We continue our conversation with lyric coloratura soprano Sofia Fomina, the soloist at the ROH. As we have mentioned, Sofia is a very engaging person who knows a lot. We just kept the conversation going…
You seem to have been performing Wagner a lot recently. Wagner is very complicated and a great strain on the vocal chords. Is it so?
Yes and no. The roles and the music are, indeed, complex, as in the recent Götterdämmerung. The score should always be strictly followed, because this is how the whole musical fabric evolves and grows to become a beautiful, multilayered and interesting whole. For me, it is always something tantamount to a miracle every time it is happening.
When studying Wagner as student in my young days, I just wished to go through the whole lot as soon as possible — Wagner seemed so long-winded and somewhat boring. To excuse myself I can point to the fact that we had to listen to the Wagnerian cycles in Russian. We had no access to the best overseas recordings then. And in Russian everything appeared differently. It all seemed like a strange, unfamiliar music. And now, when I am listening to it, I simply love Das Rheingold because it is just fabulous. The music is so vivid, so thrilling, so imaginative and draws such vast panoramas in a flash.
Talking about the voice, once should bear in mind that Wagner composed his operas for his theatre in Bayreuth. And there the orchestra pit was hidden under the stage, so the sound came out more muted. It was not of the same quality as when it comes today from the open orchestra pit. Therefore, initially opera scores did not demand such an effort and such powerful sound from singers. When we listen to Kirsten Flagstad, we do not hear any strain in her voice. She just sings in a very concentrated way but without such magnitude as many artists do today. It surprises me that that many stage directors do not wish to admit this simple fact Wagner’s operas were not composed for the open orchestra pit.
So, you are on the way of rediscovering Wagner and his work?
In fact, I rediscover a lot of things for myself now. Certainly, there are people who love Wagner from early on, when they are still young, but this is not very typical and I do not belong to their number. In addition to Wagner, I also keep on rediscovering Verdi in a new way. When one is growing up, many things are being perceived in a new light.
I have never particularly liked theoretical subjects, but I have always been interested in poetry, in the realm of feelings. And this can also be crucial in our profession. When one starts learning the role, then willy-nilly, one is drawn into the research process and starts learning more about life of specific composer, history of his music and creation of the musical work which has to be performed. I still cannot say that I have read enough about Wagner and theoretical aspects of his music, but I am sometimes sitting listening to Wagner and just cannot help wondering: “Oh, this is brilliant! If I have a child, it would be interesting to introduce my kid to some parts of these operas, because they are fabulous! Here are the mermaids splashing in the river, and here is the dwarf climbing, and here are some huge giants stomping out with their axes”….
At the charity evening, you sang not just opera arias, but Russian romances. What do you think about this side of Russian classical heritage?
I really love to sing romances: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. We are currently working on a CD release with Alexander Karpeev. We recorded Medtner’s vocal cycle, as many musicians are now expressing a reawakened interest towards Medtner’s music. And his vocal scores are a substantial part of his legacy. He is certainly not Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, but Medtner is still a very interesting and significant Russian composer.
I have been mentioning of my guitar singing, and at some point I noticed there was a certain pattern between my singing songs to the guitar and performing a romance. What was a town romance, after all? It used to be exactly the same: a popular song sang to a guitar. Glinka, Dargomyzhsky – they all sang it at home, in their own apartments. No one first performed these romances onstage or in the opera house. It was some sort of a domestic entertainment, when before or after dinner everyone sat down and sang. Romances were only meant for home concerts. So, then I thought to myself: “Why are we so serious about romances now? These are, in fact, some predecessors of the bardic song of our times”. Understanding this simple truth helped me a lot. Sometimes when listening to other performers I cannot help noticing that they lack simplicity in their interpretations. There is too much drama, too much strain. So, for me, my teacher Zara Dolukhanova is an ideal. She has performed romances (e.g.Tchaikovsky) and her singing is striking: it is so natural, so unaffected. She just seems to be conveying the meaning of the text set to music. The listener ends up identifying with the feeling rather than concentrating on the musical complexity of the piece. Dolukhanova just delivers the most important thing. And this is what immediately captivates and wins one over.
And how can this be achieved?
When I am teaching young singers I often ask them: “Can you just sing? Just simply sing, not overstrain your voice “. Even the Italian opera first emerged as entertainment. And only then it gradually evolved into the high art we know today. But initially it was just for fun.
Sometimes journalists ask me: “How should we make opera more approachable”? I do not think that one needs to do anything special to make opera understandable. Today, some stage directors even change the original score, trying to make the opera understandable to the listeners. I think this is somewhat useless. If someone is interested in the opera as a genre, then sooner or later they will find the way to enjoy the performances. The only thing I would wish to change, is teaching of music at schools, so that schoolchildren had the opportunity to study music styles, composers, history. Thus, we inevitably arrive at the issue: “how to make classical music accessible to people?”
Indeed, how? Classical music has always been considered difficult, serious, elitist. And today there is also a wide gap between the classical and the popular music.
