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1 December 2003

You will be hard put to find the titles of either performers or even production directors on the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre’s playbills. If a director is not up to the mark, what the use of playing up his Merited or People’ Artist status, really? If a singer has nothing to offer there is nothing you can do about it even if he is three times Hero of Socialist Labor, right? Past merits just don’t stand up here at the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre, even though the track record of each one teaching here reads like a Nobel resume. The art world has its own rules of the game though. Some people keep working their way up all their life while others make it big once and spend the rest of their life cashing in on their past achievements, while still others just keep doing their job.

Just like the Opera Centre does. People working here simply have no time for all this self-serving bustle because theirs is a unique, one of a kind institution doing what no one else in Russia does. Our guest today is the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre’s Director Yelena OPARKOVA.

– The Centre opened in 2002, but the idea had always been there, really. Why the delay then?

First of all, due to the economic crunch we had here. The idea of setting up the Centre was floated six years ago. The investors didn’t take long building the premises but then the 1998 financial meltdown put the whole project on ice. After things had straightened up, the city government did the rest buying equipment, instruments and just about everything else. It took us some time to finish the job and breathe new life into the frozen-out building though.

In the early 2002 when we were on the home run already and knew the place was fit for serious work, we started getting ready for our first competition here. Galina Vishnevskaya and I went in, found two assistants to do the preparation work, and then she invited the professors. That’s the lineup we started off with in early April and by September 1 we had the entire staff already in place and the students all ready for the inauguration concert.

– Meaning that the 25 people who were initially admitted had all gone through the competition sieve? Was it tough for them to get through?

– Yes, for an all-new school, I guess the competition was really tough. Moreover, we somehow managed to do it real fast. Competitions are normally announced 45 days in advance. We had 45 days to do it all, because we started from scratch, you know So we made the announcement, spread the word and, before very long, we had 140 people lining up from all around Russia! We warned them then and we are warning everyone now that we don t have a dorm here and we don t pay stipends. And we still had 140 or even 147 people coming in.

– What were your admission priorities, by the way?

– In an opera place like this we, naturally, focused on the applicants’ voice. Secondly, there are a handful of those who can sing by the grace of God, while the majority have to work hard honing their skills. That’s why we also looked whether one had proper schooling and if yes, then whether he or she had any problems we could effectively handle here. By the way, that’s exactly why there are so many people coming here, to learn new things and expand their vocal range. Sometimes we have people moving from one vocal range to another. Say, a girl has always been a mezzo-soprano only to find out that her central soprano is way better. Psychologically, such a transition may be rather a painful experience, especially to men, I don’t now why Meaning you’ve got to have a very good and very attentive teacher who knows where exactly his student belongs. The singer may think he is a born tenor or baritone, but he may be wrong, you know.

– I looked through your schedule – it’s so terribly packed, really! Which means that in the course of two year’s tuition here, your singers have simply no time to perform. Do some of them somehow find a way to do both?

– Muscovites do. There were many young singers from the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky theaters, the Helicon Opera and the New Opera in our initial lineup and we would hate to interfere with their work there. We have shared interests with the theaters, but there are some problems too, of course. Say, when a teacher keeps working with a student and they make some progress and then the singer performs his usual part on stage and you have to start all over again.

Sometimes – and now, a whole year on, its very clear to all – the singers perform much better than they did before meaning that our hard hasn t been in vain… This progress was all the more evident after we unveiled our own production of A Czar’s Bride here in October: the solo and ensemble sound was much better compared to what we had before, that’s what everyone said. It’s very important to Galina Vishnevskaya and the rest of our faculty to see that they haven’t been working in vain As to our packed schedule, it’s all very natural. We have precious little time and we have so many subjects to work on by everyone who is serious about opera, especially about modern opera singing The Iron Curtain is down and these days opera singers work all around the world. That’s the life we are preparing our student for. Whether they are a success or not I don’t know yet, much depends on their preparation, but also on their talent and willpower.

– Speaking about willpower, don’t you think young people world be easier to work with? Here you have people coming in with deep-seated notions about themselves and their profession. Are they difficult to deal with?

– To work with young singers you need an all-new centre. Ours is a very different priority, which was so clearly defined by Galina Vishnevskaya. There is a missing link between the conservatory and the stage. At the conservatory the students are normally taught the fundamentals of singing. Coming to a professional theater, however, they may start singing right away or they may have to wait a whole ten years until a diva or a lead tenor lose their voice. It so happens that the main singer falls ill and they tell the young one to stand in. The director has no time to make adjustments and so if you are not ready for all this then you are a goner.

Galina Vishnevskaya is absolutely right when she says there is a link missing between Conservatory and the professional stage. That young singers need to go through all these hard-hitting tests, which is precisely what they get here. We have a second lineup already studying here and those who came in last year hate to leave and are already thinking up all kinds of things to hang on. Small wonder because the training they get here every day is something any singer needs every day, just like a ballet dancer does his daily classes. This is something you can hardly find in professional theaters.

– The second-year lineup you took in this year, is it any different from the first?

– Thye’re younger. There are more Conservatory graduates there (in the previous one we mostly had young singers some of whom had already worked several years on stage,) As far as the voices go, the new lineup is pretty good. You asked me how we select our students. Well, we also want to have a roughly equal number of different voices so that we can do operas. Because our primary task here is to work on opera parts.

