A good performance is a conversation between the artist and the audience”

Interview with the singer Grigory Soloviov by Sergey Elkin, EuroChicago.com

August 2012

September 15 Chicago Opera Theater will open the new production of “The Magic Flute” by W. A. Mozart. The role of Sarastro will be performed by the Russian bass Grigory Soloviov, who will make his Chicago debut with this role. I met the singer after one of the staging rehearsals. The conductor and the cast had already gone, and the accompanist was getting ready for the next rehearsal. With Mozart music in the background we're discussing the Art of Opera, and the artistic life of the Russian singer. Most of the interviews with Grigory Soloviov start with questions about his physical appearance. No wonder: his height is almost 6'4''! Being tall, beautiful and fit, Grigory is used to these questions. You can meet people on stage that are taller than me, but quite rarely,” he jokes. The role of Sarastro is a perfect fit; being the High Priest of Isis and Osiris, the character looks from high above and sees everything...

- How are the rehearsals going?
- I like working at Chicago Opera Theater very much.
The cast for this production is young, flexible and ready to experiment. The stage director Michael Gieleta was born in Rome, lives in London, and creates productions all over the world. He collaborates with the artists, accepts new ideas. It is a very interesting, thoughtful process.

- Chicago audiences know "The Magic Flute" very well. Chicago Lyric Opera renewed August Everding's 1986-87 production five times - the one with rhinoceros, a snake, a dinosaur and other life size animals. Last time they did it this winter. The role of Sarastro was performed by the Austrian bass Günter Groissböck. Not so long ago there was also a concert version of "The Magic Flute" at the Ravinia Festival. This time it was Morris Robinson who sang Sarastro...
I met both Günter Groissböck and Morris Robinson. They are both excellent artists. I heard Groissböck for the first time at the Washington National Opera in 2007; I sang together with Robinson at the Washington National Opera later that same year in "Don Giovanni" but in different casts. He came to Opera from American football, if I am not mistaken...

- You have very strong competitors, and the upcoming "Magic Flute" will be the third in Chicago this year. What are you planning to surprise the audience with?
- I never try to surprise anyone. The harder you try, the less you achieve. I will be doing what I am supposed to to the best of my abilities, and it will be up to the public to judge the result. The production won't be traditional, it will be almost minimalistic, as far as the stage sets are concerned. The action will not take place on Earth, rather in some distant space, not connected to any particular country. Stars, planets, something cosmic... Brotherhood of monks under the leadership of Sarastro, that is aiming for enlightenment – freemasonry of pure ideals.

- Which of the Mozartian roles is your favorite?
- The role of Leporello in
Don Giovanni”. There's a lot of humor, and plenty of opportunities for singing and acting. I first sang Leporello when I was 27. As for Sarastro, I sang the role in Rome at the age of 26. It was my first experience with the part, an interesting one, but quite random. The role of Sarastro requires a more mature personality. My voice sounds totally different today. I differently perceive the majority of what's written in libretto. I see Sarastro as a multi-layered character. It's not just a statuesque High Priest. You can find fatherly love, determination, and doubt in his character...

- In my opinion, the libretto of "The Magic Flute" is absolutely stupid. The plot is full of such absurdities and discrepancies, that it seems almost impossible to stage.
- Many operas have strange, illogical plots. For example, it's hard to figure out, what's going on in “Il Trovatore”, but the music is genius! The most important thing is to make yourself believe in the reality of the situation and try to convey it to the public. This way the most foolish plot won't be perceived as such. If the artists sing and act convincingly, the audience forgets about the faults of the libretto. A good performance is a conversation between the artist and the audience.

- When I talked to Ferruccio Furlanetto, I asked him how he managed to keep his voice in such a perfect shape for several decades. Furlanetto replied: There's only one secret – Mozart operas. I started to sing Mozart before thirty and finished well above fifty. Mozart doesn't require tension, effort from the voice. Do you agree with the opinion of the Master?
- Mozart has its own challenges
: his operas require beautiful classical sound, very controlled singing and a very good technique. Mozart's music is strict and expressive at the same time.

- “The Magic Flute” will be performed in English. The whole world has been singing operas in the original language for a long time, but this production is done in English. Any idea why?
- As the logo of the company says “Opera Less Ordinary”, I guess this is one of the interesting ways to create its own audience.

