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SEEN AND HEARD INTERVIEW

 

Pure and Poignant: Bettina Mara talks to the Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou (BM)
 




As beautiful as the city of Kavala, her hometown in Northern Greece, Alexia Voulgaridou is an extraordinary and sought-after soprano who built her career in Germany and has now made the hills of Tuscany her home. She was kind enough to find time to speak to Seen and Heard in connection with her appearances with Jonas Kaufmann in La Bohème at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden (reviewed here), and the first thing that struck me as we sat down in the Staatsoper’s artists’ cafeteria was that she had lost nothing of the unpretentious sincerity I remembered from our first brief encounter some years ago, backstage at Mannheim’s Nationaltheater – when she autographed my daughter’s program, saying how delighted she was to be able to speak to her in Greek – after which she set off for home on her bicycle. So it didn’t feel at all awkward to start out by inquiring about her family background:

Ms. Voulgaridou, yours was probably not a typical career choice for a girl from Kavala - what made you want to become an opera singer, do you come from a musical family?

Not at all, but I do remember that my grandfather had a lovely voice – the story in our family is that my grandmother decided to marry him the minute she heard him sing, before she had even laid eyes on him. But music always occupied a special place in my heart and soul and has the capacity to move me like nothing else in the world; at first I learned to play the piano, at one point practicing up to six hours a day while at the same time studying law at Athens University, until I woke up one morning and realized that all I really wanted was to sing, to be on stage, to be an opera singer. After studying voice at the National Conservatory, I went to Munich, and, more or less by coincidence, was given an opportunity to have Daphne Evangelatos listen to me sing. She told me to go back to Athens and start over, so to speak, studying nothing but technique with her own teacher for a while, and then come back – which I did: I auditioned and was one of the 7 (out of 300) candidates admitted to the “Musikhochschule” that year, and was lucky enough to be accepted in Professor Evangelatos’ class.

And this is how you set out to make your fortune in Germany?

Yes, after completing my studies, the Munich Opernstudio provided me with my first opportunities to appear on stage, under the guidance of Astrid Varnay. It wasn’t long before she took me aside and told me “Alexia, there’s nothing more for you to learn here, you need to go move on” – and luckily I was asked to become an ensemble member at “Nationaltheater Mannheim”, which provided me with the opportunity to sing a wide range of roles during my five years there. My breakthrough came when I appeared in La Bohème in Bregenz alongside Rolando Villazon, himself a new face and fresh out of Domingo’s Operalia competition at the time.

And Villazon is now something of an opera superstar…

Yes, but I must say that I don’t envy him his fame. Rolando is an example of how a fine artist can be pressured to achieve too much too quickly. You have no idea how overwhelming the stress can become when we are expected to perform exceptionally all the time and no matter where we may happen to be. Too much travel is imposed on us these days as well, which may sound like a glamorous life – but spending an enormous amount of time in airplanes, hotels, being exposed to air conditioning, is all simply exhausting and often more than two poor little vocal cords can bear. Mirella Freni and her generation were never expected to work like this! Today’s massive CD industry does a great service to the dissemination of classical music, but it also means that live performances are oftentimes compared to “perfect” studio recordings. Not to mention that we are expected to somehow find access to the fountain of eternal youth (and never, ever put on weight).

Which have been your favorite roles?

That is not entirely easy to answer, as I have loved almost every role I have sung, but since you’ve put me on the spot, I would probably say Desdemona – or Anna Bolena – and certainly Mimì. And I would have to say that perhaps my favorite La Bohème was the one in Bregenz, with those fantastic supra-dimensional sets and the outdoor setting on the lake, the way we could hear the water whispering and the soft breeze rustling during the performances…and my most memorable La Bohème for me personally was definitely the one I sang in Teneriffe in 2005 not long after my father passed away. I remember standing on stage and feeling a new sort of immunity – if I could bear my father’s death I could bear almost anything, it was as if no one could harm me anymore…

You have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about the production of  “Dialogue des Carmelites” in which you appeared in this January in Hamburg – was this your debut as Blanche, and what was special about it?

