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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Liudmyla MONASTYRSKA: “Besides vocal, we need image”

Ukrainian opera diva shines at London’s Royal Opera House
23 August, 2011 - 00:00


Liudmyla Monastyrska, soloist at the National Opera of Ukraine, has a lyrical-dramatic soprano with rear beauty and power. She conquered the Kyiv audience by brilliant performance of such complicated and bright parts as Aida from the eponymous opera by Verdi, Santuzza from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Liza from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Amelia from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Now she has a whole army of admirers in Great Britain as well. The foreign critics call her a rising singing star of world scale, a follower of the traditions of Solomia Krushelnytska, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballe, and predict a brilliant future for the Ukrainian diva.

Liudmyla is a bright representative of the Ukrainian vocal school. She was an external student of the famous pedagogue Ivan Palyvoda at the Kyiv Music College. At the National Music Academy of Ukraine she was taught by the wonderful singer Diana Petrynenko. In 1997, Liudmyla won the Lysenko Competition of Singers, where she impressed the jurors by wonderful performance of Aida’s aria (after this performance she was invited to work with the troupe of the National Opera of Ukraine). But due to various family reasons the singer did not perform on the Kyiv stage till 2008. And in a matter of three years Monastyrska’s name has become a flagship of the Kyiv Opera. She has also sung at the Municipal Theater of Opera and Ballet for Children and Youth and toured a lot. The singer has recently returned from London, where she took part in productions of Aida and Macbeth, performing the leading parts.

Ms. Monastyrska, does your triumph on one of the most prestigious stages of the world mean that Kyiv audience will not hear you anymore at home?

“No way. Of course, it is a huge success to receive an invitation to work at the Royal Opera House, but at the same time it is a certain prospect concerning future proposals. However, I am living and working in Kyiv, my family is here. I have two children. My husband, Oleksandr Monastyrsky, is a soloist at the Municipal Opera for Children and Youth where he sings leading tenor parts. I do not want to say banal things about native root and patriotism, but Ukraine is my fatherland, my home is here, and that is it. Aside from the National Opera, I sing at the Municipal Theater of Opera and Ballet for Children and Youth, I do this with pleasure and I hope to sing all the parts of my repertoire. It was not the first time I performed abroad, but I always want to come back home. A year ago I passed an audition in London. The practice at Covent Garden usually last no less than three years [from auditioning to the contract. – Author], therefore, I think I was lucky to get an invitation from the administration to perform there. According to the contract, I was invited to take part in Aida as an understudy [for the main performer, Italian star Micaela Carosi. – Author], but due to her state of health [pregnancy, according to the official version. – Author] Carosi refused to perform, and I sang instead of her. In Macbeth I was offered to perform in the main lineup. Thus, I sang in two productions as a prima donna. The work included nine performances plus the general rehearsal, which is [always. – Ed.] held like a real performance: the performers wear makeup, costumes, the leading critics and audience are invited, and the mere difference is that the tickets are priced lower than for the premiere.”

Was it hard to work in such an extreme regime? For example, at the repertoire theater (the National Opera) there may be two premiere performances, then goes a big break and regular performances. What would you prefer?

“I don’t know yet. If you want to work, you should adapt to the conditions, by correlating your possibilities. I never let myself work at half-strength, perform carelessly or relax to the detriment of work. Everything is clear at Covent Garden. However, to sing in 10 performances in a row is a huge load. But an upside is that the performer does not get distracted by other parts, you do not need to rearrange yourself from one singing manner to another one, which happens when you perform in different productions. I think getting focused on one role allows you to improve with each performance. The main thing is not to break your regime, to preserve your health and strength for the stage. They have a practice abroad to compare the first performance in the production with the last one [which is done by the administration, theater critics, and music experts. – Author] in terms of creation an image by the singers. In a word, the system is harsh, yet clever. To maintain the creative process, no less than 50 people of attendants are engaged, like makeup artists, costumers, property masters, and others, who tread on your heels and give the things you need at the moment, with strict accordance to timekeeping. It is simply impossible to forget anything in such a well-trained chain. You will be reminded in advance about your entrance; they will readjust your makeup. The performer is not distracted by such things. The results of such systems are very high, and the entire company works for the quality of the production.”

How much time is allotted for the production and performances?

“The rehearsals last for a month: two three-hour rehearsals a day with an hour break. Sometimes there were three rehearsals, each lasting two hours. You are forbidden to come late. With such discipline it is more than enough time. At the mise en scene rehearsal the singer may sing not to his or her full voice. Indisputably, the soloist knows his or her part perfectly, simply adjusting it to certain production. I should say that at Covent Garden they pay huge attention to the actor’s skills. Say, apart from being a good singer – we have invited you for your vocal skills – please, create an image, like a drama actress. Incidentally, you should not look at the conductor’s hand while performing, because a singer should be playing on stage as well as showing his vocal skills. The performances are held during the following month. We took up Aida in February, whereas the premiere took place on March 11. My last performance was on April 6. Then I came for two weeks to Kyiv to stay with children, with family, and on April 24 the work on the opera Macbeth began. When school vacations started, my husband brought children to London. They attended all of my performances. I have not sacrificed my family life for the sake of profession. And now I am grateful to my family that I can combine my family life with creative work and career.”