- Do you really think that it makes that big of a difference for the audience as to what language the opera is sung in?
- Singing in English is not bad at all. The original language of this work is German, and English, which belongs to Germanic group of languages, is very suitable for translation. The flow of these languages is similar. It won't sound weird. Plus, if the diction is good, the audience will understand what is going on. It is very strange to sing Italian operas in English, German ones – not so much. When I first read in the contract that the opera would be sung in English, I was surprised as well, but then I thought, why not? It can be very interesting

- Will there be any cuts?
- No, full opera will be performed

- How did you become interested in the genre of Opera? Was it through your parents?
- No, it happened quite unexpectedly
. I had been playing the guitar form the age of 13, listened to rock bands and had no idea about opera. Having entered the Moscow Pedagogical University to the Faculty of Foreign Languages (English as the main one), the very first year I decided I wanted to sing... in the high register. At that point I had no idea that there's a difference between high and low voices. I thought that if I wanted to sing high, I would simply learn how.

- So you prepared yourself for a tenor career?
- Something like that
. (Laughs) Boy, was I surprised at the very first lesson when they told me I had a bass voice. And to illustrate it, my voice teacher played the recording of Boris Christoff. His singing changed my view completely. So, I decided to give it a try.

- And you quit your university?
- By no means
! I kept studying there and took private voice lessons at the same time.

- What did your parents think of your decision?
- First they were sceptical - they considered it another hobby of mine, but in two or three years, when they saw some result
, they began paying more attention to my singing activity. They attended my recitals and supported me. After the fourth year I entered Merzlyakov Music College and studied there for a year, while continuing to study at the university and getting ready for the conservatory. During that year I managed to fill in all the gaps in my music theory.

After one year Grigory Soloviov entered Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory, class of Prof. Boris Kudryavtsev (Faculty of Voice). In the Summer between his third and forth year at the conservatory he met a well-known American voice teacher Michael Paul. Grigory came to his master-class, was noticed and invited to study. That is how Mr. Soloviov came to the United States. For about a year he traveled between Moscow and New York, studying at the conservatory and taking private voice lessons from Michael Paul. In the beginning of 2007 he sent an application to the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program with no expectations. After three months he received the invitation to the audition and soon was admitted to the program.

- This program is an intermediary step between a student and a professional. Besides intensive studying of Italian language we did a lot of practical jobs. We sang roles on the stage, next to the opera stars. In the course of two years I sang six roles on the Washington National Opera stage, having worked with Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo, and other celebrities.

- How did they treat you?
- Fortunately, I can't think of any case of negative attitudes towards me. On the contrary, they were very friendly and tried to support us. I can give the example of Renée Fleming, a very warm, polite and humble person. In Washington we sang “Lucrezia Borgia” together, and in two years I came across her at the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera. I said “hello” and she responded “I remember you”... Those who achieved biggest success in their careers, tend to pay most attention to the others...

- How many languages do you speak?
- I speak three languages fluently.
Besides Russian, these are English and Italian. Also, I speak some French, German and a little bit of Spanish. One needs a lot of practice to be able to speak languages.

- It is widely known, that before starting your singing career you had translated several books form Russian into English for one of the most important Russian publishing houses.
- I had to make a living, and it was the only thing that I was capable of. I translated books and gave private lessons.

- What books did you translate?
- Mostly those that had to do with music
, but also books in psychology, diet and other popular literature. I translated the biography of Michael Jackson, books about Queen and the Beatles.

- Not every opera singer can say that about themselves. You are probably the only one... Can you say that knowing foreign languages is helpful in your career?
- Definitely so
. The better singer feels the flow of the language, understands phonetic accents, phrasing, the more they understand their character.

-I won't ask you, what language is the easiest for you to sing in. Obviously, it is Russian.
- It's not always so
. There are certain consonants or vowels, or their combinations, that have to be “Italianized” in order to make them sound in bel canto manner.

- What is the most difficult one, then?
- Probably, German. The difficulty is in the positioning of the vowels and consonants. They are different in every language, and this has to be taken into consideration in singing.

- Do they take care of the correct pronunciation in America?
- Yes, here they take pronunciation very seriously. After each rehearsal the conductor makes some diction notes. There's always something to work on.

Grigory Soloviov won the “Rising star” Special Prize at the XIII International Tchaikovsky competition. Among the judges that year were Evgeny Nesterenko, Virgilijus Noreika, and the Head of the Voice Faculty of the Moscow Conservatory Pyotr Skusnichenko.

- At the competition I sang a very entertaining aria of the Peasant from Karl Orff's “The Wise Girl”. Aside from the voice itself, the jury liked the way I acted throughout the piece.

