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The life experience of Galina Vishnevskaya

Grigory Zaslavsky

2 September 2002

The world-famous diva unveils an opera centre in Moscow.

On Sunday Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovuch were joined in Ostozhenka Street by a huge crowd of friends and well-wishers who flocked in for the grand opening of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre. Because just about anyone who happens to spend a few straight hours with this much-celebrated couple becomes a bosom friend forever, there was hardly any room to swing a cat, if you know what I mean. Besides Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the VIP-studded list of invitees included Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin. Galina Vishnevskaya makes no secret of the heartwarming fact that hers is the only such centre in the whole wide world. She says that the small wing adjoining the whole block designed by architects M. Posikhin and A. Velikanov has it all, including a great sounding concert hall complete with a state-of-the art PA system and stage gear. Even before the grand opening, Vishnevsklaya said the Centre s curriculum would be built around master classes and workshops held, among others, by such world-acclaimed operatic megastars as Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Mirella Freni. Classes are due to commence on Monday along with the Centre’s very first news conference. Galina Vishnevskata talked to our correspondent shortly before the opening ceremony.

– Galina Pavlovna, does the Opera Centre’s program really reflect Your unique experience? Something they now call “know-how”?

– No, it’s all about my life, my career and my art, that’s all! I never had any formal schooling, really, and everything I know I picked up along the way. At age 17 I started singing professionally, but my voice was already there, you know. Starting out as an operetta singer I then spent a whole eight years singing pop songs before I came to the theater! By that time my stage fright and hang-ups were all gone and I was avidly sucking in every single word those great singers, directors and conductors told me. I knew what I was after and was mature enough professionally to grasp all that.

– Yuri Lyubimov likes to make an occasional shocking remark about Stanislavsky’s method being good for Stanislavsky’s actors only, no one else. Meaning that the greats can only talk about themselves and their one-of-a-kind expertise, while for real-life teaching you ve got to have ordinary, “everyday”, instructors.

– I don’t think it is polite to call someone an “everyday” teacher We do need teachers. Those who train your voice. I can do that too, but in this case I’m going for more. There are so many wonderful voices in Russia, like nowhere else in the world! I want them to learn all the ins and outs of opera singing. Having such amazing voices, why can’t they make a hit at the Big Time? I know why. And I want to teach them how to act on stage 99% percent of them have no idea at all about this even though they have such beautiful voices.

– Is this Your personal project or something You’ve been doing with Rostropovich?

– No, it’s entirely my own thing. It’s all about my life, really! I spent 45 years singing on stage and it’s been 10 years since I quit. I’ve been dreaming about this all my life. I gave lots of master classes in America, Germany and Britain, just about everywhere. I know the technique that helps me change a lot of things fast. It often so happens that, just two weeks later, you have your singer opening up and singing with a completely new voice only to see him going away And forgetting everything Old habits die hard, you know. Two weeks of working with a singer, even one who is very quick on the uptake, is not enough to change him. That’s how I realized I needed a school all my own. Not a conservatory with a set curriculum and all that everyday hustle and bustle, but a school where you are working with technically seasoned singers. A place where we’ll be able to get them singing better.

– On my way here I walked past a parquet store, a supermarket, past some very upscale apartment houses and thought: “Where is the Opera Centre?” Is all this wealth Yours so You can use the money to keep the school going?

– Of course not! I have nothing to do with that. And why did you go through that parquet store or the supermarket I wonder? The only thing that I have here is the left wing we are now in, without all these markets and posh condos.

– I was very much surprised to find out that tuition here is free of charge, like in the Soviet days.

– That’s right We’ll have 25 students paid for by the state, or rather, by the Moscow City government. This is a state-run institution we have here.

– And You, too, will be getting a regular Moscow salary?

– Of course, just like everyone else. I’m already getting a pension from the Bolshoi Theater. A thousand dollars Wrong! Rubles, of course! I don’t even know for sure how much they are paying me there. What I’m saying is that I am no different from everybody else and I know full well what’s been gong on here in Russia. I know how little retired artists are paid here and the misery they live in.

– Charity work has always been a big part of Your and Rostropovich’s life. Does it mean that this school is just another charitable project of yours?

– A charitable project? Why? Well, maybe you are right after all I m not making any point of saying this school must be mine, be my property. I donated it to the city, that s all. You can call this charity or just a goodwill gesture. The people who built this Centre were also building this school, something that was supposed to belong to me. I didn’t need it, so I went to (Moscow Mayor Yuri) Luzhkov and said: “Do you want to take this school? Then take it!” They did and I’m very happy about that.

– You said there would be great singers teaching and giving master classes here.

– I hope so. They won’t be teaching here, however. Not now, we shouldn’t start with that! Later on we’ll be inviting famous singers and I hope some of them will manage to come over and give master classes here. Everyday teaching will be done by Russians like, for example, Irina Maslennikova, Pyotr Skusnichenko, who is a vocals teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, and many others. We’ll also have Osherovsky as a directing teacher here and Ponkin as a conductor. We have plans galore in the pipeline because it’s a whole new animal we’re going to have here, I mean the school, which is absolutely without a parallel anywhere. Many things will change as we go and I see this as a step between conservatory and opera, the empty niche we are going to fill. After the Conservatory, singers come to the Bolshoi or any other theater and they start learning everything all over again. At best they can sing an aria and if they stay in tune it’s fine. It takes a lot more to be able sing in a theater though. People come there to act, work on roles and whole performances. You’ve got to be ready to get something from the theater and to get this something you must be pretty well fluent technically to be able to grasp the meaning of what the directors and conductors are trying to get across. When these greenhorns came to the Bolshoi they immediately lost their bearings and just sat there year after year doing nothing, singing occasional cameos and losing their voices Only a handful are able to make it real big. At our school, young singers, those who make it through the selection round, of course, will be working on an full-time opera repertoire, so that when they come to an audition they have more than just a couple of arias under their belt, several big parts to show what they are really up to. Meaning that our graduates will be real professionals all!

– Are you taking on board Conservatory graduates?

– More or less, yes. These are professionals and, in any case, they’ve got to launch a full-blown career. I have auditioned 160 people and taken aboard 25, we have a preparatory group of about 10 people too These 25 are technically fine. To sing on stage you’ve got to know how to sing. Singing on stage is different, it takes you further What can I teach an 18-year-old girl who still can’t sing? I can give her a whole lot, I know lots of things and can do them all, but I will ask her to sing a B flat and do it pianissimo. “How do I do that?” she would ask. To do that she will have to spend a whole five years at the Conservatory. Only then will I take over and teach her everything else, including singing. They usually come with serious vocal problems, so we’ll have to do a lot of correcting work here.

– And still, if someone says: “How come Vishnevskaya never had any formal schooling and look where she is now?”

– You don’t want to study? Okay, then try to make do without. Who knows, maybe you are going to make it, why not?

– A school like this must be hard to get away from. How much time are You going to spend working here?

– A whole lot. I keep coming here all the time. This time round I’ll stick around the whole month. Then I will go to Paris and then I will be back again. Hither and thither.