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How a financier became an opera star

Baritone Yurii Yurchuk is an extraordinary individual who sings at Covent Garden now
11 April, 2018 - 15:41
YURII YURCHUK PERFORMED ON THE KYIV STAGE THE TITLE PART IN THE OPERA EUGENE ONEGIN, WHILE KSENIA BAKHRITDINOVA-KRAVCHUK PLAYED THE ROLE OF TATIANA / Photo by Oleksandr PUTROV

A full house at the recent performance of Eugene Onegin in the National Opera hardly surprised anyone, although the performance was not a premiere. Most of the music fans came to the theater to hear the baritone voice of Yurii Yurchuk, who, having arrived from London on a tour to his hometown, performed the part of Onegin for the first time. The show took place within the framework of the project “Ukrainian Opera Stars in the World.”

The partners of the baritone were soloists of the National Opera, including Ksenia Bakhritdinova-Kravchuk (Tatiana), Dmytro Ivanchenko (Lensky), Serhii Mahera (Prince Gremin), and Oleksandr Hurets (Triquet). Bohdan Plish held the conductor’s baton.

Having seen a boisterous final ovation of the Kyiv public, we met with Yurchuk, who is now a soloist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It should be noted that the rapid career of this young artist has been impressive and fascinating. In general, many singers have risen fast to the peak of world fame, including both foreign stars and domestic celebrities. Suffice it to recall the famous Ukrainian bass Borys Hmyria, who at the age of 36 graduated from Kharkiv Conservatory having abandoned the career of civil engineer, or the prominent tenor Anatolii Solovianenko, who, having already graduated from Donetsk Polytechnic and started working as a college teacher, began his opera career in his 30s and finished the conservatory education while already holding the title of People’s Artist...

As Yurchuk admits, he radically reconsidered his life objectives after 10 years of a successful career as a financier in Chicago and made a sharp turn towards classical vocal art. Starting in the 2014-15 season, the Ukrainian baritone has been a participant of the Jetter Parker Young Artist Program for young opera singers at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It was during this period that he performed on that famous stage small parts in the operas Tristan and Isolde, Andre Chenier, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, and others.

“MY LIFE WAS SPLIT IN TWO”

After getting acquainted with your, to put it mildly, unusual biography – you admitted in an interview that you first visited the opera at 28 and, without knowing the basics of musical notation, quickly burst into the ranks of high art, and now already perform on the stage of the famous Royal Theater in Covent Garden, and this took you only three years (!) which were full of musical events – it is clear that you completely refute the deep-rooted stereotype of the opera singer’s necessarily long and tedious path to Olympus. Why have you abandoned the steady career of a successful financier and took the shaky path of an opera singer?

“I think that it is just because one of my numerous and persistent attempts to realize my musical potential finally worked. In fact, from the early years, I tried to get closer to music and immerse myself into such a mysterious and beautiful world of art in order to move from the category of listeners to one of performers. While living in Kyiv, I tried to create my own band, but that plan failed. My singing teachers, whom I encountered when my voice was mutating, refused to train me outright, citing my complete absence of any vocal talent. However, after some time, and at a certain stage, when I was already working for a Chicago financial company, I was fortunate enough to meet a very experienced, erudite teacher Michael Embree, who had faith in me and offered to teach me academic vocal art. Embree was a soloist with the New York City Opera for about two decades, and after hearing me at the Queen Sonja International Music Competition (where I successfully performed Riccardo’s aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera The Puritans and Falstaff’s aria from the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi), he was the only one among the members of the jury to analyze in detail my performance in contrast to others who simply said ‘Well done, a good job.’ Embree wrote a detailed commentary that took a whole page and offered a professional ‘flight analysis.’ This, of course, got me thinking, because vocal art is not mathematics or finance, and it is very difficult to learn classical singing. Even before meeting Embree, I tried to take lessons from two teachers who did not have an idea what to do with my voice. And here, in the person of Embree, I found a combination of deep professional knowledge and pedagogical talent, which are the most important qualities for training a beginner singer. I know a lot of singers with good voices who have not managed to develop their talent because they lacked sustained professional teaching support.”

But private vocal lessons are not cheap, are they?

“In fact, I was lucky that at that time I already had a stable income from my company. But after deciding to become a professional singer, I managed to negotiate working half-days in the office, and devoting the other half to classes with a vocal teacher. I worked in that way for two years, won a scholarship from DePaul University of Chicago, which allowed me to pay for a music course. At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at how empathetic and kindly the people who surrounded me turned out to be: both those who studied classical music and my colleagues in the company. When they found out that I needed additional funds for vocal training, they offered me to sing for a certain reward at a church choir during Sunday masses. At first, I was not quite prepared for it, because I could not sight-read sheet music. But this experience became very useful to me later. It was in the choir that I refined my hearing and learned how to sing in an ensemble.”

At what age did you make that fateful decision to start systematic vocal training?

“It happened at the age of 29, when I entered DePaul University’s School of Music. My life was split in two.”

A TIP FOR BEGINNING SINGERS

What did the most crucial stage in your singer’s career, I mean voice training, start with? Probably, you began with purely technical exercises and chants, which is a long and not very interesting period for ambitious beginners, who dream of singing opera arias and leading parts at once. It is known that the famous Italian teacher Nicola Porpora, who educated the legendary Baroque soprano singer Farinelli, limited his students to performing vocal pieces only for the first five years of study. And how was it with you?