- We have already talked about Mozartian roles. What other roles would you single out in your repertoire?
- The part that I sang more often than the others is Sparafucile in Verdi's “Rigoletto”.

- It's a very good role, but not the nicest character.
- There are many more negative than positive characters in my repertoire

- All the lover parts have been “taken” by tenors, only villains have been left for basses...
- Villains, kings, fathers and monks. I guess it has to do with the voice frequencies.

- Are there any roles that you're hesitant to sing?
- There are many of them
. I simply have to grow up to fit those roles. Let's say, Boris Godunov or Filippo in “Don Carlo”, let alone Attila, Don Silva in “Ernani” or Zaccharia in “Nabucco”, I would not dare to sing now. I don't want to force my voice. I am studying them and leaving them for the future. So far I have taken secondary roles, for example Lodovico (Venetian Ambassodor) in “Otello”. I could definitely take up bass roles in “Aida”, for instance, Re d'Egitto.

- How do you define your voice? Are you a bass-baritone or a bass?
- High bass, somewhere between bass and bass-baritone. My voice is still young. I think, by the age of thirty-five or forty it will change dramatically, will become more mature, stronger, “darker”. Legend has it that Nikolai Ghiaurov's voice became a real bass at the age of thirty-five.

- Some people call you “Next Chaliapine”. Do you feel flattered by such comparison?
- Of course, it is flattering, but I think it is an exaggeration. There can be no next Chaliapine. I prefer to be myself
, learning from many masters without copying anyone.

- It is a very popular topic today; the relationship between the conductor, the stage director and the artists. The conductors say that they are the most important, stage directors complain that the conductors do not let them fulfill the composer's ideas. Whose side do you take in this “conflict of interest”?
- I believe, the most important person in the opera is the composer. If the conductor is following what is written in the score, the stage director should submit.

- But the score is only the set of symbols, notes, and there's the whole world behind them. Every perverted fantasy can be justified by saying “That is how the composer wrote it”. What can an artist do in this situation?
- So far I have never been involved in any of such conflicts. If I ever take part in the production of the director, whose ethical principles I do not share, I will have to make a choice

- Let's say, today you want to change something in your interpretation of Sarastro, and the director disagrees, will you submit?
- I will not argue

- You break the stereotype that Russian singer is offered mostly roles in the Russian operas. Your repertoire consists mostly of the parts in the operas by European composers. Does it have to do with the fact that you speak foreign languages?
- That would be one of the reasons; also, my professional career started here, in America. I learned my singing technique and work ethic here.

- Do they see you as a foreigner in Russia?
- Maybe when they first meet me
. When, last November I sang at Bolshoi Theater (the role of Malyuta Skuratov in Rimski-Korsakov's “The Tsar's Bride”), one of my colleagues said: “You became totally American”. But soon they changed their opinion. This is one of those stereotypes.

- What other qualities, beside the voice itself, should a singer have to succeed in their operatic career?
- Artist should be able to work hard, to communicate with colleagues,
and to accept constructive criticism.

- Can friendship exist in this rough opera world?
- Absolutely
. I studied together with the fabulous soprano Albina Shagimuratova; I sang in her graduation performance of “La Traviata” at the conservatory. Since then we've been keeping in touch and following each other's careers. I am on good terms with a splendid tenor Vladimir Galouzine. We sang together in “The Queen of Spades” in Monte-Carlo in 2009.

- We know Vladimir very well, too. He used to perform at the Chicago Lyric Opera frequently in the past. What a magnificent tenor!
- Not so long ago I overheard someone ask what James Valenti was doing, and the answer being, Valenti went to see Michael Fabiano. Two tenors who sing the same repertoire, and might compete with each other, are very friendly. My philosophy is, there's enough space and theatres for everybody.

- What qualities do you dislike in people?
- Insincerity
. I don't like people who smile in your face and then backstab you. I don't like those who are full of themselves, either.

- How do you find Chicago?
- I like it very much
. The city has the lively vibe of New York as well as majestic tranquility. Chicago is a very clean and beautiful city with amazingly diverse architecture.

Grigory Soloviov lives in Washington, DC but visits Moscow on a regular basis; he doesn't want to lose touch with his native country. He admits: “I love Russia and follow everything that is happening in my country”. In March of 2012 he and his partner founded their company Federal Arts Public Relations”.

- Our company provides media support for people in the arts. Generally we do not work with emerging artists, we collaborate with those who achieved a certain career level. I know a lot of singers with beautiful voices – they work a lot, they perform, but no-one knows their names. It is our goal to help them gain visibility.

(c) 2012 Sergey Elkin