After two years here our students are supposed to have four opera parts fully down, carefully rehearsed in different languages. I guess you noticed that we have Italian-, German- and French-language teachers here. The singers learn their parts with a tutor, an accompanist and a language teacher. We have Russian language teachers too, that’s why you can always make out what our guys are singing in Russians (which, unfortunately, is not something to can find anywhere else these days.)

Your magazine is called Elite Education. There is a certain degree of elitism in what our students get here rehearsing their parts with the best teachers around, Galina Vishnevskaya included, a repertoire they will sing all their life!

– 25 students did the figure come randomly or was it intentional?

– It’s an optimal number. Frankly speaking, it could’ve been smaller, because here we have several teachers working with one student. We definitely couldn’t have made it more either. Taking up 25 people we knew that some of these would eventually drop out either failing to cope with the hectic pace or just falling short of the mark.

– Did they? And do you expel students?

– They did. Answering your second question, yes, we might, if someone fails to meet our demands. The Russian singers we have here don’ pay for their tuition. Tuition like ours costs a pretty penny abroad but free education is a matter of principle here, demanded by Galina Vishnevskaya and endorsed by the Moscow city government. Those who fail to appreciate this unique chance we give them here, those who think they will simply enjoy the Galina Vishnevskaya brand, we don t want around here.

– When the Opera Centre was just about to open, people said you were going to take in foreigners who would have to pay for their tuition. Do you have any foreigners studying around here?

– All we have here so far are those from the other former Soviet republics. We are now in talks with the United States, Germany and Italy. We are a new organization and foreigners are very careful people, they want to know more about who we are and what we are doing. We still are getting a great deal of interest though. During an Italian culture festival we recently had here in Moscow, Maestro Zubin Mehta dropped in to hear our singers. He cried Bravo! After each number he even invited one of our lead singers to Italy to think about his possible participation in his production of Rigoletto there. Maestro Mehta said he wished every country had a centre like ours. The problem is, he added, you can’t have a Galina Vishnevskaya everywhere.

As soon as the Centre said it would take in foreigners on a pay basis, some people were quick to say that we would only take onboard the moneyed ones at the expense of all the rest. We’ll never let this happen. We are a state college and only recently received an official license from the city government s education department. Our documents say it cloud and clear that 25 Russian students study on a free-of-charge. There are foreign students paying for their tuition at the Moscow Conservatory, St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Gnessins Academy. It’s a normal situation, which should not be allowed to interfere with our main purpose here.

– Do you have a preparatory department?

– Yes, we do. For those who made it through three elimination rounds but failed to get into the main group, because they need more time to work with. There are only ten people there and they pay for their tuition but it s a purely symbolic sum, really They do everything other students are supposed to do here, take part in examination productions of Ruslan and Lyudmila and A Czar’s Bride, but they have to work harder to make their mark. Last year we transferred some of them into the main group.

Tuition at the preparatory department does necessarily entail automatic admission though.

– During an interview Galina Vishnevskaya said she was looking for sponsors to get foreign opera stars coming over to teach at the Centre.

– Everything’s fine here. There are no very many superstars out there, are there? Secondly, we had a very good year. And we had our first master class given by Boris Pokrovsky, which was absolutely astounding! When Peter Stein was in Moscow looking for actors to play in his production of The Seagull, he also came to us. Paata Burchuladze, the world-acclaimed operatic bass who has sung Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi Theater, said he was happy to hold a master-class here at the Centre. We also invited Zubin Mehta who was very embarrassed to see all that huge audience and said he would prefer to work one on one with the singers And of course we had two absolutely amazing master classes (pre-recorded and shown by the Kultura TV network) given by Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich talked about the Czar’s Bride for a whole four our-and-a-half hours! And all that was absolutely free: thank God for Maestro Rostropovuch and Galina Vishnevskaya’s repute which is so high that their colleagues see it as an honor to come here. And the initiative is well worth their support.

Meaning that here we didn’t need sponsors. We have sponsors, however, who help us with out production work and pay for our non-resident student’s stay here. We have young people coming here from all across Russia and only a few of them have relatives here or enough money to rent an apartment.

– These days every leading performer has his or her own school and most of them rarely, if ever, show up there. As far as I know, Galina Vishnevskaya spends much time working here, right?

– Of course she does. Galina Vishnevskaya is not about master classes only. She is about hard everyday work here, from morning till dark, six days a week. Last year she was spending most of time here. Her classes over, she walks into other teachers’ classrooms and sits there listening in carefully. She prepares the concert we have here, last year they were devoted to Sergei Rakhmaninoff and Sergei Prokofyev. She also watched and discusses opera videos; holds stage rehearsals (right now she is rehearsing a concert of Benjamin Britten’s music). This year Galina Vishnevskaya came here in early August and briefly left in November – the Maestro said it would be impolite to miss out on the birthday of their good friend, Queen Sophia of Spain.

– Well, one last question: when are you going to have a new admission?

– From now on it will be in June. Well, maybe a bit later than the previous one, so that everyone has time to have their exams, have a little rest and come over. We now have a new system: we send out examination requirements where each applicant is to rehearse his or her voice parts and let us know the material he is going to work on The opening year was pretty hard, we were experimenting with the number of subjects and hours and looking for new teaching methods. We are now doing a very interesting job – just the way we wanted itfrom the very start.