Born into a prominent musical family in Bulgaria, Alex Penda (aka Alexandrina Pendatchanska) has established herself as one of the most remarkable singing-actors of our time. Following studies with her mother, the soprano Valerie Popova, she made her stage debut as Violetta in Bulgaria at the age of 17. Since then she has appeared on stages throughout the world including Aix-en-Provence, Santa Fé, Berlin and Vienna. Her repertoire is immense and includes roles such as Vitellia, Donna Elvira, Salome, Kundry, Poppea and Semiramide. Recent and future plans include Salome in Warsaw, Kundry in Tokyo, Elettra in New York, Alice Ford in Cagliari and Lady Macbeth in Avignon. I caught up with Miss Penda by telephone between rehearsals for the new production of Mefistofele at the Festpielhaus Baden-Baden.
Miss Penda, you are currently preparing for this new production of Mefistofele in Baden-Baden. Tell us a little about your experience of working on the show.
The rehearsal period here in Baden-Baden was a bit shorter than I’m normally used to for a new production but also my role is a very short one. So even for me, who requires a lot more rehearsals, and somehow I would say more time, at the end I’m satisfied with the whole process and I’m quite happy with the result too.
You mentioned that it’s a short role but you have that big duet and there’s a beautiful aria too. Do you find it challenging to create a character in a relatively short space of stage time or do you thrive on being able to do that?
Margherita becomes who she is outside of the stage. The creation and the development of this character and what happens to her, happens in between the two scenes. She first appears as a very young woman, open to the world, who is untouched by all the evil that’s about to come and ruin her life. We don’t see what happens in between and it’s very hard to create this change which doesn’t happen on stage. I need to create this in my dressing room for myself while the audience is watching the Sabbath scene. The work that I have to do is internal and it’s not easy. The prison scene is very concentrated and it’s actually quite devastating. You could say that it’s like an injection – this role is like a very painful shot of adrenalin.
Margherita is actually your 64th role. Your repertoire encompasses everything from baroque through to Mozart to Wagner and beyond. In the last year alone I’ve seen you as an outstanding Donna Elvira and Salome for instance. How do you decide on which roles to take on?
With Salome for example, I decided that I needed and wanted to sing her and I needed a place in which to do it. So in that case, I made the decision that I wanted to do the role. Other times roles just happen, people propose things to me. I look at the score and I decide whether it could work or not. The general point is that my voice has its own development. With starting to sing at the age of 15 and making my debut when I was 17, my voice was one, but then it developed and changed. There are some voices that remain relatively similar over many years, but my voice changed a lot, especially after I had two children. I believe it’s a natural process.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve had to make some adjustments over the course of time. What would you say are the vocal adjustments you have to make between singing Kundry and Poppea for example? Do you make any?
Of course. There are some basic rules of the technique that you use all the time but other adjustments are needed. There is no way to sing Salome or Kundry and Poppea or Donna Elvira in the same way. The answer is that it’s a constant process of working and of adjusting. I don’t think it’s possible for those things just to happen. They need to be worked on.
What I notice when I listen to you singing coloratura is that it’s impeccable, so even and precise. I remember in your Donna Elvira, when you sang ‘mi tradì’ it sounded like you didn’t take a single breath. You did of course but it sounded absolutely endless. How did you develop that facility to sing such pristine coloratura and that impeccable breath control?
Well, I think the ability to sing coloratura is actually a gift. We are born with this ability. I do believe that through hard work we can develop a great number of things but fast, natural coloratura is not one of them. If we don’t have it by nature – it’s impossible to achieve. I’ve seen singers who have tried but if they don’t have it in them – it’s simply impossible. It’s a gift and it’s actually something that I’m very grateful for. What I have done is to work on the precision, to make it crisp and fast – for that I have never stopped working on it. I can’t stand coloratura that’s not even and clean, it makes me sick in my stomach! When I listen to someone doing it kind of approximate, or if something that I do is not precise – I really get mad. I say that it’s better not to do it at all than doing it badly.
Ultimately, my answer to both of your questions is that through hard work and constantly never being satisfied with the result, realizing that it’s an ongoing, never-ending process, I go on. We can never have the comfort to say ‘ok now I get it, now I know how to do that’. That’s what I would say to the young people who are starting out, if they believe that one day they’ll know how to do everything, they’re wrong. We have to learn to readjust every day because our instrument is inside of us and our body is constantly changing, so we need to work on those readjustments every single day, until we sing!
Absolutely and that sounds like fantastic advice for young singers. You have coming up Lady Macbeth in Avignon, Alice Ford in Cagliari. What else can we look forward to from you? Any roles numbers 65 and 66?
For sure there will be more than 70, this I can tell you. I still haven’t done Tosca or Manon Lescaut – those are the two Puccini roles that I really want to do and I really hope that I will. There are some Verdi roles that I still want to do, Lady Macbeth is absolutely a role that I’m looking forward to. Abigaille, that’s another role I’d really like to do. There are still some Strauss roles such as the Kaiserin I’d still like to do. That’s the way my career’s going. Probably another Wagner or two but I would be very careful there. Definitely not Isolde! I’d probably do the Liebestod in a concert but not the whole role. I think we need to recognize our limits, nature’s limits on us. That’s one of the gifts of maturity. When I was in my twenties I thought I could do everything and I could, indeed, do a lot – when I look now on Esclarmonde, for instance, I can’t believe how crazy that was! But with time we learn that we need to be aware of our limits and accept them – that’s true for life in general and not only in singing or in art. Ultimately I’m a stage animal, I need the stage. I love concerts and I admire people who are more concert artists than opera, but I am afraid that that’s not me. I really am an opera person.