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Galina Vishnevskaya: People Come to Me to Clear Their Voices

Irina Muravieva

17 July 2006

The Opera Centre celebrated the third graduation of vocalists.

During a few years of its existence, the vocal school of an out-of-favour Soviet Prima Donna gained a status of a true stage workshop that can compete only with Academy for Young singers of Mariinsky Theatre with its opportunity to train students on the Empyreal stage. The talk of the correspondent of RG (“Rossyiskaya Gazeta”) with the Prima Donna took place on the day when Mrs. Vishnevskaya gave diplomas to her third group of graduates, conducted lessons in a classroom, and at a time made audition to the Centre’s entrants.

“Rossyiskaya Gazeta”: Having a look at the biographies of your students, many of them are nearly thirty years old but they are still students.

Galina Vishnevskaya: Yes, I came to the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of 25 and by that time, I had already performed on the professional stage: in operetta, variety. That is why I came to the theater prepared as an actress. And these young people in such an age are only beginners. I feel pity for them and want to give them a chance in life. They come with spoiled voices, terrible habits and the whole of the first year is spent on clearing voices. I do not even let them take part in concerts.

RG: Earlier you used to choose sparing repertoire: classical arias and romances. Now you are already taking up Shostakovich.

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: We are preparing for the jubilee concert dedicated to the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth. The 25th of September if Shostakovich’s birthday. That day Rostropovich will conduct his Eighth Symphony in the Great Hall of the Conservatory and on the 26th in our Centre there will be a unique concert where my students will perform four vocal cycles of Shostakovich. The first half of the concert will consist of “From the Jewish folk poetry” and “Satires” to the verses by Sasha Cherny and the second half – the cycles to the texts by Tsvetaeva and Block. Such a programme, I assure, no theatre in the world would perform. Only our Centre. I was the first performer of many of Shostakovich’s compositions: I sang the part of Katherine Izmailova, the Fourteenth Symphony; he dedicated to me Block’s cycle and other works. We communicated with Dmitry Shostakovich and I must not keep it with me: I want to hand it over to the next generation.

RG: Do you think that with time the attitude to Shostakovich’s music changes? Valery Gergiev who performs all his compositions consider that Shostakovich’s music shouldn’t be associated with particular time, political background and it should be played just as music, as Mozart, for example.

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: I would not agree. Shostakovich wrote his compositions with certain underlying themes. Surely, now we can only guess but we all know what king of implication there is in his music. We cannot separate him from time: whether you want it or not you will hear time through music. Shostakovich’s compositions are an encyclopedia of the Soviet state; one cannot trace our history through them. Another thing is that the tragedy of Shostakovich’s music is not connected with Russia only: the whole world in the 20th century lived through such horror, catastrophes, wars that people in any country feel the depth and scale of his music. It is not by chance that Shostakovich is the most frequently performed composer in the world today. His music is played more than anyone else’s is. The reason is that he is sharply felt: the world that follows us – terrorists, earthquakes, floods, horror. There are such things that are difficult even to think about.

RG: The Russian classics believed that beauty would save the world. What do you aim your students at? The opera reality has changed. The epoch of prima Donnas is over. Nowadays other qualities of a singer are needed: stamina, of a certain number of parts.

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: First of all, I try to get a perfect setting of voice, ideal technique; I train taste and the merciless exactingness to yourself. A singer should come out on the stage as if it were the last time in their life and what follows is death. You should give away whole of yourself but at the same time you must have something in you that you can leave with the public.

RG: During the four years of working in Russia as a head of the Opera Centre what problems did you face most of all?

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: I always do what I think worth doing. No one prevents me from doing this here. On the contrary, the city helps us a lot. Our Opera Centre is not a private school, it is a state organization, and all our teachers get their salaries from the city. Moreover, the city gives us money for staging. That is why we can make a performance with wonderful costumes, decorations. Another thing is that sometimes students are so slow-witted and without prospects that we have to dismiss them. The education programme in our Centre lasts for two years only and you have to catch on quickly. Not every student can manage with our tempo and loads.

RG: Two years ago the first group of students graduated from the Centre; Moscow closely watched it, impresarios came to the graduation event. Irina Oknna got a contract then in Bonn’s Opera. What do your former students do now?

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: All our graduates find job. Agunda Kulaeva sings in “New Opera”, Anna Devyatkina from Volgograd signed a contract with for “The Magic Flute” in the Bolshoi Theater, Pavel Paremuzov performs in Ekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgrod, Veronica Vyatkina – in Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Theatre, Vladimir Baikov – our Ruslan – sang in the Opera of Brussels, Alexey Tikhomirov – this year graduate – has his probation period in Italy, in the Fund of Arturo Toscanini. Maria Pakhar and Oksana Kornievskaya have contracts with the Bolshoi Theatre for parts in “War and Peace.” So everyone is needed.

RG: What peculiarities of Russian vocal school can you formulate working with students in the Centre?

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: I think there is no such a thing as Russian or Italian school, there is world school of singing. We used to have wonderful singers and Italy used to have some bad ones. Teaching is a world problem. On the other hand, pedagogues cannot be the only people to blame. Because you cannot impose knowledge – you can only learn. It makes a great difference. A pedagogue teaches and you grasp it, think. Quite few can do this because you should have a certain level of development, education, taste. I always say, singing is a state of the soul. You fill your voice with what you are living for, with what you are full of and you give it to the listeners. I always hear if a young singer does not read or does not look at the beautiful paintings of artistes in the museums or does not listen to symphonic music. You will not manage to make a singer out of such a person however hard you try and whatever timbre he has.

RG: But you often have students with serious technical problems, spoiled vocally. So there are problems in school, aren’t there?

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: Of course, we have to teach them the singing technique again because there is no art without perfect technique. If you breath is constrained or there are other difficulties you won’t manage to express anything. I also had problems with my voice: I lost high notes at the age of sixteen and did not know what to do. Only Vera Garina, my true teacher of singing, helped me out of the trouble and changed my life completely. Since then I understand singers’ problems and explain to them that school singing is first of all school of breathing. It is impossible to sing without right breathing. Unfortunately, it is hardly taught here.

RG: How did you worked out the system of education? Does every student of yours have three language teachers, an accompanist, vocal master, stage workshop?

GALINA VISHNEVSKAYA: It is just my own experience. I have been in professional art for sixty years that is why I try to hand over to my students the experience of my life, of my observations and of work. When I listen to our graduates, I feel that I have given them that level below which they will not fall. Nobody will permit themselves sing falsely or take casual notes; nobody would allow a bad sound or unclear articulation. This is already professionalism. In the West, I observe how young artistes make their careers. It is impossible to begin it in the West. To get a stage you need a name and to get a name you need stage. Vicious circle. That is why we try to make performances; we try to give singers an opportunity to work on their parts.

Galina Pavlovna trains her students on the training stage, but her miniature theatre in Ostozhenka str. quickly got into the category of opera stages from which the public wait revelation.

Galina Pavlovna cherish her favorites, gives them parts in concerts, takes them abroad, shows them to Maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, invites foreign impresarios to the Centre to arrange their creative fortune. Although, according to the impressions of the colleagues and students, Vishnevskaya’s training is not a sinecure, but wearisome work.