Vissi d'arte. Vissi d'amore

An Interview with Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova


© Nuno Miguel Marques


Classical Voice News

By Nuno Miguel Marques
Special to Classical Voice

From Novosibirsk to Mariinsky

When I first saw Galina Gorchakova entering the Barcelona Hotel in Lisbon, I gave a sigh of relief. There was no capricious diva to be interviewed, just a friendly and smiley woman, casually dressed and carrying several bags, perhaps full of Portuguese souvenirs. "Simple" was a word she frequently used to describe herself and rightly so. She spoke with a wonderful rich voice and an evident Slavic accent. Her words conveyed her strong will and convictions and, above all, a deep love for opera who has been the top priority of her life. She was always impetuous in her speech, often resorting to expressive gestures in order to get her message across. Gorchakova warned me, from the start, that she would be honest. Some might consider her statements highly controversial, but they were uttered without a hint of bitterness. She was less a vindictive Turandot cutting the heads of Princes because of past injustices and more a misunderstood Tosca trying to find out the reasons behind the current state of her career.

CV: Both your parents were singers at the Novosibirsk Opera. Could you describe us how was your first encounter with operatic singing ?

GG: I can't really remember. I was too small a girl. I was only five when I first visited the Novosibirsk Opera. Unfortunately, I have lived all my existence within the opera world. I have always believed and lived opera in such a deep and intense manner: it was my life, my family, my first priority.

CV: Why did you begin studying singing ?

GG: It was not a conscious decision. It was merely natural, because my parents were singers. For a while, I thought I could become an actress and even studied in a drama school. But it was boring, not intense enough for me. I don't like to speak on stage. I want to sing. Singing, for me, is not only more expressive, but also the main means of expression. Perhaps I think that way, since I grew up in an opera house.

CV: You won the Glinka and Mussorgsky prizes. How do you feel about vocal competitions and how did you cope with their pressure ?

GG: They were but national prizes, but, yes, I was nervous, especially because I hate being given a number. I hate when they label singers "first", "second", "third" ... I am and I feel unique and that is why I dislike comparisons and hierarchies. Some may like me. Some may not. Nonetheless, I remain unique.

CV: Did the prizes boost your career ?

GG: Nr. They didn't help me at all. I worked at the Sverdlosk Opera during three seasons and I was not chosen because of any prize. In fact, as soon as I finished the Conservatory, I had already two offers career-wise. I was invited by the Novosibirsk Opera as well as by the Sverdlosk one. I chose the last. Just imagine: I grew up at Novosibirsk Opera. Everyone knew me. Not as a singer, but as a little girl with her hair full of ribbons. I couldn't start my career at Novosibirsk, where I was sure no one could be impartial and objective towards me. So I had to take the risk and choose Sverdlosk.

CV: How did the move to the Mariinsky occur ? Did they go to Sverdlosk to hear you sing ?

GG: Not by a long shot. It was I who went to Saint Petersburg and was auditioned in order to enter the Mariinsky. However, for two years, I sang with the Mariinsky without being a member of it. In fact, I was still a soprano from the Sverdlosk Opera. I only entered the Mariinsky after the start of my international career. In 1991, after having sung Renata from Prokofjev's " The Fiery Angel" at Albert Hall, Gergiev finally invited me to join the ranks of the Mariinsky. Terrible, isn't it ? Only after international success was I offered a place at Mariinsky.

CV: How was the transition from the ex-Soviet Union to the West ? And how did you cope with such a huge and immediate success as Renata in "The Fiery Angel" ?

GG: It was very difficult. It was an entire year devoted to learning this most treacherous of roles. And I had no choice. I had to sing it, since I could no longer stay at Sverdlosk. Moreover, this part is extremely dangerous to young voices and of great technical demands. I sang it during a year. No one wants to sing this role again. Ask our new stars. Ask Renée Fleming. Ask Angela Gheorghiu.

CV: I wouldn't be too keen in asking anything to Angela Gheorghiu, since she has just cancelled her "La Traviata" performances at Lisbon's São Carlos Theatre with no justification. All the performances were sold out by the way.

