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2009.03.01 A Mirror for the People, Prolog interview

A mirror for the people

Interview for Prolog, the magazine of the Vienna Staatsoper

Nr. 127, March 2009 (Oliver Láng)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

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Tamar Iveri, Simon Keenlyside and KS Ramón Vargas in conversation about Eugen Onegin

[first night 7 March 2009 at the Vienna Staatsoper]

Prolog: In Central EuropeEugen Onegin is the Tchaikovsky opera par excellence. Where can you find the reasons for this, what is it that makes this work so immensely popular? The music? The plot? The characters?

Tamar Iveri: Eugen Onegin is an opera with a very clear and well-arranged plot. Contrary to Pique Dame, Tchaikovsky’s other very well-known opera featuring three mysterious playing cards and a dead countess’s ghost, this plot is very realistic. The unhappy love story between Onegin and Tatiana, the broken friendship between Lenski and Onegin – all of this is taken directly from real life.

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Ramón Vargas: Above all the emotions are very plain and plausible. Almost everybody finds something for himself in the opera, many are able to identify with one of the characters, no matter if it’s Onegin or Tatiana, Lenski or Olga. For that reason alone this opera is so popular.

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TI: For example there is a true, very well-known story about a performance of the opera in Russia. At the end, when Onegin finally confesses his love to Tatiana but she does not answer his prayers, a female member of the audience jumped up and called out to Tatiana: “Don’t be so stupid, take him! He loves you, so just go with him!” She had engaged in the plot so strongly.

RV: But that’s wonderful because it shows how up-to-date opera can be! What happens on stage in Eugen Onegin, what Tchaikovsky wrote in the 19th century, could also happen today. And it does happen every day….

TI: With the exception that today you probably would not write a letter but an e-mail…

Simon Keenlyside: But it’s exactly this relevance that matters. For me, opera, theatre should always be a mirror for the people where they can catch their reflexion. This piece conveys something that exceeds this one performance, it has a deeper meaning: for our lives, for every single day. So this is not about the decoration, not about the outward appearance. As a singer and actor I want to touch the audience and not just offer a one-off elegant evening entertainment. This simply would be too boring for me – I’m interested in real theatre!

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TI: It would be nice if the audience pondered about the piece and the contents after the performances: “Maybe it would have been better if Tatiana had ceded? Maybe Onegin will come back again?”

Prolog: When you – as singers – watch such a performance: Are you able to be touched? Or does the technical knowledge always run in the back of your mind with you?

TI: Of course I have the technique in mind too when I listen to a singer. For example: How will she take this or that note? But if a singer is really good you forget to think about details like sound, tone, volume or technique. Then it only important if the artist could carry you away or not. For instance the audience must downright experience Tatiana’s great letter scene, the singer has to be so convincing there that it’s not a question of details any more.

RV: That’s exactly what makes up a great artist. The power that makes you forget everything around you. When I myself go to the opera and the performance thrills me then I don’t care if every note was perfect, if the part was transposed or how long a top note was held by the tenor. It has to touch me; everything else is just effect and surface.

Prolog: Let’s get to the three leading parts Onegin, Tatiana, Lenski. What unites them is a lack of happiness.

SK: Unlike contentedness happiness cannot be a constant in one’s life anyway. But contentedness can only be achieved if you take time for certain things. Take time to consolidate friendships or to set roots. Onegin’s trouble is that he assumes contentedness always with the others and looks for quick solutions for his own problems. The audience can be touched by the character of Onegin in two ways. Either the individual spectator realises with relief that in his own real life luckily he does not react like this character on stage or he realises a similarity and understands Onegin’s destiny as a warning example.