“After six months of studies or so, my teacher realized all the seriousness of my intentions and advised me to stick to exercises for a year at least, and only then to embark on the first aria; however, considering my ‘advanced’ age, he recommended me to improve vocal skills as intensively as possible. So we did corrections over time from the very beginning. I still have with me that notebook with exercises with which I started and which I learn from even now. I also have audio recordings of these lessons, and often listen to and analyze them. By the way, a tip for beginning singers: make sure to record yourself, listen to and analyze your vocal performance. But it is better not to use for it an iPhone or Android, which significantly distort the real sound of one’s voice, so one would do well to use special recorders. After all, when you are singing, you do not hear yourself and cannot adequately appreciate yourself. However, I benefited in this case from analytical approach that I always used successfully back when I was engaged in financial activity.”

And which work did you start your practice with, in what language did you sing first, because English is not the best phonetic material for an academic singer?

“After about two months of classes, I began to sing Neapolitan songs, and later Embree offered me to learn Aleco’s cavatina from the opera of the same name by Sergei Rachmaninoff, wisely deciding that the original work’s language would facilitate to some extent the process of studying the musical text of the cavatina with its unique cantille-like melodic.”

After this latest performance in Kyiv and the prolonged ovation you received from the public, has the leadership of the National Opera looked at you and made some suggestions for further cooperation?

“The theater management noticed me a year before my debut on the Kyiv stage. Having auditioned at the National Opera, I received an offer to sing in Eugene Onegin. Before the show started today, I felt how the waves of positive energy went through the auditorium to the stage. During the performance, I completely switched to my emotions and focused on controlling the sound flow to the parterre. Unfortunately, I could not rehearse on stage, I only had a rehearsal with the orchestra, so maybe not everything was perfect in terms of balancing the sound of the voice and the orchestra.”

Did you ever ponder where did you get that gift of heaven, meaning your voice? What ancestral genetic codes did you manage to inherit?

“I was born in a family where parents had nothing to do with music. The only childhood memory that can shed some light on this issue is that of my grandfather, who often sang folk songs when he carried me in his arms...

“Since I have positioned myself as a baritone for good, my ambitious dream is the gradual inclusion of all baritone parts in the operas by Verdi, one of my most beloved composers, in my repertoire.”

“EVERYTHING HAPPENING IN UKRAINE NOW PAINS ME GREATLY”

While performing on different scenes and continents, do you feel the importance and special responsibility of the mission of the artist who can carry the message of peace and beauty to a world currently in a state of anxiety and social turbulence? What do you think, what can curb the aggression that is currently bursting through at different spots of the planet and has not spared Ukraine as well, which has been fighting in our eastern regions for the past four years?

“I guess I pondered these questions for the first time after my workmates came to hear me sing, and for many of them it was their first ever visit to an opera house. I saw that some of them were even tearful after the show... And this became a real shock to me, because at that very moment, suddenly, I realized the enormous power of art, the fantastic magnetism of musical images... After all, the soul of a musician is always particularly vulnerable to external influences... Everything happening in Ukraine now pains me greatly, because my parents and relatives live here.

“Living through strong emotions gives an invaluable experience of understanding and perception of certain dramatic collisions, and opens up the opportunity, if necessary, to transfer this experience into real life, to make the right choice, to quickly get one’s bearings in any situation as we face the real existential challenges of the time in which we live today...”

You are a permanent member of the Royal Opera Company. Would you risk switching to contractual terms of cooperation?

“Until this year, I was part of the opera ensemble, but I decided that it would be advisable to switch to contractual terms for a time, in order to have more artistic freedom and to try to perform on different scenes around the world. I also hope to have more meetings with Kyiv music lovers, whose reception’s warmth I will take with me to London...”

The Day’s REFERENCE

The Ukrainian baritone Yurii Yurchuk is currently a member of the Royal Opera company in London. The Times called the singer “a wonderful voice with an impeccable Italian legato,” and the influential online resource Bachtrack described him as “a rich, deep voice capable of great versatility.”

In the 2017-18 season, the artist’s engagements include Count Rodolfo (Wexford Festival Opera), Eugene Onegin (Ukraine National Opera), Ping (Zurich Opera), as well as covers of Alfio and Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House in London.

Yurchuk is a prize winner in the Queen Sonja International Singing Competition (Norway), Montserrat Caballe International Singing Competition (Spain), Ottavio Zino International Singing Competition (Italy), Monastero Foundation Bel Canto competition (US), Fritz and Lavinia Jensen competition (US), and other events. His other high-profile appearances include the King of Egypt in Verdi’s Aida excerpt in tribute to Martina Arroyo at the 36th Kennedy Center Honors Awards in Washington DC, concerts in the Buckingham and Windsor palaces for the royal family, and the debut at the BBC in the Shakespeare birthday anniversary series.

The Ukrainian baritone was a member of Royal Opera young artist program in 2014-16 seasons, entering the ensemble in 2016 with more than 180 appearances on the Royal Opera’s stage.

Born in Kyiv, Yurchuk claims to have discovered his passion for opera after moving to Chicago (US). He studied at DePaul University’s School of Music in 2012-13. The singer also holds Bachelor and Master’s degrees in finance and accounting from Kyiv National Economic University. He taught at that school’s department of finance for a year, then worked at the Kyiv office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and in 2010 he joined the Chicago office of the same company. Before embarking on a singing career, he was a financial advisor with PwC for nine (!) years, but the art ultimately won him over.

By Natalia SEMENENKO, musicologist
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