Anton Rubinstein was London’s darling most of the 19thcentury. He met Mendelssohn when touring the UK at the age of 12, performed for Queen Victoria and was awarded with the Golden Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society when he grew up “for the most outstanding musicianship” in 1876. Apart from being a Wunderkind, Rubenstein was one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, a conductor and a prolific composer, author of numerous operas, many of which are now, alas, either forgotten or very rarely performed. The Demon, composed in 1871 and based on the eponymous poem of Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov is one of them.
It is remarkable that the chorus and orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group under the baton of Oliver Zeffman decided to bring it back to life – after all, its tunes inspired melodic variations and motifs in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which is no trifling achievement. Although still frequently performed in Russia, the opera has become a rarity in the West. So, opera connoisseurs, rejoice! A cast of international soloists will star in this single London performance on 30th June with Armenian soprano Anush Hovhanissyan starring as Tamara.
We managed to catch Anush in London between her tours and performances. And it was a most interesting conversation. While being praised by critics as “hypnotically striking”, “glamorous, excitingly temperamental”, she is a very approachable and friendly person. “Human. With all its consequences”, as written in her Twitter account. And it is absolutely true! Interviewing Anush is like talking to a dear friend – the conversation flows in a soulful, trusting and relaxed way. And yet, she is the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme 2013–15 alumna, winner of 2016 Stella Maris Competition, the Clonter Opera Prize, the Margaret Dick Award, a Ye Cronies Opera award, the Bayreuth Prize from the Wagner Society of Scotland, the Ian Smith of Stornoway Award for Opera, awarded by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and a BBC Cardiff Singer of the World – an acknowledged rising operatic star! And yet, here we are, chatting about the beauty of Russian literature, delicious taste of Armenian apricots, agonies and ecstasies of the musical career. So, I start with a philosophical question:
Anush, how do you define music for yourself. Is music part of the daily life or an escape from it?
It is definitely life. Just different aspects of it – not necessarily the ones you come to think about on the daily basis. It is the beauty of life, the things you might not otherwise experience but would experience through music.
Well, is there any particular principle you stick to in life? A motto?
I have never expressed this in words, but I like feeling joyful and I like to spread joy among other people. There is nothing better for me than make someone’s life better. This makes me genuinely happy, no matter if I sing or do something else. However, the music elates me and it is easy to share this feeling during the performance.
This makes me think of Beethoven. Well, it looks, that you had a long journey to where you are now. You studied in Armenia, then in Scotland, then at the ROH in London. You also performed a lot. How did you manage to pack such intense musical experiences into such a limited amount of time?
I must have been very lucky. By the way, the Royal Opera House biography has been shortened. In reality, there were considerably more festivals and performances that I participated in, and they were no less interesting, artistically and personally. What I do means everything to me. But it is even more amazing, that this “everything” can mean something to other people, too.
It has been a very long way from Armenia to Scotland, where I studied for 3 years. In Armenia I studied violin, then moved to singing. And then I studied for eight years at the Yerevan State Conservatoire. Thereafter I arrived in Glasgow, took two courses and graduated in 2013 with Master’s degree from the Opera School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which is by far my most favourite place in the world.
So, how did it all start? When did you understand that you wanted to be an opera singer and not a violinist?
I began studying violin at the age of six at the A. Spendiaryan Music School and it took me almost 10 years to realise that I wanted to sing. It is quite strange, because I grew up on opera stage, but I have never thought of becoming an opera singer myself until I turned 17. And then, one day it struck me that I had never wanted to be an instrumental player but wanted to sing, and I became very passionate about it. The situation was complicated, because it was the year when I was finishing my musical school and preparing for Conservatoire (I will just remind to the readers that in the Soviet system there were comprehensive schools and musical schools, and they were attended simultaneously). So, I was preparing for my final musical school exams when I decided to switch to singing. I have never picked up the instrument since then.
How did you manage to overcome this challenge?
Nobody thought I was serious, especially my dad, who did not approve of that decision. But the moment I realised what I wanted, I thought it was the right thing for me, and I stood by this decision.