GG: How can an Opera director hire a star like this? Like Angela Gheorghiu? Why did she cancel ? Because she is a diva. I never did anything of the sort during my entire career.

CV: You never cancelled a performance without a justification ?

GG: No, of course not. I love my public. She only loves herself. I know Angela Gheorghiu and her personality. She is unpleasant, very unpleasant.

CV: But you never worked with Angela Gheorghiu, did you ?

GG: I know her from backstage. When her love affair with Alagna was beginning, there were plans for a "Tosca" recording with me and him. She ended all those plans by insisting that her and only her could be Tosca opposite Roberto. And I think she is not a real Tosca.

CV: Why?

GG: She is not Tosca at all. She is not serious, not human. She is like a doll, light, without any deeper emotional feelings - says Galina while making coquette-like mannered gestures -. She is a soubrette. Tosca is a heroine, not a soubrette.

Stage directors and Gergiev

CV: Having grown up within the opera world, you must have gained experience on how to deal with fellow singers, stage directors and conductors. Let's take one at a time. Could we begin by talking about stage directors ?

GG: What would you like to know about them ? - asked an amused and smiling Galina.

CV: Have you been involved in an opera production you disliked ?

GG: Very often.

CV: And what do you do ?

GG: I try to be as honest and as professional as possible in my work, but I cannot change that which is not under my control. If theatre managements invite certain stage directors or set designers who are crazy, they will get equally crazy productions. There is nothing I can do to avoid it.

CV: During rehearsals, do stage directors ask for your contribution or listen to your opinions ?

GG: [After a loud and sound laugh] Never. They don't even listen to the opinions of the major operatic stars, such as Plácido Domingo. I hate them. I hate them - she repeats with emphasis. They are stupid, because they don't know what they really want. Their only objective is to be fresh and new.

CV: From your words, I suspect that you think stage directors hold too much power in the current opera scene.

GG: Yes. I think so.

CV: Am I also right in assuming that you never encountered a stage director you enjoyed working with?

GG: That is not absolutely correct. Intelligent and good stage directors increase my pleasure in rehearsing. They are, as I said, rare, but I have encountered a few, such as Frank Corsaro. I worked with him at the Washington Opera in a "Tosca" production and he took the time to show me various and efficient gestures and movements.

CV: How would you define an intelligent and good stage director?

GG: It must be someone with whom dialogue can be maintained. I think it is crucial that both stage director and singer can express their own particular opinions and perspectives about a specific character. I myself am always open to suggestions, provided that they are interesting and adequate to the character we are studying.

CV: Turning to conductors, I was very surprised when I noticed that you only have two operatic engagements for 2003: "Norma" at the San Diego Opera and "The Queen of Spades" in Munich's Opera. You have said that maestro Valery Gergiev is trying to ruin your career. Is this true ? If you wish, you may not answer this question.

GG: I will answer it. I am honest and I fear nothing and no one. They have already begun slowing down my career. And, as you pointed out, I have now no contract of major importance. In other words, yes, it is true Gergiev is trying to destroy my career. He is very powerful. I don't know exactly what he has been saying to opera theatre managements. Perhaps something like: "She has lost her voice". I only know he is doing his best to prevent opera theatres from hiring me.

CV: Why was there a break up between you and Gergiev ?

GG: Because I left the Mariinsky.

CV: And why did you leave ?

GG: Because he is a dictator and I couldn't keep up with his mad rehearsal schedules. In a tour, for instance, we will arrive to the country where we'll sing at 11 o'clock. 5 hours later, we will have to endure a rehearsal in full voice. And, that same night, we will perform an opera as demanding as "Aida". Furthermore, during the Kirov tours, there are performances virtually every night and singers are obliged to interpret different roles. Obviously, this sort of insane schedule can wreck your voice in no time. And - as if it wasn't enough - we are paid badly. For interpreting a leading role, you are given a mere 500 dollars. With Gergiev, one gets no thanks, no money, no career, no glory. This is what it means to work with him. He treats us like Russian slaves. To tell you the truth, Gergiev does not even understand voices, nor is he able to identify its qualities. He just uses them for his greater international glory and to promote his career. Conductors like himself, who do not like voices, should stick to instrumental music. He used me the same way he used Chernov, Leiferkus, Prokina and, afterwards, he simply kicked us out. Gergiev is a monster. And soon everybody will realise how horrible he is.

