Interview with Krassimira Stoyanova

Born in Bulgaria, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova studied violin and voice at the Plovdiv Music Academy before making her debut at the Sofia National Opera House.  Widely regarded as one of the finest singers of our time, Miss Stoyanova has performed on all of the world’s major lyric stages including the Scala, the Bayerische Staatsoper, Zurich, the Liceu, Paris, the Royal Opera and Royal Albert Hall in London, and at the Salzburger Festspiele.  Since her debut there in 1998, Miss Stoyanova is also closely associated with the Wiener Staatsoper, where she was honoured with the title of Kammersängerin.  Her repertoire includes roles such as Elisabetta, Desdemona, Rusalka, Aida, Mimì and Anna Bolena, as well as the soprano parts in the Verdi Requiem and Rossini Stabat Mater. Recent, current and upcoming engagements include Amelia Grimaldi, Aida and Ariadne at the Scala, Leonora in Trovatore in Munich, the Marschallin in Zurich and Elsa in Bayreuth.  I caught up with Miss Stoyanova by telephone from her home in Vienna, following the run of performances as Ariadne at the Semperoper. 

Photo: © Brescia e Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Miss Stoyanova, you’ve just completed a run as Ariadne at the Semperoper Dresden in a fascinating production by David Hermann.  Tell us about your experience of working on this show.

This production was really a gift for me.  David Hermann created such a fine and beautiful staging for us. The sets were attractive and visually interesting.  They also provided an excellent acoustic for us as a cast to be able to project to the public.  It’s great for an audience when a set is well designed acoustically.  I was also so lucky to be able to work with some fantastic colleagues and to be led by Christian Thielemann, who is really one of the best conductors around.  He’s really quite wonderful in the way that he understands and feels the music, the way he creates and interprets it – it’s splendid.  He also has such a great connection with us as singers and that really helps to make what we do a success.  Having that strong connection within the cast, this genuine sense of teamwork, was a joy.  I have to admit that the night of the premiere, I was unwell – I’d had a bad flu, and still had a slight cough, but thankfully I managed to pull it off.

As Ariadne in Dresden. Photo: © Ludwig Olah

The role of Ariadne is a very interesting role because it runs from the very low at the start of the opera itself to those high soaring phrases typical of Strauss.  How do you work the role into the voice?

This role is a major challenge.  At the start of the opera itself, by which I mean the second half of the evening, the role is written almost as if for a mezzo.  Then, it becomes much more dramatic, as if written for a dramatic soprano.  At the same time, it requires the ability to spin these incredibly fine lines, bringing out some warm tenderness in the line, that could only have been written by Richard Strauss.  The only way I can get through these challenges in the role is by having a strong technique.  Without that strong technique, I wouldn’t be able to rise to those challenges.  Whenever a singer wants to take on a role such as Ariadne, she needs to be fully aware of what the role entails, she needs to be aware of where the difficult sections are and then work on overcoming them.  I prepared this role in an exceptionally detailed way.  First, I worked on the character – I wanted her to be quite mystic but, at the same time, quite human.  To bring out her past and to show her loss.  Then, I worked on that uniquely Straussian palette of vocal colours.  Strauss is so well known for those opportunities to exploit vocal colour.  The way he creates harmonies is so prodigious.  You can recognize his harmonies instantly, just from hearing a couple of measures – you know immediately that it’s him.  The orchestration is also masterful.  He uses chamber forces, but uses them so fully and so powerfully – as if they’re guiding the narrative themselves – so powerful and yet so tender.

As the Danae in Salzburg. Photo: © Salzburger Festspiele | Forster

You are widely regarded as a singer with an exceptional technique.  How have you developed your technique over the years?

I’ve worked so hard on my technique.  It’s been something I’ve worked on for years, analytically, in depth.  Without putting in that hard work, it’s impossible to succeed.  Being a singer is like being a dancer, we need to sing every day.  Not just opening the mouth and letting the sound out, but rather working intelligently on our voice and our technique.  We need to reflect on what we do, why something might work on a particular day but not on others, to think about what makes something work better now, rather than earlier.  The body changes every single day and none of us is getting any younger.  That’s why we need to focus on keeping our voices and our singing connected with the body, so that each element of the voice and the body can work together.  Otherwise it just doesn’t work.  As we get older, the body matures and the same goes for the voice.  It can also be quite difficult for the voice when you don’t have that strength of a twenty-year-old person and so you need to find ways to adapt.  And the key way to adapt is by maintaining a strong technique.  A singer also needs to know when to say ‘no’.  You can’t sing a role just because you want to, you have to know what works for your voice.  There’s no way I could sing Turandot, for instance, perhaps at home, just for me, but on stage, never.  I couldn’t sing Abigaille either, but neither of these roles are important for me to sing.

