Vlada Borovko, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, is currently performing at the Royal Opera House in La Traviata and La Boheme. Alexander Smotrov and Yulia Savikovskaya spoke with Vlada about how she started her career, what role languages play in opera, how to give the best performance, and what the life of the opera diva looks like today.
Yulia and Alexander: Vlada, was there a moment that led to singing becoming an important part of your life?
Vlada Borovko: Since my childhood, I have loved watching Disney cartoons where the heroines often sing. I liked to sing along, especially with the Little Mermaid. At the age of 5, I dreamt to learn to sing as beautifully as she did!
Yulia and Alexander: Did you go to opera performances as a child?
Vlada Borovko: I am from Naberezhnye Chelny in Republic of Tatarstan. As a child, I studied in the choral class at a local music school at the encouragement of my grandmother who was passionate about giving her children and grandchildren a musical education. Excerpts from operas were sometimes included in our lessons, but opera made no impression on me at that time.
I later enrolled at the Department of English at university, and, in parallel with my studies, began singing pop as a hobby. I was encouraged to enter a local competition when I was 18, where I performed the song “The Diva Dance” from the movie The Fifth Element. At the beginning of the song there is an excerpt from the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, which then moves into a long vocalization with very high notes. I was young and my natural range allowed me to pull this off! After this contest, I was advised to consider applying to study at the Kazan State Conservatory, so after graduating from the university where I studied languages, I decided to take a chance and indeed go to Kazan for my degree in vocal singing.
Yulia and Alexander: It seems that your vocal range is large. Did you get voice training?
Vlada Borovko: Yes, as a young person I had a big natural range. In a choir, one doesn’t receive voice training in the way that young opera singers do; instead, we are taught to develop our intonation and our ensemble skills. Therefore, while I sang solos a number of times in a children’s choir, I had no idea that I could someday become an opera soloist. It wasn’t until I turned 21 that I found this to be a possibility at all!
Yulia and Alexander: Did you have an internal conflict at the time about choosing a profession? What did your family think about the fact that you suddenly decided to become a musician?
Vlada Borovko: The knowledge that I had a strong basis in linguistics gave me courage at the outset of my professional music career that regardless of how it turned out, it would all be okay! Also, I was very fortunate that my parents fully supported my passion for music. Giving me extra confidence in my decision to choose this path was the factthat the recommendation to pursue opera came from professionals working at the Bolshoi Theatre and the Kazan State Conservatory. Their assessment of my potential influenced my decision greatly.
Yulia and Alexander: When did you apply for the Royal Opera House young artists programme in London?
Vlada Borovko: I was in my final year of study at the conservatory. For four years I had been studying with my voice teacher Galina Lastovka in Kazan, who helped me to develop the basis of my vocal technique. In that fifth year, I began to enter competitions and quite by chance, applied to the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House! I was invited to a live audition in London, where, among other arias, I sang Leonora’s cavatina from Verdi’s Il trovatore and Musetta’s waltz from Puccini’s La boheme; coincidentally, I have now performed both roles professionally!
Yulia and Alexander: What was especially memorable about this audition?
Vlada Borovko: When I arrived for the audition, the Royal Opera House was in the middle of rehearsals for Verdi’s Un ballo di maschera with Dmitri Hvorostovsky. When I saw him standing at the stage door reception, it was a fantastic surprise! I gathered my courage and asked him if we could have a photo together. We had a quick conversation; he congratulated me on reaching the semi-finals of the Young Artists Programme auditions and wished me the best of luck. It felt like an auspicious start!
Yulia and Alexander: How do you choose your repertoire and prepare your parts?
Vlada Borovko: I thought a lot about my repertoire during my time at the Royal Opera House. At the beginning it was already clear to me that my voice was quite big and had the potential to go in a number of directions; because of this, I do not like to classify my voice in terms of the fach system, because I think by doing this, you can stifle your own potential. For example, I sing Musetta, which is traditionally sung by light voices, but at the same time, I sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, which is sung by lyric-dramatic sopranos. I have also stepped in for the part of Aspasia in Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto, which is sung by lyric-coloratura sopranos! My theory is, if the part is in the range and I feel I can bring the right character to the role, I’ll try it!