Every soloist wants to work with famous conductors. Who was at conductor’s stand during your London performances?

“Fabio Luisi, the main invited conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, was asked to work on Aida. He worked together with Daniele Rustioni, the main invited conductor of the Mikhaylovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Like all Italians, the conductors are energetic, passionate, and emotional. Macbeth was conducted by Antonio Pappano, who is currently the chief conductor of the Royal Opera House. He is an extremely deep and talented maestro, who never misses small things. During the rehearsals I felt his filigree work with the orchestra and performers. He pays attention not only to the music material, but work with the text as well. Taking into account the international lineup, a language coach is invited, being a translator at the same time, who brings the soloists’ pronunciation to a proper level.”

At the moment in the West much attention is being paid to original directors’ interpretations of classical works, which is the main stumbling block for opera productions. What were the treats of Aida and Macbeth?

“Aida was staged by English David McVicar, who is fond of special effects and playing to the audience. The equipment of the royal scene enables you to develop the action in various scales and levels. Some scenes seemed even dangerous for me, but everything went good, thank God. I cannot say that I liked the director’s production. I think that those were singers who made the production succeed. There was a star lineup: Roberto Alagna as Radames, Olga Borodina, Marianne Cornetti, and Anna Smirnova as Amneris, Vitaly Kovalev (who is Ukraine-born by instance, but has been residing for long in Switzerland and goes on tour worldwide) as Ramphis, Carlos Almaguer as Amonasro.

“A renowned British director Phyllida Lloyd staged Macbeth [the Ukrainian audience knows her name, as she directed the musical Mama mia! – Author]. I liked her production more because the emphasis was made on psychological aspects of relations between Lady Macbeth and her husband. However, the special effects were present there too [sets designed by Anthony Ward. – Author], but, say, the beds flying above the stage, the red-black contrast in costumes and decorations worked to support opera’s idea. The beds put together meant marriage; when they were parted, it symbolized the collapse of the marriage. There was a lot of symbolism, but in my opinion it was very humane. My heroine is not absolute evil: she was given certain more humane features than in traditional interpretations of Shakespeare’s images. For example, I liked a lot the scene of a dream, when angels appeared over the marriage bed and brought babies to the Macbeth couple, though it was childless in fact. So, on the one hand, some attractive features of the heroine are revealed, but, at the same time, the punishment for her sins becomes graver. In the finale, in the somnambulism scene, Lady Macbeth loses her mind from understanding of her own sins and cuts her veins. Despite the scene is bloody, from the point of humaneness it makes my heroine more attractive.

“The production featured famous British tenor Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth, Raymond Aceto from Mexico as Banquo, Dimitri Pittas, singer of Greek origin, as Macduff. The second parts in all season productions are usually performed by young singers, who undergo training at the Royal Opera House.”

I wonder how the administration of Covent Garden organizes the routine of the invited singer.

“It does not have a regular opera troupe; all the soloists performing the leading parts are invitees, so you feel no discomfort. An apartment is rented for the time of the performances, with the costs deducted from the singer’s honorarium. It is expensive, but the contract allows for such expenses. In terms of finances, contracts with such theaters imply a wealthy life. But our work, no matter with what you compare it, is still very hard – we earn our living with two tiny vocal cords. We need much labor and skills to keep this subtle instrument in a working condition, and sacrifice and refuse from many things. Opera singers are considered elite abroad, and they have corresponding wages. I would like a renaissance of academic music to start in our country too.”

Do you come from a music family?

“No, my parents had no relation to theater or music. Mother is philologist and teacher, my father is a businessman. I studied piano at music school, but I have always been attracted to sounds. Maybe the crucial role was played by the fact that my mother is singing all the time. Singing means breathing for her. Her example inspired me to sing. I have studied at a music college and the National Music Academy. I have been taught by Ivan Palyvoda and Diana Petrynenko – she is still teaching at the age of 81! These people fostered in me love for serious music. And talent is only a tiny share of success. The profession of an opera singer demands a colossal strength of will, first of all, good health and persistence in achieving one’s aim.”

How did your fellow singers and administration of your theater react to your success in London? Are you going to combine performances in Kyiv and abroad?

“I really hope not to spoil relations with anyone and to work on the native stage as long as possible, as well as to perform abroad if it will be interesting for me. Thank God, the administration of the theater treats with understanding the performer’s desire to work abroad, it is enough to file a leave without pay and keep mutually respectful relations. I still have goals to achieve at the National Opera: I hope to sing the parts of Lady Macbeth and Tosca. I have sung it abroad long time ago: in Berlin, with Maria Gulegina, and at Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago last year.

“I have been invited to sing Aida’s part to Milan, La Scala Theater, early next year, where Aida will be staged by legendary Franco Zeffirelli, and at the end of the year Aida will be shown at the Metropolitan Opera. Incidentally, 2013 will be the year of Giuseppe Verdi, and La Scala and Covent Garden will stage Nabucco. I have been invited to both productions.”

Is it true that after a performance you relax by singing Ukrainian songs?

“Yes, for me it is a kind of relaxation, to sing several Ukrainian songs, in order to restore inner balance, because after a performance you need to regain your senses. If there is a piano in my dressing room, I accompany myself, if there is not, I sing a cappella. I love ‘Oh in a Cherry Garden a Nightingale Sang,’ actually, I know many folk songs.”