So, you are a lady with a strong character?
Fortunately. And this translates to my artistic choices as well: I like performing the roles of very characterful and strong women. I would love to sing Lady Macbeth one day. I’m so jealous of all sopranos who sing the part. I am also aware that I am not ready with my voice yet because it requires so much experience, artistry and a grown-up mature voice with many colours. Perhaps, at the end of my career? I promised myself that I would finish my career with Lady Macbeth, so we’ll see. Maybe my voice grows much faster and I will be able to do this sooner.
Are any of your relatives professional musicians? Were you born into a musical family?
Yes, my dad was a cellist until his late thirties. He was the first person in Armenia to enter Conservatoire at the age of fourteen – he was a young precocious talent. He had to skip the school, as he had won in major musical USSR competitions by this age already. He travelled the world with concerts before he turned 17: he toured the U.S.A., Germany, most European countries and former USSR republics. And in his late thirties he found a new passion: he re-trained and became an opera director. It was he, who introduced me to the stage and let me grow among the operas he was staging. He would give me small roles, and sometimes I would live on the stage for months, because he would rehearse 10 hours per day, and I would stay with him. He infected me with his love of music. My mom, by the way, is a journalist.
What an interesting idea of a kindergarten!
I remember when I was very little, I would sit next to my dad on the assistant chair, and from time to time he would turn to me and start explaining some things that I would never be unable to comprehend at that age. He always admired dramatic operas and would draw my attention to this type of music. And yet, hadn’t he drawn my attention to some nuances, I would have never otherwise thought about them. His words stayed in my memory for the rest of my life, and now I would sometimes look at a score, remember his words, and think to myself: “Gosh, I remember hearing my dad telling me about this when I was seven years old!”. It is strange that he was expecting me to understand things at such tender age but surprisingly it worked.
And now I would sometimes call him, we would have long debates and conversations about the way he sees an opera character develop and the way I see it develop. And it feels so good to have finally arrived at the level when I have sufficient knowledge to have meaningful conversations with him and stand my ground. It makes the whole process so much interesting and rewarding!
So, why did you eventually choose Scotland? So many people go to London or to other places?
I believe it chose me. I believe that the right things are the ones that happen to you, rather the ones that you struggle for. The same is true for meeting with right people. Life works it all out. Sometimes you expect to be in one place and end up in another, and then you meet a person, and it turns out that you were meant to meet that person there, and that was the reason for why your first plan hadn’t worked out. Life keeps on bringing its little surprises and it is so exciting! I am just treating it as a game between me and Life: it reveals its puzzles to me, sometimes by putting me into a certain place and letting me figure out, why am I there. And it has always been like that, so this is why I ended up doing so many things: Life just took me there. And I never said no.
Aha! This is your secret of success: never say no to an opportunity?
You know, I am just considering this at the moment. There are two types of “nos”: first, is a “no” that you say to Life, and second, is the one that you say as a professional musician because you have to stick to your strategy and choose the best direction for yourself (if you have a strategy as an artist). But it may also happen that Life will take you somewhere else and you may say “no” to this. Sometimes it is very hard to discern between the “no” to your life adventure and a professional “no” needed to steer your career in a certain planned direction. I presume, everyone goes through this in their life, not just musicians.
I find it exciting that you managed to pursue so many interests! And the diapason of your singing repertoire is awe-inspiring. Which arias or roles you find particularly interesting (apart from Lady Macbeth)?
I am in love with the Rossini repertoire. I could spend my whole life singing his arias – they make me so happy! With every single chord in each of his operas I can feel how life is waking up and bubbling within me. There is something magical about it, something I can never explain. I also like the German repertoire very much. I liked performing Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanniat the New Generation Festival in Florence.