Yulia and Alexander: Do you have any restrictions in the choice of your parts at the moment?
Vlada Borovko: At this stage, I avoid singing parts that are too heavy, like Tosca or Aida. I need to see how my voice develops and what practical experience I accumulate in order to consider such opportunities. At the same time, it’s not good for me to sing roles that are extremely high, as this might interfere with the development of my middle register. I try to avoid extremes!
Yulia and Alexander: Do you work independently or with a teacher?
Vlada Borovko: As I mentioned, I have a teacher in Kazan, Galina Lastovka. She always gives me invaluable advice. In London, I work on my role interpretations with coaches at the Royal Opera House. If I need to learn a part in French, I always consult with a teacher who speaks French, and if I need to learn a work by Mozart, then I take lessons from people who are experts in this repertoire. It is impossible to go blindly in the profession, you should always ask for the guidance – I have learnt that it is important to learn to ask for help when you need it! Also, requirements in the opera industry are now very high.
Yulia and Alexander: What was the most difficult of the parts that you sang? Is there something you are working on, but still not completely sure how to do it?
Vlada Borovko: If you prepare seriously and ask for help when you need it, you’ll always be able to present something at an adequate level! Of course, then you’ll always have something to improve upon. For example, Verdi’s repertoire requires many skills from singers. I have already sung it, but I believe that with age and experience I will be able to develop it further. In the summer of 2019, I made my debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore and in autumn I sang his Requiem in Cardiff. Both of these parts are quite complex, but this feels like the right time to be working on and performing this repertoire, and consistently getting better and better.
Yulia and Alexander: How do you evaluate your work after performances?
Vlada Borovko: Nothing is perfect. As Salvador Dali said, “Do not be afraid of perfection, you cannot achieve it”. If I can realise 50% of what I did in the rehearsal studio when I go on stage, it is already a success. If I can realise 60%, then it is great! If something did not work out, but there is an emotional response from the public, then this is the most important thing.
Yulia and Alexander: Were there instances when you were not happy but the audience squealed with delight or vice versa?
Vlada Borovko: I’ve never been in a situation where I really liked my singing but the public did not. Usually, if you dive into the part, the public takes to it kindly. I was particularly well received in 2016, six months after the start of the Young Artists Programme in London, where I was asked at the very last moment to step in into the part of Violetta in La Traviata. I don’t think anyone expected that a girl who had not sung a single lead role before could so emotionally interpret the complex part of Violetta without any rehearsals on stage! I was so pleased when people wrote to me on social media and congratulated me on a successful debut. It was, and still is, a highlight of my career.
Yulia and Alexander: How do you feel when you go on the stage of the Royal Opera House?
Vlada Borovko: I think it is a special place, almost a sacred one. Many great singers have performed there. When I sang the final round of the audition for the Young Artists Programme, it was a great honour simply to stand on that stage. When I was accepted, I was completely overjoyed. Every appearance I have had on the Royal Opera House stage, regardless of whether I’m singing three lines or a leading part, is incredibly special. The atmosphere in the opera house is warm, stage partners are always welcoming, and everyone supports one another. Despite the fact that the Young Artists Programme was challenging, the support from my colleagues helped a lot. At the end of the programme, when I was once again asked to step in – this time for an ailing Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia it was a complete surprise. In the same way as my jump-in as Violetta, I will always have fond memories of this experience.
Yulia and Alexander: Tell us briefly about the structure of the Jette Parker Programme.