Yes, popular music, and of a primitive type, prevails today. However, the classical music has been pronounced by some researchers as having healing properties. Even though it is complex, it can help a person calm down, concentrate and even improve some cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, the way I understand it now, art and music are heading towards a destructive end, just turning into some kind of a noise.
I once was present with Teodor (Currentzis) at a concert where the orchestra (MusicAeterna) plays one single note that keeps on growing louder until it reaches its climax, and then the musicians start smashing their instruments ( here Sofia talks of the piece by Dmitri Kourliandski The Riot of Spring). Yes, ancient people also went into some kind of a frenzy, a trance, but this is not the music that will bring peace and ennoble the senses.
And sometimes, there are such types of performances which make my heart sink. They make me wonder: “Why have I watched this? What for? ” The whole thing may turn so dark and oppressive that I sometimes regret I had watched it. Still, contemporary art echoes today’s life. Historically, humans have always tried to leave something behind, after they are gone: a house or children, art, business. People spent their whole lives working to achieve this. We are no longer holding onto the same principles. We only live for a day, for a year. Everything is fleeting, and this all shows in politics and in art.
Who were your favourite conductors you worked with?
In most times, today a singer has only 2-3 rehearsals with a conductor before the performance. There is not much work as such. However, there are several conductors I was very lucky to work with.
I was completely amazed at the conductor of the Bayerische Staatsoper Zubin Mehta. We worked with us on Un Ballo In Maschera. He is 80 years old but he is so young! His eyes are glowing, he is so alive! A very interesting person.
Another conductor was Antonio Pappano at the ROH. He is a master, a man who is very considerate of singers and is very protective towards them. Pappano is interested in sound: for him the quality of sound to the every note is very important, but capturing the character onstage through music is paramount. Unfortunately, I had a very small role as Jamie ( Guillaume Tell). I remember Pappano coaching me: “You are singing some passages in too feminine a way! You must do it more abruptly, like a boy. ” And of course he was right.
I do like it when as performer I am given some cues, or even a goal as an actress. It makes you challenge yourself. When preparing for a role onstage, it is important for me to enjoy the process and understand what I am doing and for what reason. Then the character and performance grows to become alive, interesting.
Perhaps for this reason I would like to work with Dmitry Chernyakov (a controversial Russian stage director). For the same reason I would also love to work with Barry Kosky. He captivates me with his productions, his vision. He is a smart bully.
By the way, I have been issuing warnings to my more traditionalist friends recently: “Be warned, it is not going to be the Carmen you would expect. If you do not wish to spend the whole night, outraged at “how could he do this!”, then you had better not go. However, if you wish to see something fun, fresh, provocative, humorous and tastefully done, then go by all means!”.
Which collaborations were the closest and most memorable?
I was fortunate enough to work closely with Teodor Currentzis. After all, my debut was in Novosibirsk. After a ten-year hiatus, I performed with them again in La Boheme in Baden-Baden. Currentzis, is, of course, is a dictator. He does what he believes should be done and considers important.He works with singers, as he considers fit, and here it is useless to get offended or become upset about it. At the same time, he is a great musician. He is very sensitive to music, he is very perceptive. And he does break a lot of stereotypes, clichés on the way, “dusting off” the scores, as the critics fairly observe. He does many controversial things I may not agree with. Now. Still, at the same time, I respect him as a master, as a person capable of following his vision and with a great understanding of music.
Perhaps, it will not be an exaggeration to say that there are two most important conductors in my professional life and growth as a singer. They are like day and night, black and white, completely different, complete opposites – Jurowski and Currentzis. It is useless to compare them. This is even counterproductive to do so.
One has completely immersed himself into mysticism and is obsessed with cosmos, angels and attempts to glimpse into the other world. The other one is more steady, down-to-earth, lively person with a wealth of knowledge, although in no way less emotional. Still, unlike Currentzis, Jurowski has the ability to draw you out from your protective shell. He expects to hear what you can offer as an artist. He is by all means ready to help and teach you some technical aspects, but he waits for your personal response and to what you can personally bring into a role or a performance, or do something to appropriate a role or a character, make them coloured by your own perception, your personality.
Currentzis is more authoriatarian. He prefers to guide you, to give instructions what and how to do something. He broadcasts his ideas through the artist. And it may leave a performer with feeling that they are helpless and can do nothing without the conductor.
Jurowski has many ideas and thoughts of his own, but a different style of communication. He is always ready to let you breathe, give you more space, placing more focus on the artist. In this way, Jurowski helped me to find my own voice, understand myself as an artist and gain more confidence in myself as a musician, a performer. And this was not forced but gradually unfolded in a natural way, quite unintentionally. I just felt safe to open up in the course of our working process and creative exchange. He gave me confidence in my abilities and faith in my professional judgement. And I did not have such confidence with Currentzis.
And yet I dearly love and appreciate them both. With every conductor, if he is passionate about his work and wishes to achieve something in music, the artist grows as a professional. Such people are very precious and very rare.