On March 7th, a charity evening of opera and ballads “Spring Waters”(Veshnie Vody) performed by the Royal Opera House soloist Sofia Fomina and pianist Sergey Rybin raised £ 6,000 for the treatment of 10-year-old Nikita Orlov. The event was organised by the charitable foundation Gift of Life and took place in the hospitable home of Bernard Oppetit and Olga Jegunova, in the atmosphere of a spring holiday. Nikita’s 11th birthday was on 14th March. The boy is fighting Ewing sarcoma, a malign bone tumour, and needs the live-saving surgery. The help offered by the Gift of Life friends can be a life-saver for him!
According to the Gift of Life Trustee Lyuba Galkina, “we are grateful to everyone who responded and took part in the charity musical evening “Spring Waters” featuring the Royal Opera House soloist Sophia Fomina. Each event is an exciting experience to us, we are always anticipating a miracle, and it does happen every time”.
ROH soloist Sofia Fomina brilliantly performed five arias from her repertoire, including Il Barbiere di Seviglia and Rigoletto, along with the ballads by S.Rachmaninov, N.Rimsky-Korsakov, P. Tchaikovsky (Spring Waters, Lilac and others). During the interval the guests took part in the charity lottery which was offering as prizes gifts from Russian designers and tickets to the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg performances, provided by the Belka Productions, friend of the Gift of Life Foundation.
Sofia has a powerful, but gentle and part affectionate, part playful voice. She infects the audiences with her warmth and soulful positive attitude. In the second part of the evening she sang Russian romances and the Spring Is Coming song — enough to make one nostalgic with memories of their childhood days and time at a musical school. Sophia’s performance and artistic interpretation of the classics was mesmerising: sometimes one can listen to the music with their eyes closed, but Sophia was very expressive and managed to establish a particular, quite personal, contact with the audience, so all eyes were on her.
We have approached her after the concert and talked with her about charity, life and music.
I.K. Sofia, you have decided to perform in this charity concert to help the child recover. What were your reasons?
S.F. I’m glad to be part of the Gift of Life today, because the foundation does an incredibly important job: it gives children and their families a hope for recovery and a long life without illness. All our efforts and thoughts with those who need help and sympathy. Art is always about empathy, and in the moments of illness support is particularly important. Loneliness is dangerous in such circumstances. It is an honour for me to be a part of the foundation and its mission – saving children’s lives.
And how did you start playing and singing? And how did you begin to sing romances and bard songs?
I first started singing by performing town romances and bard songs. I have always loved playing the guitar and our family went hiking and camping quite a lot every summer. We had our family friends — two women, who were very artistic, very funny and sang accompanying themselves on the guitar. And so they infected me with their songs! With their positive energy. Recently, I found out that it was my mother who had invited them to join us. I learned to play the guitar by accident: an ex-student of my father came to see us, who also loved playing the guitar and singing these songs. So this is how I also began to sing. Having finished school I had a choice to make: an art school or a music school. I eventually chose music. I played the violin then.
As for the songs, I love them so much: they are so wonderful, funny, diverse. The poetic history of Russia country is profound. Now, unfortunately, very few people read poetry, however through these songs they become aware of our poetic heritage. There is not much music in bard’s songs, but the lyrics, the poetry, the subtlety of feelings expressed are exquisite.
When I came to the UK I left the guitar playing aside. I had neither time , nor a guitar to play on. At some point, I was sitting and chatting with a London friend, who was helping me. And it turned out that she had a guitar. I took it and began to sing these songs and just simply could not stop. The friend was delighted. We sat for a few hours and sang all these songs through. “Wow! – she said, — you are a treasure, And you need to record a CD!” And she still keeps reminding me. So, even though these songs are well-known and sung thousands of times over, people still want to hear them.
Getting back to opera, your first experience here as singer was collaboration with LPO’s conductor Vladimir Jurowski who first brought you to the UK. How long have you been working with him?
Yes, for quite a long time. It was Vladimir Jurowski who had brought me here to London. We started in 2010, and I sang Janácek’s Eternal Gospel. And even made a recording for the CD box set dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Jurowski’s leadership of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Then he invited me to make an interesting project: we sang Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and The Nursery by Mussorgsky, but accompanied by the orchestra. Jurowski had the idea of comparing these works and especially the images of children captured by them: living, noisy, naughty, playing children and Mahler’s angel-like children after death. It was a very interesting project, which we did in Italy and in Frankfurt. I also performed performed Mahler recently in London, Spain and New York in the Lincoln Center. We also worked together with Vladimir on Fidelio in London.