Vlada Borovko: The opera house has a plan for every young singer. The young soloists are given parts that they perform on the main stage, and there is also an opera put on specifically for the cohort of young artists each season. During my time in the Programme, this opera was Handel’s opera-pasticcio Oreste where I performed Ermione, one of the leading parts. It was my first appearance in a baroque opera and a real challenge! But the Programme offers us many coaching sessions, giving us the greatest opportunity for improvement. We are also invited to audition at the Royal Opera House for casting directors of other major houses across the world, which enables us to hone our auditioning skills, and when we are offered major roles within the house, critics, agents and other important members of the industry are always invited. In addition, young singers are cast as understudies for various parts. In the first year of my time at the Royal Opera House, I was an understudy for Violetta in La Traviata and Leonora in Il Trovatore. These parts are very complex, and I had to work hard to prove that I could master them. I sang Violetta in Covent Garden six months after graduating from the Conservatory, which is unthinkable! I got the notification that I would need to step in as the replacement just one hour before the curtain went up, never having rehearsed the part with an orchestra before, but I made my debut in that part nevertheless, with my partner, a tenor, also receiving his notification to step in an hour before the start. This was probably the first time in the history of the Royal Opera House that had happened. Covers have rehearsals, but they are not held on the stage of the theatre, and are done without an orchestra. Replacing somebody is always very difficult, especially if the part is new to you.
Yulia and Alexander: Tell us about the most difficult moments in the part of Aspasia in Mitridate.
Vlada Borovko: Finding out that you are to fill in for someone an hour before the curtain opens, without an original costume or wig, is a shock. It is true, of course, that understudies must be always in touch with company management and close to the theatre in case of an unexpected illness of the main singer, but this does not lessen the surprise when you do receive the call! For me it was important to be in sync with the orchestra. When I was beginning to prepare for the part six months before, I had already been practising the challenging role of Aspasia for a long time, especially the first aria. The first aria has high, complex coloratura, the second one is low, the third combines cantilena and coloratura, and the fourth is long and written in the middle register. It was necessary to try to find a key to unlock each of them. I did everything that was in my power at that time!
Yulia and Alexander: Do vocalists have a special diet and a daily routine for the voice?
Vlada Borovko: As a singer, your sleep routine is important. Every artist should get enough sleep. If I have a stable emotional state on the day of the performance and get enough sleep, then it all usually goes well! I try to eat an hour and a half before the performance – things like fruits and protein, especially eggs – and at this time also drink a lot of water.
Yulia and Alexander: Are the eggs raw? Or is it a myth that they help the voice to sound better?
Vlada Borovko: I’m not sure whether this is a myth or not! Protein does give strength, though. On the day of a performance, I avoid spicy food, nuts and seeds and I don’t eat ice cream during the season because there is a risk of catching a cold. During the winter period, which is the time for catching infections, I rinse my nose and throat with water. In the summer, I try to strengthen the body by going to stay in a sanatorium or go to the seaside. It is very important for singers to have strong immune systems.
Yulia and Alexander: How did your career develop after the end of the programme? What plans do you have for the future?
Vlada Borovko: Immediately after the Young Artists Programme, I was invited to cover and to sing the part of Violetta in La Traviata at the Cologne Opera and at the same time, I was asked urgently to replace the sick soprano in the same role in Karlsruhe, which became my debut on the German stage. I also sang in the city of my studies, Kazan, in the Chaliapin Festival Gala Concert. Then, I went to a competition in the Czech Republic and met wonderful coaches in Prague. In the summer of 2018, I made my debut as Musetta in La Boheme on the stage of the Royal Opera House. I have great memories of this performance, and I developed a warm relationship with the other members of the cast. It is a great honour for me now to return to Covent Garden as a guest soloist this month.
Yulia and Alexander: Often people think of a career in opera as a glamorous life. Constant banquets, receptions, armfuls of flowers and a sea of champagne, adoration on social networks…
Vlada Borovko: An Instagram picture is only a picture. Instead of such manifestations of success as diamonds and furs that traditionally accompany a diva; I prefer vocal and artistic achievements. Of course, after any premiere performance there is a reception to which soloists are invited, and you can choose to drink or not; the sea of champagne isn’t always necessary! The glamorous life with limousines and bouquets, as I see it, is no longer a trend and is a thing of the past. Now all singers are simply trying to do their job and give their best, so that theatres continue to invite them back, again and again. No matter what people might say, in opera you must first and foremost sing well. The public should want to return to an opera house. As for diamonds, feathers and everything else, these are not the things out of which opera is made.
