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Galina Vishnevskaya: IN SINGING IMAGINATION ALWAYS COMES FIRST

Yana Starikovich

13 May 2002

Lack of general culture is the biggest problem dogging our singers.

This year the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre opens its doors to young conservatory graduates and postgraduates willing to hone their skills. Entrance auditions have already been held at the Ostozhenka Centre and only 25 of the 150 applicants will be admitted to a master class scheduled to run a whole two years.

– What are the prospects that will be opening up for those who make it through the entrance exams?

– Prospects? Only when they have learned to be real artists. Meaning they have a long way to go to become ones.

They need a tutor, an instructor. This has always been very important and is even more important now that the kids get little, if any, family upbringing. They spend most of their time at school and just hanging around out in the street. There was a time when children normally learned to play a musical instrument or sing at home where they held all kinds of improvised concerts and things like that. No longer. The secondary school does nothing to bring up someone, even less an artist. Because singing is the way you feel and it immediately brushes off on your voice. And your imagination too, which is the most important thing (besides the technique without which you won’t be able to so anything anyway).

And imagination takes some bringing up, you know.

Right now we are putting together our first course. We’ll wait and see just how much they are willing to take in what I and the other teachers are going to give.

Working here, among others, will be Irina Maslennikova and the Dean of the Moscow Conservatory’s singing department, Pyotr Skusnichenko. That’s why the young singers who make it onboard will have to work real hard to meet our higher-than-average standards.

The lack of general culture is the biggest problem dogging our fledgling singers. Now that the auditions are over, I can say it once again that some of them have real good voices, but there is not much they can really do with them. Because it takes more than just a voice and technique to be a fine singer. We are taking in about 25 people.

– Only 25?

– A whole 25! Each one needs lots of attention and good care and have a serious repertoire to work on.

– Are you going to help your graduates to strike through?

– No way, I never do this, really. I understand that if you are a good singer, you will always manage to go it alone. We’ll spread the word we are graduating young singers and if they really have talent, people will certainly know about it.

– Many retired singers are now switching to directing And what about You?

– I’ve already done this abroad when I staged The Czars’s Bride in Monaco, Washington and Rome. I did it with Rostropovich who conducted the whole thing. I’ve also staged Iolantha in Britain only to find out it’s not my piece of cake, really. I am too nitpicking and always want the singers to immediately do everything my way. Which is wrong because I think a director should be more tolerant and try to bring out what the singer has deep inside. Here you just play off each other, it’s a two-way road, and I want it all and now! That s exactly the way I worked with Boris Pokrovsky, I devoured his every single word. Working with him was a gas; happening there was some very special chemistry between the two of us…

– Are Western singers easier to work with, compared to Russians? Or, maybe, they are all different?

– I’m yet to stage anything with a Russian troupe. Foreigners are more disciplined and have more respect for your time. I ve given master classes in Salzburg, Germany, Holland, Britain, and Washington DC. If they pay money for a workshop they will make you give them all you ve got. You give someone a couple of old Russian love songs to chew on for a whole week and the next morning he is already back, all ready and willing to sing it in Russian! They are real workaholics, that’s what they are!

– I remember watching a master class You gave in Germany and You were mincing no words there

– Why should I?! And they also do it all at once. All I have to do is to say something once and everything will be done right away. Our people… have got used to free education. I remember the time when Rostropovich was teaching at the Conservatory and one of his students started missing out on classes. A world-renowned Professor calls up his parents in Tashkent asking the guy to show up. The parents of that grown up moron who seemed in no hurry at all to get free tuition from Rostropovich! You will never see anything like that in the West… If someone is scheduled to have a class with the Maestro, he stays up a whole week preparing. Even if his voice is nothing special, it will still sound great, the lows, the middles and highs will be all there

Technique wise, foreigners, no matter how good or bad they are, will never give out any squeaks, no Sir! Here, in one aria they sing a B-flat and in another they don’t! All because they never rehearse anything properly If there is a certain note in the score, you are supposed to sing it, right? Just how you manage to do it no one cares. And here it is all manana, people hope someone will eventually teach them to sing right but it never happens

– You quit relatively early

– Early? I don t think so. I was over 60 then. I started singing professionally when I was 17 and kept singing a whole 45 years. I was simply too tired to do this any longer. The moment I stopped feeling fine on stage, I quit, without any announcements

– And how did You get the idea of opening a school all your own?

– It all came from the master classes. There is a whole lot I can give the beginning singers. I can give them something in a matter of just two weeks, which is also enough to get them opening up and singing like they never did before. I know just how much I can do; I know the ways to get you opening up in virtually no time. Meaning that I have to do something to make this happen while I m still around. I do hope I will live long enough to make it all happen

And still, two-week master classes are certainly not enough because you may forget it all pretty fast, and old habits die hard, you know You need a longer training period – I guess two years is well enough for my method to properly sink in

– During a news briefing last year You complained about some financial problems

– We sorted them all out, thanks to (Moscow Mayor) Yuri Luzhkov who made this all come true. This building was my own property and I gave it to the city because I don’t need this mansion and my children don’t need it either I guess this school will play a role in our cultural advancement

– Do You think economic problems have anything to do with the low cultural level of our society as a whole?

– Of course, not! This is the result of 80 years of Communism. We are now reaping the fruits of all that pathological lying, all those communal flats where several families of embittered people were crammed into a single apartment! That’s all there is to it. The generation of people who grew up under the Communists is now throwing their kids out in the street They took away the machine guns and it happened all by itself This is the true face of a country where people have stopped trying to look what they were told to

– 11 years ago, during the coup, Mstislav Rostropovich came to Moscow in what looked like a jesture by a true-blue idealist. How did You and Your whole family take that and was it really worth the risk?

– I didn’t know he was going to Moscow. I was in Britain and he hopped on the first plane here from Paris. If I were around I would never let him go. He came because he wanted to be here, because he just couldn’t imagine everything coming back again. He simply wanted to be here and thank God it all ended the way it did

– And what can You say about what’s going on here now?

– Whatever it may be, I still wish to God we never lived in the past again

– Why did You put music by such 19th century composers as Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky at the top of your school’s program?

– Because they wrote for the voices. You’ve got to have a voice to sing this. Shostakovich is very hard to handle by a young singer. In his Lady Macbeth (of Mzensk) you have to be pretty mature to have that projection, red-hot emotion and the ability to stay in tune and keep going on. Meaning you’ve got to able a real master to sing Shostakovich

Some of the applicants are real naturals and I guess we’ll take them on board. I didn’t expect so many men to come in today… We had some real fine baritones and, strangely, a lot more of good mezzos than sopranos, even though sopranos are less hard to find in nature.

– Would You describe Your method as Your own school of singing?

– No doubt about that. This is my very own singing method. I’ve spent a whole 45 years singing on stage. Of course, I learned much from Vera Garina who learned to sing back in the 19th century studying with the great Pauline de Lucca. I was also lucky to be friends with great composers like Shostakovich and Britten who wrote expressly for me Add to this my 12-year experience of working with Melik-Pashayev at the Bolshoi Theater. I also spent many years working there with the great modern-day opera director Boris Pokrovsky. To say nothing of the 46 years I’ve been living with Mstislav Rostropivich

And all this vast experience I now want to share with the young generation of singers.

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