And I do love the role of Violetta! I hope to be reprising it again and again after my initial debut in La Traviata with Scottish Opera. It usually gets better towards the fourth production because by that time one manages to grasp new depths in the part, to study the characters and their psychology and discover new dimensions in the music. Sometimes I wish I could skip over these five years of learning towards the time when I fully know my repertoire and begin to interpret it. Still, the other part of me is curious to find out what these five years of learning will bring to me, how I will be growing up as a musician, as an actress and as a singer. It is such pleasure to discover after an intense week of training, masterclasses and exploration of completely new things with your teacher or vocal coach, that your voice has taken on new depth, new colours, that you have new technical abilities. It is an amazing journey of self-discovery, and I am curious what these five years will bring.
Only time will show if my wishes are possible. At this moment I enjoy doing everything. And I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to pursue many things because many people just end up being typecast or stuck in their repertoire. And it may not necessarily be because of their (lack of) talents or personality, but because of the timbre of their voice, the country they were born in, or simply circumstances.
So, how did you manage to avoid being typecast? You perform Russian opera, Italian opera, sing German arias, and sometimes all almost simultaneously.
It is mad, but I love it because there is never a boring minute in my life. Sometimes it is only two roles during the season, which is manageable, and sometimes it is six, which is challenging. I always work and learn, and I genuinely like learning. You see, the entire career of an operatic soprano is an endless learning process, and every performance is a test. Of course, you should have enough strength and interest in your role to soar above this. And yet, you are as good as your last performance which means that the singer never fully arrives there. One always needs to aim at mastery and excellency, to learn new roles. It can be very daunting.As a young singer one needs to perform new roles all the time because they have no performance record. So, one should get as many as possible. I also hope that in the course of subsequent five to ten yours I will be getting back to the roles I currently perform.
Your enthusiasm in irresistible. How did you become Jette Parker Young Artist in 2013-15 and started performing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden?
Jette Parker programme is fantastic! It opens opportunities for young singers wishing to work in a professional environment and learn from that. I went through a very rigorous competition process in the course of my final year of studies in Glasgow. And after that I was invited to join the programme for two full seasons. It was magical: I had heard the recorded performances of many of heroes and then I had the chance to meet Roberto Alagna, Placido Domingo, or perform along with some of them on the ROH stage!
Having completed the programme, I still receive invitations to perform as a guest artist at the Royal Opera House, and I still keep very good relationship with them. Whenever I am in London, I visit ROH for coaching lessons, masterclasses, enjoy sitting at the rehearsals. If there is a visiting artist whose performance I would like to see, the doors are always open to me. Jette Parker Programme helps one grow professionally and master fundamentals that otherwise would have taken too long to learn on one’s own. And there, at Covent Garden, one does not feel entirely on one’s own because there are people already in profession who can offer guidance. They can always be approached and would share their experience, their knowledge, advice. I have learnt so much simply by having conversations with my colleagues, and these would concern not just my own interpretation of the role, but also the marketing aspects of my performance. There are lots of Jette Parker alumni, who return to perform at the ROH, and they are always kind and supportive. It is a wonderful community and a very healthy environment. And I was very grateful for the opportunity offered by the ROH.
And what about your twit that your “idea of Sunday morning is the fiery combination of Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov”? You once mentioned that you were an ambassador of Russian musical school. So how does it feel to work with Russian and Western musical traditions? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?
All the time, every second! It can all be very exhausting, especially when you are required to travel a lot, but I just love it. I do not understand what I would do without music and performing. Besides, having that background of Armenian and Russian cultures, which is so eminent in Armenia (and was very strong in Soviet Union times), I have always been drawn to Russian music. I studied Russian and I still read lots of Russian literature, so here I see the bonus in having been born in a former Soviet Union country. I like singing the Russian repertoire. I never thought it would be the case when I was moving to the UK, but now this music makes me inwardly resonate with it and I am enjoying it so much! Russian musical school is very much appreciated here, especially if one can bring something fresh to it, or sing music which is rarely performed, like The Demon. Having gone through the British system of education, I can also understand the uniqueness of my position and its benefits. I also know how to present Western music to Armenian or Russian audiences, because I know what is valued by them both. Of course, one has to keep adjusting: add a little highlight here, a little emphasis there, and this is how one can offer a new interpretation and make one’s audience understand the work better.
