Opera prima Vesselina Kasarova:
Staying down-to-earth helped me survive
The hardest thing is to climb to the top and stay there
16 July, 2011Close-up: Vesselina Kasarova is one of the most celebrated mezzo sopranos in the world. Upon graduation from the Music Academy in Sofia, she was engaged by the Zurich Opera. In 1991, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera where she performed regularly for the next two years. Her Tancredi became the sensation of the 1992 Salzburg Festival. She lives in Zurich. Her recordings have received 3 Grammy nominations. She has been named Kammersangerin of the Vienna State Opera and of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The Austrian Festspiele Magazine rates Kasarova the world's No.1 mezzo-soprano.- You started your career outside Bulgaria at a very early age. What were the greatest challenges you faced?- Racism against Bulgarians and singers of Slavic descent in general. Sometimes, it is not direct but is felt in every respect. Slavic voices are said to be strong, to need to shout and have no singing culture. Still, great voices come from Russia, who get exhausted in 4 years and then others are engaged. Isn't it racism? Simultaneously, however, I received a great chance since music is a special field. You communicate with refined people and they show their racism in a less conspicuous way. Yet, you have to prove yourself. When I was starting, money-focused impresarios made me sing a dramatic repertoire. I had a contract for Don Carlos. And Ioan Holender, Director of the Vienna State Opera, rescued me saying: "Vesselina, if you want a long career, go back to Mozart and Rossini. If you sing dramatic parts, in 6 years you will be exhausted." Today, after 23 years of practice, I sing in a completely different way. Another thing I remember is in 1989, it was very different from now when the borders are open. I moved to Switzerland at 24 and suffered a culture shock in the beginning. - Who else gave you valuable advice for your career?- Some of the people who have treated me caringly are Nicolai Ghiaurov and Mirella Freni - a wise woman I admire. Once we were together in the Opera of Chicago. They were performing in La Boheme while Placido Domingo and I were performing in Idomeneo. Back then, they advised me not to sing too much in the US as voices quickly die there. Singers perform with large orchestras in vast halls with audiences of 4,000-5,000 people. It is good for an artist to appear in front of an American audience, but within reasonable limits. I followed their advice and I wasn't wrong. I would advise young singers not to hurry with dramatic parts. It is not only about vocal cords endurance. Jitters, stage fright may break the tie voice-person-spirituality. And when artists feel fear, they cannot continue their way.- You have been singing for 23 years now. How do you manage to always stay in good condition?- The most important thing is to stay completely down to earth. Only few artists can cope psychologically with the word 'success.' I do not know how my art is evaluated, but I have remained a very down-to-earth and naturally-behaved person. I have grown wiser with age, but my spirituality, my inner intuition has not changed. And besides, discipline is also critical for singers, their understanding where their limits are, how much they should sing and what and whom with. And that is why I have survived through so many years. I started with singers who were exceptional talents, but they are no longer singers. In 6 years they could not sing anymore. During the first two years I appeared in 140 productions. For 23 years, I have been singing in 60 shows a year. And that's apart from the discography I have recorded. - What in the world of opera singers remains unseen for the public?- Sacrifice. You know, today I was with my son for just 1 hour. This is brutal! Last night I sang in The Barber of Seville in Hamburg and I got up at 5 a.m. to catch a plane to Zurich. My husband met me at the airport, took me home, where I changed dresses and was off to the airport again to catch a plane to Sofia. The greatest achievement in my life is my son, yet I have missed so many important events in his life. Yves Lucien is 12 and this year he enrolled in high school. He is the happiness of my life; I live for him. - How do you attain a family-career balance?- I have a wonderful husband who does absolutely everything for me. We have been together for 19 years. Roger is my right hand. He brings up our son.- When do you reject roles?- I have happened to say 'no' and to great conductors, to that. I rejected the invitation by Riccardo Muti to sing Azucena in The Troubadour in 1994. And I have refused to sing Leonore in Fidelio. I have done this to spare my voice. Back then, these parts were not for me.- Do you have favourite conductors?- I always use polite forms when speaking to conductors. Some female singers try to develop close relations with conductors believing they would have a better position this way. There are conductors that have taught me a voice is not just a voice but an instrument that must express a state. Some of them are Zubin Mehta and Sir Colin Davis - musicians with a signature style of their own.- Which is your favourite part?- Perhaps Charlotte in Werther and Delilah in Samson and Delilah. I also love Sesto in The Clemency of Titus.- What sort of production you would not take part in?- I would never take my clothes off on stage. I see no point in nudeness. Over the past years, directors have become an important factor in opera. To attract audience, they invite big names. Besides them, they also engage singers who are good but lack charisma, memorable voice or acting skill. And a third group are people who look good, but cannot sing. Ability and inability meet on stage and the audience does not fail to notice it. This phenomenon caused by directors, in my view, will fade. And, of course, there are artists who look good and sing well - Anna Netrebko, Elina Garancha.- BMG has offered you to record a duet with Whitney Houston or Eros Ramazzotti, but you refused. Why was that?- Because I am not interested in such things. I have built a career the serious way.- Which has the most difficult moment in your life been? - The hardest thing is to climb to the top and stay there.