Yulia and Alexander: Do receptions after performances contribute to professional networking?
Vlada Borovko: Of course, it is important for any artist to build a network of contacts. Many singers have agents, but it’s also important for singers to build relationships with conductors and directors. After a premiere, you might occasionally meet interesting people who could help with your career in some way.
Yulia and Alexander: Is it important for a singer to promote herself on the Internet? How sensitive are artists to online comments and comments in press?
Vlada Borovko: Yes, promotion on the internet plays a key part today. I did not open an Instagram account for a very long time, but now all singers have to be visible; audiences are interested in reading news and seeing updated photos of their favourite artists. In terms of criticism, social media comments need to be taken lightly. Opinions on the same issue may be different, even when one discusses recognised masterpieces. I have a circle of people whose opinion is very important to me, and I rely on these colleagues and friends rather than going to social media for feedback. When dealing with criticism in any form, it’s important to recognise that it could be biased or objective. I now feel like I know what I need to work on more intimately, which helps, and with age and experience, I am developing a thicker skin and a more relaxed attitude about the criticism I receive.
Yulia and Alexander: Is there a difference between a performance on a big stage and a chamber concert? Is there a difference in preparation for different venues?
Vlada Borovko: I always sing the same regardless of the size of the audience. If it is a very small room, I try and cater for it by making my repertoire choices appropriately. All audiences are important to me, whether they prefer opera or concerts. No matter where I perform, I hope to give everything that I can. Striving for a good sound and self-improvement is important on every occasion.
Yulia and Alexander: Do you have any role models in opera among singers?
Vlada Borovko: I listen to a lot of singers. I really like Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Rosanna Carteri, Elizabeth Grümmer, Oda Slobodskaya… I recently discovered the stunning Mexican singer Gilda Cruz Romo. I have different inspirations depending on the repertoire, but I try never to copy any other singer. It is important for me to develop my own personality on stage. Even the greatest singers had flaws, but were able to achieve great things, so focusing on something other than perfectionism is important.
Yulia and Alexander: Do relatives support you? How important is moral support to the artist?
Vlada Borovko: Emotional support from close ones is very important. A singer gives out energy to the public during performances and needs support at home. Fortunately, my loved ones understand the complexity of this profession and are immensely supportive.
Yulia and Alexander: Is there a place for depression in the opera world?
Vlada Borovko: Life consists of ups and downs, and one can’t have good moments all the time. Nobody will talk about this on Instagram, where everything is always beautiful and safe, but anything can happen during one’s career. To become a real artist, a singer must embrace the challenges, and use any hindrances to make one stronger, both on stage and off.
Yulia and Alexander: How busy is your next season?
Vlada Borovko: I am working on my French repertoire so hopefully I will have an opportunity to debut this soon. I am also looking forward to returning to the part of Violetta, learning new concert repertoire, and making my debut in a new Russian role! I do not like to plan too far ahead. Man proposes, but God disposes. Even if your schedule is planned 5 years in advance, you never know what will happen tomorrow.
Yulia and Alexander: Do Russian singers have problems with visas?
Vlada Borovko: I always try to deal with visa issues in advance. Different types of visas are required in different countries, and sometimes bureaucratic issues have to be addressed urgently. This season, I had to jump into a part in Germany at the last moment, and was worried about whether I would get a visa on time or not. Fortunately, the consulate understood the situation and quickly issued all necessary documents.
Yulia and Alexander: What would you recommend to those who are not familiar with opera? How should they learn to love it?
Vlada Borovko: If a person has an interest in beautiful things and wants to develop spiritually, I think they should go to the opera. I would advise to start with Carmen, La Boheme, La Traviata, and possibly L’elisir d’amore. I think that it’s best to start with the classics, in well-known productions. There is prejudice that opera is boring and intended only for selected few but this is, in fact, a stereotype. When I was in the first year of the Jette Parker Programme, I invited girls from my dormitory that had never been to the opera before to see Boris Godunov and they were absolutely delighted despite the fact that it was quite a complicated work. I think the genre has no boundaries –it combines several art forms and is the greatest genre in terms of the scale of emotional impact – and I advise everyone to go to the theatre at least once. It can completely change the idea of how people see life. If after the performance the audience tell me that they were emotionally enriched, then for me this is a victory.
