and fairy tales we have created for ourselves. Is what we believe accepted and normal or not in today’s society, and how, why, and for what? Love is 100% necessary, yes, but it needs to come from the right place. Not out of greed. Love is not a compensation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe your personal experience of love?
HEN YANNI — For me, it’s about letting go and listening. It’s always about the balance of giving and taking. I love to share intimacy, to share dreams and a vision together. I love the idea that we can grow, learn, and share together. Relationships are challenging and constant work, and it can be intense and beautiful at the same time.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — My personal experience with love has been sweet as a candy, and I am still learning how to grasp it and take it all in at times. I actually learn to love myself through the different relationships I have with people, and every person I meet on my way is giving and teaching me something else, and hopefully vice versa.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can we love without being a “couple”?
HEN YANNI — Totally. I could totally find myself experiencing different love connections that don’t necessarily transform into romantic love.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — We can definitely love without being in a couple — I think love takes every form imaginable. Love can breed between anyone; even when I am already in a committed relationship, I can love more people at the same time, and I want to allow myself to do so. It means I am a healthy mammal! I actually met an amazing person here in Israel, and she became a super close friend of mine. I must admit it was confusing at times, but I think this is exactly what love is. Letting go to open yourself up to others and the energies around you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can we love something other than a human being?
HEN YANNI — I think it’s important to be able to love something before loving another human being. If we can’t love the things we see and touch, then what are we living for?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Of course we can. There is so much love around us. I love animals, I love the beauty of nature, I love to smell; I love music, my job, the flavors of food, and so on. We can love things that do not love you back. It all comes from the same source, but in distinctively different ways, and it is important to recognize that love describes a lot of different things. Love isn’t just the image and the story that we see in movies. Love is everywhere, around us all the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Love can hurt, for sure… Do you think love without expectation can make you and your love stronger?
HEN YANNI — To be in a relationship with no expectations at all is a real challenge, but I like the idea of it. Our belief system is built on expectations, whether we like it or not. There is always stuff to work on regarding expectations from both sides.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, love can hurt big-time, but it can also heal. I have definitely had both. When I live up to my own expectations and desires, I don’t need anything from anyone because in the end, I know I can’t control everything. But this is obviously easier said than done. My partner is on her own life journey as much as I am. I can’t change that, and I don’t want to. You’re always choosing to be there or not, to accept the other or to walk away. Love is also a choice, not just a beautiful feeling. I am choosing to be with Hen, and I am still loving that choice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can love be a source for art?
HEN YANNI — Love is definitely a source for art, but love contains so many colors. Inspiration can come from so many different angles of love. Some of the songs I wrote are inspired by love and relationships. These subjects are a source of inspiration, and it’s therapeutic and a way for me to heal.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, yes, and yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you describe one of your projects or artworks that is related to an aspect of love?
HEN YANNI — I have always had a big love for music. In the last few years, I’ve been working on my first solo album as a singer-songwriter. My project is a collage of songs about my struggle to find my identity and to love myself, to find my place in this world.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Here are a few words about Take Root, a piece that I choreographed with my brother, Marne van Opstal, for the Netherlands Dance Theater: “Human reason can never fully grasp the nature of things. However, before we know or try to explain, we already sense what’s taking root. Accepting the fact that we don’t understand these intuitive impulses makes way for new branches of thought and emotion to bloom.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — In his famous song “God,” John Lennon reduces his belief to his love for Yoko: “I just believe in me / Yoko and me / that’s reality.” What role does love play in your vision of life or in your view of the world?
HEN YANNI — I definitely believe in me / Imre and me [smiles] because it’s my whole reality right now, and for me it’s a source of power — to breathe and to love and to do this journey together. Imre is my partner in crime, and especially during these crazy times, it makes it even stronger. We are here together, and it gives me a lot of motivation and inspiration to grow from. The togetherness — everything is so much better together. I really don’t miss the times I was alone.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — My vision is companionship. Where two individuals can grow independently and together with transparent and honest communication. I believe in my companionship with Hen. The support and love she gives me, no matter what. We all express ourselves differently. I want to give space and time to really see and accept my partner for who she is, to see her small and big gestures in life. This companionship needs to warm me like a fire and not burn me. My vision is finding my tribe and togetherness. Community!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can love be transferred from the self to the external world?
HEN YANNI — We all have something to give here in this world. I really believe that whatever we say, think, and do has a really big impact on our surroundings.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Self-love is a constant work in progress and a skill to practice. When I feel more comfortable in my own skin, it definitely reflects on the things I do in life and the people around me. So, it can be transferred to the external world for the good and the bad. In the end, everything is connected, and is a mirror to the relationship I have with myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could the dream of transforming the world, or making a better world, be based on love?
HEN YANNI — Yes, as it all starts from our self. Love is the basic condition to make yourself better and to inspire others.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — A better world is based on love, for sure, but it starts within us, and that takes effort and courage. This world needs more love! An old proverb says, “If you know what harms yourself, you then know what injures others.” Meaning, the more a person feels the depth of their own humanity, the more human everyone else becomes to them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your favorite love story? From your life, a book, or movie, etc?
HEN YANNI — The love story in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [directed by Michel Gondry]. This film resonated with me for years — the idea of what would happen if we could just delete our memories after a hard breakup, the way humans are always trying to use technology to fix our problems. This movie shows how we can learn to love each other with all our flaws, and that no one is perfect.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Sorry, I don’t do favorites. I gave up on favorites a long time ago. I’m an indecisive person, and I believe every book, movie, color, or relationship brings something else to the table. So, yeah, no favorites here.