Jurowski is one of the few conductors who is friendly and available. He has no celebrity complex. He is very humane, open, interesting. One never feels stupid or insignificant when working with him, for all his knowledge, which is extensive. Still, he always knows how to introduce a singer to some background information from the tactful position of a friend, not a mentor. Meanwhile, he is always ready to listen to the feedback from the artist. And this creates opportunities for some very interesting discussions and exchanges. He has always amazed and fascinated me.
Now you are also a soloist at the Royal Opera House. How did this happen?
While I was performing in Saarbrücken one of the directors liked my performance and decided to help me, because I did not have an agent then. So, when I came to perform The Eternal Gospel, he wrote a recommendation letter to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, suggesting they should audition me. So, as the theatre consented, I went there to audition. And about a month later I received an invitation to act as an understudy for Rosina in the Barber of Seville. This is how I started working with ROH, I was 26 years old then. I was just enjoying the creative atmosphere, for me it was the best theatre! I went to all the rehearsals whenever I could, met all the singers. If there were any tickets available, I went to the performances, watched everything. And this is how I was learning, gaining experience and knowledge. As I had no agent, Peter Katona, to whom I am immensely grateful for his guidance, took care of me: he offered advice and provided guidance, introduced me to various people. I also consulted him, asking if I should apply for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, to which he replied that I did not need to and was ready to perform. “You just have to sing in big theatres,” — was his response. Soon afterwards I received invitation to sing in Frankfurt, where I worked for two years. I was still offered understudy roles at the ROH. And then came my chance: for some reason the singer was removed from the last two performances, and I was offered a part of Isabel in the opera Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer. I listened to this opera, fell completely in love with it and accepted the offer. I was immediately invited to a dress rehearsal to sing in these last two performances. This was my debut. Of course, it was a test.
Everything was complicated by the fact that at the same time I had to sing the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute) and Blonda (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) in Saarbrücken. Both of these roles are vocally incompatible with the role of Isabel. This, of course, affected my voice, and eventually I sang the dress rehearsal without a voice, but I sang. Nobody knows about this in the theatre, and I am sharing this story with you for the first time. So, I was not making any sound, unless I made a lot of effort. Of course, adrenaline played a big role. At some point the theatre offered me that I would only perform onstage while another person would be singing from the orchestra pit, but I refused. So, I did sing, eventually. Honestly, I do not remember half of the performance. I was so focused on producing all these sounds and singing the score, that all the rest seemed foggy. And then I was recovering for ten days after the performances. I just kept silent. So, such situations test your resilience, your will to excel.
Occasionally one reads about singers who were requested to step in 38 hours before the performance, however this happens to opera singers very. I also remember stepping into the role of Gilda in Saarbrücken. This was followed by a call from Zurich inviting me to help the theatre out with the next day evening performance. So, I agreed, arrived, was given a video with the production. I watched the video in the evening, had two hours rehearsal in the morning and that was it. In the evening we rehearsed with the conductor for 15 minutes before the exit. And this is how I performed Gilda in Zurich. This was how I had to simultaneously sing Rossini and Gilda, study Adele’s role and perform in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. And that was quite a task!
And how do you manage to master such situations?
Fortunately, there are all kinds of records available now. If you are tired of learning Wagner, then you can play the disc and start learning Gilda. Of course, the accompanying pianist plays a paramount role during the rehearsals, however, it is not always possible to hire one. All such people are extremely busy and oversubscribed at theatres — they are worth the weight of gold and they practically work 24 hours a day. Eventually, I would really love to get a permanent pianist for myself. However, in some situations, one has to rely on hearing.
As a young opera singer, it is sometimes very difficult to reconcile various aspects of the repertoire, when everything happens at about the same time and needs to be studied and rehearsed in parallel. And this is how the voice gets tired. And yet, sometimes it is just impossible to refuse such vocally diverse roles coming one’s way. The singer, after all, operates within the framework of what he or she is offered.
Now I am more serious about planning my schedule and repertoire, and taking a better care of my voice. Thank God, there are lots of proposals coming now, and my agent is also very active. Fortunately, I have been recently offered to sing Gilda in a number of performances in a row, which makes my life less complicated.
Amazing! So, in this case, which repertoire are you gravitating towards right now?
In fact, I have not sung enough of the classical repertoire yet, so I would rather do this than modern music. And honestly, modern music does not appeal to me. It seems to me that my voice and my own self were created for a classical repertoire, and not for the one where I demonstrate the ability to make interesting sounds.