It was special because it was plain, in the sense of simple or pure, but also extremely poignant, and yes, this was my debut as Blanche – a great challenge, since it was a role that calls for an excellent command of technique. I had to practically speak as I sang, or include elements of my singing in my speaking voice, to put it the other way around – which was very demanding and hard work, as obviously this is not the kind of opera that provides singers with romantic arias which have that popular delirium-inducing effect on audiences…Every new role is a discovery, and this was a particularly intense one.

What are your plans for the near future?

I’m looking forward to singing Violetta in October under Maestro Lorin Maazel, and Liù in Sydney under Zubin Mehta, and of course Mimì at La Scala this summer – under Gustavo Dudamel, whom I greatly enjoyed working with here in Berlin. His is an extraordinary talent – I don’t think I have ever seen a cast need so few rehearsals as under his guidance.

Any dream roles you haven’t had a chance to perform yet?

Well, one is certainly Tosca, and another Madame Butterfly, when I am ready for them – and I think that would be the just about maximum of drama my voice can handle.

Many Greek singers who study abroad do so on a Maria Callas scholarship, but I seem to remember you are no great friend of these contests – would you go as far as the great musician who once said that competitions are for horses?

I’m not sure I would go quite that far, but I’m certainly not much in favor of them, because I feel they are often counter-productive, in that they promote “shooting stars”, who end up singing at countless major theaters at the age of (say) 23, and ruining a beautiful voice; and because performing four or five arias doesn’t mean one has what it takes to be on stage for three or four hours during an entire opera. Having said that, I was lucky in that my parents were able to support me financially during my studies, and I appreciate that many young artists need scholarships, so I would never criticize a young singer for taking part in a contest.

You do seem to miss Greece – why is it that you don’t accept work “at home” more often?

It is strange, but Greek theaters tend to prefer to recruit foreign artists to sing in Greece, more  than Greek singers like myself who are based abroad. Often they maintain that we demand exorbitant fees, which is absolute nonsense. I don’t know of a single Greek artist who would turn down an opportunity to work at home just because of money. The last time I appeared in Greece was when I sang Mimì in Thessaloniki, for what I would call a token fee, but I was thrilled to do it: it was a great honor for me to sing in my own country, and hopefully I will be given another chance soon. It’s not as if the theaters in Greece don’t know me.

What do you like most and what do you like least about your profession?

Good question! By the way, my colleague Jonas Kaufmann was telling me just the other day that a journalist interviewing him recently asked him what his favorite drink was – can you believe that?

What I like best is how I feel when I walk out on stage. Perhaps it could be compared to the feeling induced by an obsession or a drug: it’s as if for days I had been hungry but denied nourishment, as if I had been thirsty and denied water, and then all of a sudden here is a great table laden with the finest food and drink imaginable. I am the audience’s mother and they are my children, I have so much to give them, but so much to take from them as well.

What I like least are perhaps the stereotypes connected to the profession of opera singing (and perpetuated by some or our colleagues who favor fur coats and flashy jewellery). Of course we are special, but because of what we do on stage, and due to the extraordinary kind of instrument we have, which needs to be protected with great care.

What about your personal plans for the future? You seem to have left Germany for Italy?

Yes, my home is in Tuscany how, where my fiancée lives, but I still have a professional address in Mannheim from my days at the “Nationaltheater”. I intend to try to spend as much time as possible at home in the future – living out of a suitcase is not much fun in the long run, and I’d like to start a family.

Throughout our conversation, I keep thinking that Alexia Voulgaridou has truly come into her own: she is an artist of exceptional poise who knows where she is headed and  what is important to her in life – and at the same time she has remained exceptionally easygoing and pleasant to talk to. One can only look forward to seeing and hearing as much as possible from her in future!

Bettina Mara

Alexia Voulgarido's website is www.voulgaridou.com

A German version of this interview appears in Orpheus Oper International



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