Sounds like a lot of experimenting to me.
Yes! Experiment is part of artistic process. You might rehearse a lot for the performance but there is always an element of improvising on the stage. Each time there is a different energy coming from the audience, the chemistry between you, and this is how you know that you can be a little bit naughtier or more reserved. When I arrived at the UK, the Western culture of show-making was a new discovery to me because I hadn’t been exposed to it when I was growing up. Besides, one has to learn the hierarchy of the stage, which is such a basic thing, but one won’t learn it until exposed to it. There are many rules, written and unwritten. So, it was wonderful to absorb everything and then move forward.
You took part in recording Scryabin’s Songs CD – another rare gem. Seems like it was a memorable collaboration: Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenasi, Valentina Lisitsa, Daniil Trifonov – all these musicians were involved.
It was a revelation. These Scryabin’s songs are very rarely performed. And just to get the chance to record them was such a privilege. I also went to record a couple of Glinka songs with Malcolm Martineau. The CD came out with very good reviews. Another CD was with Rimsky-Korsakov’ songs with brilliant pianist Valentina Lisitsa, and was such joy to work with her! I think, Rimsky-Korsakov is so underrated, especially in the West, so I would be delighted if people here learned more about this composer. Every time I tell people that Rimsky- Korsakov and Mussorgsky were flatmates, and Rimsky-Korsakov was such a decent person, they become amazed. He was taking care of Mussorgsky and his drafts and would put them all together and edit them. And I like it when British people find out new things about this composer and take interest in him. In 2017 I started to work on Shostakovich’s 14thSymphony. It has always been one of my favourite pieces and I always wanted to perform it.
And your favourite Russian conductor?
I adore Semyon Bychkov, He is phenomenal. I worked two times with him, one being for BBC proms. I felt like a sponge absorbing everything he said. I do hope that life would give me another chance to work with him.
How about your ideal of an opera singer?
I do not have an ideal. I presume, any artist inwardly hopes to do better than the others. I think it is simply the part of artistic nature: one aspires to do something differently, to come up with one’s own understanding of the role. It is the thought that your perception of the role can be more interesting then somebody else’s that drives you.
Ok, then which opera singer would you like to have a cup of tea with?
Oh, I would be the most annoying person to have tea with. I would ask so many questions! Of course, I would love to have tea with Maria Callas. And Joan Sutherland. I admire her so much, she was such an intelligent person. Or Renata Scotto. And Mirella Freni — I was once hoping to meet her, to talk to her. Generally, I believe that the greatest masterclass that these singers can teach a young artist, is their own performance. I would not necessarily go for a lesson with each of these singers, but I would love to talk to them.
If we look at the pre-recording era, there were so many fantastic singers, phenomenal artists. The reviews are still there, and I cannot help thinking: “I wish I was there!”. When are they going to invent this time machine, finally? There are so many performances that I would have loved to attend: the premieres of Rossini’s and Verdi’s operas, the premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. One of the things I love the most!
And, turning back to reality: I had the greatest privilege of meeting with Montserrat Caballé several times.
Yes! You performed in a Montserrat Caballé Gala Concert in Zaragoza!
She invited me personally to perform with her and I was so grateful for that. Besides, she gave me very valuable recommendations that I badly needed at that time. More meetings followed, and I’m still in touch with the family. They are wonderful people: whenever I perform in Spain they would always come to my performance. This is such a beautiful relationship. They really nourish young singers and their love of opera, support them with their whole heart. And Montserrat was very generous: such a great artist and inspiring person! I adore her.
I worked with other fantastic artists throughout my career. One of my heroes is Nelly Miricioiu – one of the greatest names in the European bel canto world. I learn a lot from her. I had a conversation with someone who used to work with her and said: “Nelly could open a phone directory and read out the names in such a way, that you would cry”. I love being around such people because their passion for music is infectious. They can teach their best masterclass by just being present: one picks up their vibes and gets transformed.