CV: How do you feel after having left the Mariinsky ?

GG: Alone. I am unable to find a director, a conductor, anyone who loves me, my personality, my singing, my acting. I have the support of no one, including my agents - visibly sad, she murmurs between sighs.

CV: And the public ? Have you been abandoned by it as well ?

GG: Fortunately not. The audience is most generous towards me. Its reaction resembles a volcano. However, after the performance, I get no invitation to return to the place where I sang and was so warmly received by the public. For instance, I have never performed at São Carlos Theatre in Lisbon. And this lack of invitations does not derive from any capricious demand of mine. I ask for no high fees. Nor do I insist on a luxurious hospitality. I think the blame lies with my agents who do not work hard enough for me. They have an artists' hierarchy: 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class ... I suspected I'm placed in the 2nd or 3rd class.

CV: Getting back to the public, what do you expect from the audience members ?

GG: I expect them to love me, to carefully listen to me and applaud, because I have done everything for them. I have dedicated my whole life to them and I try to give myself to them in every performance to the best of my ability.

The Stage, Italian repertoire and Recordings

CV: What do you think about when you are on stage ?

GG: First of all, I think about my heroine. I try to be in her body and express both her feelings and personality. Then, I think about my voice, the phrasing and the sound I am producing. It is a complex mixture of sensations which is very hard to describe.

CV: During a series of performances, do you interpret a character in a similar fashion ?

GG: Never. I am unable to sing a role always in the same manner. On the contrary, I am constantly experimenting, improvising, but nobody enjoys this behaviour of mine, particularly conductors who would want me to sing exactly as I did in rehearsals.

CV: What goal do you try to achieve when on stage ?

GG: To move the audience, to speak to their hearts and to give them a chance to forget about their daily life and about current world problems, catastrophes and tragedies. Through my singing, I try to create a dimension out of this world.

CV: How do you come up with your heroine's character ?

GG: I try to be different from other singers and try to offer a completely new perspective about the role. For instance, I try to create a totally innovative Tosca, that is, to show the audience how I feel and see Tosca.

CV: Does that mean you try to put yourself in the character's situation ?

GG: No, not myself. I always forget about myself when creating a character.

CV: Taking into account you wish to give the public a new interpretation of a specific role, one may suspect you do not listen to other singers' recordings of the role in question ?

GG: Nr. Not really. I do listen to other singers' recordings. Sometimes.

CV: Returning to the stage, how important for you is the acting side of opera?

GG: I cannot sing without acting. It's natural for me to do so, because of my upbringing within an Opera House.

CV: How different is it to sing a complete opera, a recital or a concert ?

GG: Very different. In my opinion, singing in recitals and concerts is much more difficult than to perform in a whole opera. In a concert, we have to sing the most demanding parts of the entire opera, that is, the arias. Plus, in my case, I usually have to go from Russian arias to Italian ones and vice-versa.

CV: And, between the Russian and the Italian repertoire, are there fundamental differences as far as you are concerned ?

GG: Most certainly. In Russian opera, phrases are mostly short and, as a result, the demands put on legato singing are not as heavy as in Italian opera. It is not so important to be able to sing a beautiful melodic line. On the other hand, the Russian language makes singing much more difficult than Italian. There is a small difference in vocal placement, since Russian pushes your voice backwards into your throat. I, for instance, when singing in Russian, always try to do it in an Italian way, that is, with a more open throat and a more forward vocal placement which makes singing that much easier.