I used to dream of singing Lulu — this is as much of modern opera as I can take. And now I do not feel like singing Lulu any more. I have always been attracted by complexity. For this reason I sang Zerbinetta and the Queen of the Night. In youth, you want to prove something, show, fight with the whole world and prove something to yourself and others. I have proven to myself a lot of things myself, and now I want to go into something deeper.
As for Meyerbeer, whom I love, since my first debut at the ROH, I have sung his Prophet in Toulouse and hope to sing it again soon.
So, what would you like to sing?
I would like to sing Verdi and Puccini, very much so Donizetti, Bellini, Meyerbeer, although he is very rarely staged. I would like to explore some yet unexplored possibilities of my voice, especially as it starts to change a little, to become richer, and a bit more dense. I do not think that someday I can qualify simultaneously as a lyrical and dramatic soprano, as, for example, Anna Netrebko. She had such a potential in her voice that has already developed in three directions. I do rather soberly believe that I may not have the same potential. However, I would very much like to perform a lyric repertoire, within which my voice begins to evolve, especially as I have always had a lyrical coloratura. I performed the roles of Blonda and Adele. They’re all light. And now I want to add some gravitas, moving towards the character of Gilda and other roles with a dramatic aspect.
A few years ago I said that I was not interested in singing Traviata, because it was so often performed. Now it is all different. I would very much like do Traviata now, because of the music and the dramatic plot.
And in what other theatres do you dream of singing?
I will have a lot of performances in Munich. In fact, I’m very pleased that I am attached to two best theatres in Europe — ROH Covent Garden and Munich.
I dream of singing in La Scala in Milan. La Scala and Italian theatres in general are the story of the opera. I thought, performing there must be every opera singer’s dream. I would like to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Yes, it is grandiose, but still, no bigger than, say, Novosibirsk Opera Theatre where I started my career, debuting in the role of Suzanne. It is absolutely huge, and the acoustics is about the same there. Suzanne is playful, serious and feminine. In general, I really love Mozart. By the way, it’s very rare when Russian opera singers perform Mozart.
And I wonder, why is it so?
Apparently, it is quite difficult. It is a different culture of producing a sound, of using one’s voice. And then, the operas are quite complicated. Or, at least, are believed to be so.
There are, for example, singers, who immediately begin to specialise in one specific repertoire. And this is also the way Mozart’s operas are viewed sometimes — as a specialised separate field. However, if you look at many famous singers, they did not only perform Mozart, but also Verdi, and even Wagner.
By the way, Strauss also wrote a lot of complicated scores for the singer. For example, Zerbinetta sings an aria for 15 minutes. Prior to and following her aria she sings in ensemble. A singer ends up performing onstage continuously for 30 – 40 minutes.
By the way, you recently have also started experimenting with the Baroque opera.
Apparently, my voice is perceived as more universal, because I am sometimes offered Strauss, Verdi, and Baroque music at the same time.
How do you view yourself? You seem to be quite brave! Do you like occasionally to take a risk?
I am still an adventurer in life. And I think this shows in everything. Let us start with my arrival to Germany: I had no language at all. Some friends kept asking me: “How did you do this? Well, I would never, ever have done this!.” But why hesitate when you are offered something interesting? And I reckoned, that I would learn the language in due course. And this is how it eventually turned out.
We were taught at school that we should first always accept when offered a role. And once accepted, you should learn it, make an effort and deliver. Once you begin doubting in your ability, you are stuck. Your doubts will eventually undermine and destroy your confidence. And then they stop offering you roles.
I am sure that not a single singer is 100 percent ready for the role, unless they practically sang it the day before. Singers must exude confidence, even if one is panicking inside: “My God, what did I sign for!” I have often experienced such things.
In our career, a lot depends on a lucky chance. If I were a cautious singer, would I have had my debut at the ROH? Wasn’t it risky to sing without a voice? I had no idea bout what would happen onstage. Final call, I am taken to the stage, and I stand there with a question in my eyes and think: “Well, Sonya, this will happen now: either you completely fail and disgrace yourself in the eyes of the theatre and the public, or you will sing.” So, I decided to go for it. Life is always like this. There are people who calculate their every step and then they cannot maneuvre, because they have a plan. I am not like this at all! I have no plan, and even if I do have plans, they always change.
Sofia Fomina is a world’s top opera singer, coloratura soprano. Sofia made her Royal Opera debut in 2012 as Isabelle (Robert le Diable) and has since sung Naiad (Ariadne auf Naxos), Jemmy (Guillaume Tell) and Olympia (Les Contes d’Hoffmann). In the 2017/18 Season she returns to sing Gilda (Rigoletto).