Yulia and Alexander: Is there a difference in the attitude of people towards opera in different countries? Is it necessary to popularise opera as a genre?
Vlada Borovko: Globally, the way houses sell opera has changed dramatically. Popularisation is needed because there is a new generation to cater for and a new audience that needs to be attracted. In order to popularise opera, it’s important to stay true to the tradition and continue to promote world-class performances, while opening the door to more contemporary influences. It is necessary to rethink some things and to attract talented directors. Upgrading is necessary, but it must be done in a responsible and reasonable way. When a person reaches a certain age, he goes to the opera because he has a spiritual need for it.
Yulia and Alexander: However, there are opera fans who go to Salzburg and Bayreuth Festival and try not to miss a single interesting performance.
Vlada Borovko: Yes, there is such an audience. Just like in figure skating that I adore, there are fans who follow all the news, go around the world to watch their favourite artists, debate on online forums and follow a large number of singers on Instagram. There are those who simply come to the theatre for a treat, those who come to meet friends and those who come to take beautiful selfies. The audiences are different and everyone has a slightly different approach.
Yulia and Alexander: Are there directors, conductors, singers with whom you would like to work in future?
Vlada Borovko: I have many wishes in terms of repertoire. I am very interested in the bel canto operas and Mozart, especially Don Giovanni and Idomeneo. I really want to sing Marfa in the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov. I have already performed Clotilde and Adalgisa in Norma, but I would also like to sing a main part in this Bellini opera one day. I am interested in working with directors who can teach me a lot about acting and with conductors who will help in interpreting the parts. I am a person who always wants to learn: when I graduated, fellow students laughed at me when I began studying again! After the Conservatory, I had an internship in the Young Artists Programme for two more years. I always want to learn, and I hope to meet people who will help me to develop.
Yulia and Alexander: How difficult is it to master the repertoire in different languages? What languages are easier for singing?
Vlada Borovko: It is very important to learn languages, especially their phonetics. My main repertoire is now Italian and I try to work on pronunciation with coaches who are native speakers. While it is easier to sing in Italian, it is very difficult to sing in French. I am now learning a part in French and working with a specialist. Czech is also difficult, but it is Slavic and somewhat easier for Russian-speaking singers. In Prague, I worked on the aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka with a Czech director, and in the Young Artists Programme in London there is also a Czech language specialist who assisted in coaching me for two seasons. Singers now have the opportunity to expand their language repertoire and this is very interesting; each language has its own charm.
Yulia and Alexander: Do colleagues from different countries help each other in terms of pronunciation?
Vlada Borovko: Of course. If I see someone learning a Russian aria, I always help with pronunciation. And I will ask my colleagues for help in their native languages as questions arise. Languages need to be developed nowadays in order for you to be competitive in the industry. There is a stereotype that Russian singers have rich voices but are not good at languages, because unfortunately we often have few specialists who are involved in phonetics teaching at music schools. At competitions across the world, juries pay attention to pronunciation, so it is important for singers to invest in language education.
Yulia and Alexander: Is your career developing as you would like it to?
Vlada Borovko: If an offer comes through that is suitable at my current stage of development, I take it. If a part could hurt me, I refuse it. I am always thinking about how the repertoire will affect my voice. I hope there will be good luck in my career, especially since luck was already on my side when I got into the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, and performed such wonderful parts there. The Santiago Theatre has already appeared in my biography (I sang Alalgisa in Norma), as has Stuttgart and several other German opera houses. I have also made my debut at the Deutsche Oper and the Bavarian Opera, so I have made a good start and my repertoire is already quite diverse. I would like to sing in Asia, especially in Tokyo. I believe that there are a lot of interesting things ahead.