CV: Why did you begin singing the Italian repertoire ? Very early in your career, when you were still in the ex-Soviet Union, you were already singing Butterfly, Liù, Santuzza among other Italian roles.

GG: Since I was a little girl, I dreamt of the parts I would like to sing in the future. And I always dreamt of singing the Italian repertoire. Unfortunately, I feel I am not singing enough Italian roles. If I could, I would perform many more Italian roles and I would sing them much more frequently. However, they only want me to perform Russian music or Wagner. But Wagner I do not like, nor do I understand his music. It is too philosophical and mathematical for me and, as a result, I don't feel any empathy whatsoever towards its characters. I prefer music which is beautiful, emotional and, above all, human.

CV: Not only yourself, but other Russian sopranos as well, endure negative criticism when they venture into the Italian repertoire. Do you have an explanation for this phenomena ?

GG: It's the Italian Mafia.

CV: What do you mean by "Italian Mafia" ?

GG: The Italian musical Mafia.

CV: Who belongs to the Italian musical Mafia ?

GG: I cannot tell you exactly who is included in it. But I can tell you that nobody can sing Italian music, except for Italian artists. Nonetheless, they do not have - at the moment - any singer of high importance or quality. Who, from Italy, can now sing the Italian repertoire ? Which Italian singer can handle Verdi's roles ? Or Bellini's ? Where are today's Italian singing stars ? But, even if they lack singers, that does not prevent them from criticising everyone and everything, because they believe they are the only ones who know how the Italian repertoire should be sung. For example, I endured innumerable problems when I sang "Madama Butterfly" at La Scala with maestro Riccardo Chailly. He criticised every word and every phrase I uttered. Despite what had been agreed, I did not sing the première either. He asked another soprano, from the Metropolitan, to come and perform during the production's first night. She was called Maria Spacagna and Chailly told me she was fabulous, wonderful and famous. I agreed. However, it turned out to be an enormous scandal. The audience awaited me and was in shock when seeing Spacagna who was booed and ended the night crying.

CV: And what about recording ? Do you prefer to record or sing live ?

GG: I prefer to sing live, because I have had a very bad experience recording with the Phillips label. The recording producer, Anna Barry, was extremely unpleasant. Moreover, the microphones were not in a good position, nor was I in a good position in the recording room, so I could not hear my voice. They also messed around with my high notes. My high notes are very rich and big when you hear them live and you can feel them going through your body. However, when I recorded, Anna Barry would turn the sound down in order to reduce my high notes' volume, body and richness.

CV: Did you also have a bad experience when you made your first recording in 1994 for Deutsche Grammophon [Tsjaikovski's "Mazeppa"] ?

GG: Yes, indeed. They asked me to study Maria and promised me I would record it. Then, they sent me a letter cancelling the contract, because the recording would be made with another soprano: Elena Prokina. Obviously, I stopped learning the role, since I was too busy at Mariinsky. One day, suddenly, I was called by my agent who begged me to study and record this part. Supposedly, the recording sessions had already started and Prokina had lost her voice. I said I couldn't do it, because my study of the role had not been completed. I finally agreed to record Maria, but had to learn the part in a hurry.

CV: Are you satisfied with your new recording label ?

GG: Yes. My needs are much better fulfilled at Delos.

CV: What do you think about the so-called pirate recordings ?

GG: I have nothing against them. Do you think Phillips gives me any percentage on the selling of cds I sing in ? Not at all. I was given a mere advanced payment. For me, it really doesn't matter at all whether or not there are people in the audience recording my live performances. By the way, I even find advantages in pirate recordings, because they enable me to reach a much wider audience who wants to listen to me singing.

Future and Past

CV: In February, you are singing Norma at the San Diego Opera?  Is Norma a part you had dreamt of?

GG: I started singing with "Norma". I sang extracts from this Bellini opera at the Glinka and Mussorgsky competitions which, as you mentioned, I won.

CV: I was told you are a mother of a 15 year old boy. How hard is it to be a mother and interpret a role like Norma, a woman who thought of murdering her own children ?