As the Marschallin at the Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

How do you get to that point where you know what works for you?

I try things out, look at the notes.  I’m fully aware now of what my voice is capable of and what it isn’t.  There was a time at the very start of my career when I had to sing Rachel in la Juive.  That really isn’t a role for my voice but I had to go ahead with the role.  I went to my voice teacher and asked him ‘maestro, how can I do this?  I have to sing this role’.  He told me something very true: ‘this role isn’t for you but you have to sing it with your voice.  Only with your voice and not that of another singer who has sung this role’.  And that’s how I’ve always looked at it since.  I always reflect on whether a role is suitable for me and, if it isn’t, I just say no.  Always.  I’ve had some conflicts with people as a result, but what’s important is protecting my instrument.  After all, everything revolves around these fragile vocal folds.  It’s not like how a violinist can just go to the store and buy new strings as and when they’re needed.  It’s impossible.  And over the years, we’ve seen so many examples of well-known singers who’ve had to undergo surgery.

You maintain quite a diverse repertoire – Verdi, Strauss, Mozart, Dvořák, and now Wagner.  How do you maintain vocal health with this diversity of repertoire? 

Through hard work.  It all comes down to hard work.  And I also believe that an opera singer has to think about maintaining a bel canto technique.  Everything comes down to bel canto.  I’ve sung a fair amount of bel canto, even if I haven’t sung everything I’d like to.  I would have liked to have sung Lucia, for instance.  I also think that Wagner should be sung as if bel canto.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that Wagner wrote everything on a bel canto foundation, despite how his music is performed today.  Verdi should also be sung bel canto as should Puccini.  With Puccini, he often doubles the vocal line in the orchestra and the orchestral sound is very bright.  That’s why for Puccini you need a bit more strength and metal in the voice.  I also recorded an album of Puccini’s songs.  I love these songs, they’re beautiful.

As Amelia Grimaldi at the Scala. Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

I saw a fascinating masterclass online that you did with young singers.  Do you teach widely, do you have a studio for instance?

I don’t keep a studio yet, but yesterday I gave a masterclass here in Vienna at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst.  I love doing this, I always find it so interesting to work with young singers.  Perhaps, once my singing career is over, I’ll look at keeping myself busy by working with young singers.  I’ve already been invited to a guest professorship and it’s something I’d do with great pleasure.  A number of singers, and if I may say a number of colleagues also, come to me for advice.  I’m pleased that they do because I’m fully aware of how much more work I need to do on my voice and technique.  I know that I still have so much more to do to understand and to develop.  I believe that a singer works right up until the final moments of their career.  That’s why I don’t feel that I know everything, I’m still learning and still working.

You studied violin alongside voice, do you feel that this has influenced you as an artist?

It has, absolutely.  I graduated from the Conservatoire as a violinist.  I played so many concertos, I played Bach, Mozart.  I had quite a large repertoire as a violinist.  I also played in the orchestra.  That was a great musical upbringing.  I gained so much as a musician.  I found that when I started singing, that strong musical foundation really helped me.  It meant that I read notes in the same way as I read words.  It’s become second nature to me.  Today, I find that there are many singers who also have very strong musical foundations – you find many pianists, violinists, other musicians, I’m not alone in that regard.  I think it really helps singers to grow musically, in a faster and simpler way.  To learn roles more quickly and to really understand the style of the music.  It also helps to understand what the composer meant in their writing.  I think it’s important to have that foundation and it’s been so interesting for me to learn the music along the way.

As Aida at the Scala with Violeta Urmana as Amneris. Photo: © Teatro alla Scala.

Coming up, you’ll be returning to Ariadne at the Scala, you have the Marschallin in Zurich and also Elsa in Bayreuth.  What else can we expect from you, looking ahead?

I’m extremely busy this season.  Other than those things you mention, I have concert performances of Aida with Muti and the Chicago Symphony coming up in June.  I’m doing a recording of great scenes of Richard Strauss.  I also have a number of concerts throughout the season.  Coming up, I’ll be returning to a role I love, Luisa Miller, next season.  I’m also making my Wagnerian debut with Elsa in the summer as well as taking on another Wagner role, Elisabeth, later on.  I have also some song recitals in Vienna and Milan.  Some Verdi Requiems and Strauss Four Last Songs also.  Many things to look forward to.

Translation from the German:  With thanks to the Semperoper Dresden.

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