GG: Extremely hard. But I'll do my best to understand her. I see her as a strong character and I just love to perform strong-willed characters. I will try to be a different Norma. I may be bad, good or fabulous, but I assure you I will be similar to no one. Most certainly, I will not be another huge soprano who does nothing but stand on stage and sing. I will use all my acting abilities when performing Norma.

CV: How have you been preparing yourself for this role ?

GG: I sleep with the score and I wake up during the night to review not only the score, but also the opera's plot. I have also been listening to recordings. But only those by Joan Sutherland, because, in San Diego, I will be conducted by her husband: Richard Bonynge. I was told Bonynge likes no one but Sutherland singing Norma. I too love her in this role, since I think she is extremely professional and possesses a fabulous coloratura technique. However, I cannot be Joan Sutherland. In my opinion, my voice is richer and, as much as I admire Sutherland, I find her interpretation a bit cold, so I will try to be more alive, fiery, but also sensitive. In other words, a flesh and blood character.

CV: How do you deal with the weight of past interpretations, namely in "Norma"? How would you answer those who say that only Callas, Sutherland or Caballé could sing "Norma" ?

GG: Callas is in a cemetery. Sutherland no longer sings professionally. I can only give my best. I can only try and, obviously, I am sure there will be a lot of people describing my performances as awful. Just yesterday, I watched a TV programme about Caruso and Gigli, which said that no one sang and no one would ever sing like those two tenors. So what do we do ? Do we close all our opera theatres ? Do we forbid some major works from being performed ? Do we just listen to recordings and nothing else ? These "ghosts" from the past can have a very negative and castrating influence in the current opera scene. Whoever wishes to hear Maria Callas sing "Casta Diva" can easily do so through recordings. But there are opera goers who want to listen to new Normas and those can come to San Diego and attend my performances. To sum up, past performances cannot and should not prevent new ones from taking place.

CV: You have said you are looking for a new operatic path, a new repertoire, since you are tired of singing always the same Italian and Russian roles. Soon, you'll be singing "Norma", but you have also stated that one of your biggest dreams is to interpret Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur". Taking all this into account, I ask you: what is the path you would like to follow in your future career ? Would you like to sing dramatic coloratura parts, such as Abigaille, Odabella, Lady Macbeth ? Or, on the contrary, verismo roles, for instance Nedda in "Pagliacci" whose aria you have recently recorded for Delos ?

GG: No, I do not intend to sing dramatic coloratura parts. But it would be wonderful to perform Nedda in "Pagliacci".

CV: What about Turandot ? You have already sung Liù. Can the servant become a Princess ?

GG: Nr. In "Turandot", there is nothing to do acting-wise. Singing is the only thing that is needed. It is an ideal part for those huge sopranos I was talking about. Those who do nothing on stage but stand and raise their harms.

CV: What roles would you like to sing besides Nedda in "Pagliacci" ?

GG: Manon Lescaut which is a role I love.

CV: But you have already sung Manon at Rotterdam.

GG: Once. Only once. It was an amazing feeling to perform this role. I felt like a goddess.

CV: Why is that ?

GG: Because I adore this part, both as a singer and as an actress. It suits my voice perfectly and the character is extremely interesting, because she is so complex and she is always evolving and changing from one act to the other. It is a permanent challenge to my abilities.

I would also love to sing Santuzza. Unfortunately, I only performed this role in one production, but I would like to sing it again. As you may suspect, my Santuzza would be nothing like the Santuzzas you are used to seeing and hearing. Other singers force their voices, they roar and transform Santuzza, not only into a vulgar woman, but also into a screamer, because they spend all their time yelling, especially mezzo sopranos. Interestingly enough, Mascagni chose a soprano for this role. Unlike others, my Santuzza is, above all, a woman in love who constantly tries to explain her feelings to her beloved Turiddu. In fact, she only becomes vulgar and acts like a real bitch when Lola enters the stage.

CV: Am I right when I say that you are attracted to roles, such as Adriana Lecouvreur, Nedda, Manon, Santuzza, not only because you like them, but also since you feel you can bring something new into them ?

GG: Exactly. Contrary to traditional Santuzzas who are tigresses during the whole opera, I would try to show the audience all the different sides of such a multidimensional character as Santuzza: her unhappiness at the beginning of the opera, the way she pleads with Mamma Lucia and her fervent prayer to God. In fact, the tigress and the fury only really appear during the duet with Alfio, because Santuzza senses her life and love have ended and thus she will be alone and pregnant, after losing everything. And all these psychological changes occur in an extremely short period. That is a true challenge to our abilities and intelligence: to be able to express such a wide range of emotions in such a limited span of time.

CV: It becomes evident how deeply you think about your characters.

GG: Think and read. I read too much.

CV: What kinds of books ? Books related to the opera ? Books the opera is based upon ?

GG: Nr. Just books. Books about life, different people, history, other societies and cultures. And I do this, because books and life itself are a great help for me when I am building my characters, since they make me much more insightful.

CV: Therefore, I can conclude you read Abbé Prévost's work before singing Puccini's "Manon Lescaut".

GG: Obviously. Nonetheless, Abbé Prévost's character is totally different from the Manon who is musically portrayed by Puccini. While Prévost doesn't like Manon and describes her from a moralising perspective, Puccini, on the contrary, is very fond of his character and he is also very condescending with her. Puccini loves women and tries to show how wonderful every woman is, including prostitutes.

CV: Do we still have time for a final quiz ?

GG: Yes, of course.

CV: You have sung everywhere, from La Scala to the Met. Which opera theatre left you with the best memories ?

GG: It all depends if you are talking about the audience's reception or about the way I was treated backstage. (After a long thinking pause) The public was always excellent towards me at La Scala and at the Met, but I cannot make the same comments regarding the backstage. Vienna. The Opera in Vienna has a marvellous audience and one is treated in a perfect way backstage. I enjoy all my performances, because I give myself to the best of my abilities and do an honest job. However, my most memorable night would be - without a shadow of a doubt - a "Tosca" in Vienna. I was singing opposite Jaume Aragall and Domingo was conducting. We took 20 curtain calls !

CV: Can you name the singers of the past you admire the most ? When you go home, what singers do you listen to ?

GG: Nobody - she said between big and contagious laughs. You must remember opera is my job and thus I arrive home too tired. Only when I am preparing a new operatic role, do I listen to other singers' recordings.

CV: But, when you were growing up, didn't you have an idol you looked up to and tried to resemble ?

GG: Never. I always wanted to be me, to be unique. As far as singers of the past are concerned, there are a lot of singers of the highest quality, but I really never had a favourite performer. You know, I have been reading a lot about Giuditta Pasta, though I never heard her. It would be impossible to do so. Nonetheless, due to social and cultural changes, I suspect that we wouldn't like to hear her even if we could.

For instance, when I first heard Licia Albanese, I was shocked. I was listening to the Met's favourite soprano during the beginning of the twentieth century and I couldn't stand her straight, thin and strident tone [While expressing her opinion about Albanese, Gorchakova did an impersonation of her singing "Stridono lassu" in a high-pitched, shrieky, little and acid voice] . Another example would be Amelita Galli-Curci.

CV: What role would you like to sing, despite knowing you will not or you cannot sing it ?

GG: If I want to sing a role, I will sing it.

CV: What is your favourite recording of yours ? The one you think best captures the essence of your singing and art ?

GG: A future one, because I am not completely satisfied with any of my existing recordings.

CV: What do you think about the current state of opera ?

GG: I am a bit pessimistic about it. Ten years ago, the opera world was much calmer and had more stability and now, because of so many awful productions, nobody wants to give money to opera companies. I have spoken with a few sponsors and they explained me why they are so reluctant in opening their pockets and supporting opera. And crazy productions are the main reason behind their stinginess. But things can change. Everything changes. And perhaps we are just going through a bad phase.

Nuno Miguel Marques is a Classical Voice correspondent in Lisbon, Portugal.


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