TI: Actually all the characters in the opera are unhappy and don’t find peace. They are unconfident in their feelings, petrified…

RV: … with the exception of Olga. She at least enjoys life! (laughs)

I think Onegin is a great role. Although he is a little plain as a character, he could love only in the end but his love is not accepted. I also appreciate Lenski very much: a poet, an artist, in the beginning he is so full of admiration for Eugen Onegin, his best friend. For him he is everything: Onegin comes from the city, he is charming, a gentleman, intelligent. Lenski is completely crazy for all this. And that’s exactly the drama because that’s why Onegin’s treason seems so enormous to him. Suddenly Lenski, this agreable young man up to then gets ugly and aggressive. The transformation is very fascinating for me – maybe also because I have a completely different disposition than Lenski, less emotional. With his challenge for the duel he makes a big mistake but when you are so young you make big mistakes. Lenski simply was not ready yet, he did not understand much: about love, about friendship, about life. He simply was not prepared for someone like Eugen Onegin.

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SK: By the way, at some points you realise that Onegin feels uncomfortable because he talks very much, thus making too many words and losing his credibility. Shakespeare puts it very nicely in Hamlet: “Me thinks the lady protests too much.” With Onegin you also have the impression: He babbles so much because he always has the feeling that he has to explain himself.

Prolog: Was Tatiana prepared for a Eugen Onegin?

TI: This is a good question. In the beginning she certainly was not.

RV: The problem is that they are all trapped in the conventions. Lenski and Onegin only go through with the duel because this is expected from them. In truth they both don’t want it, they probably know: We should laugh about the whole thing and not think about it any more. Tatiana is also afraid to break with the rules of society; if she would elope with Onegin – this would be a scandal! And who knows if it would turn out all right? There she lacks courage.

TI: She does not love Gremin after all, Tatiana confesses after all that this love is a lie. Everything just for society. In this point I differ very much from her, I would give a chance to the whole thing. Maybe it turns out right. If both of them feel that they cannot live without each other…

Prolog: How much do you – generally – feel related to the character of Tatiana?

TI: The Tatiana from the beginning is not consistent with my personality: she is an alien presence in her family, she is shy like Bridget Jones. Of course everyone of us experiences similar scenes in his youth: I was in love too and wrote letters – albeit not as long ones as Tatiana – and threw them onto the balcony of the respective young man… Actually our common attributes begin with the letter scene. And as I said: in the finale we differ again. I for my part am able to forgive, I can believe that a man, a person changes. I do believe that Onegin sees her with different eyes in the end. After all she suddenly is an attractive society-lady and that’s exactly the type of women he had always loved.

Prolog: The world premiere of Eugen Onegin took place with students of the Moscow Conservatory at the Maly Theatre. Yet the parts are not simple: Where are the vocal and acting challenges that are to be dealt with?

TI: Tatiana is not a part where exposed vituosity is demanded. The difficulty is certainly in the portrayal of the character. In the course of the evening you have to show Tatiana’s development, from a young, unconfident woman to a mature lady, to the princess. I want to show all this, it’s not enough to just change the costume and the make-up. In the last act Tatiana has to have a completely different sound, a different phrasing, a different look in her eyes than in the beginning. From the vocal point-of-view it’s a question of finding totally different colours to show this change of personality. In short, Tatiana requires, like Tosca, Suor Angelica or Lisa in Pique Dame very powerful acting.

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RV: For me the part of Lenski is a genuine treat. The music that Tchaikovsky wrote for this character is among the most beautiful in the whole opera, in his whole output. Not only the famous aria Kuda, kuda but also his arietta at the beginning. This is written wonderfully belcanto-like, almost in the vein of Bellini. And of course: The aria until Lenski’s death is of an exceptional quality musically and scenically. The most supreme in this repertory!

SK: The role of Onegin is well-known, so well known that probably almost every baritone wants to take it into his repertory. But only very few singers are aware right from the beginning of the difficulties a singer meets with this part. With the difficulties I don’t mean the vocal demands alone but also the fact that the character is interweaved with everything else. To give you an example: If you take part in a bad Giovanni– or Traviata-production you can be successful as a singer despite of the staging’s failings. In the case of Eugen Onegin the whole thing looks different. If the colleagues on stage do not harmonise optimally, if the direction is not good it is almost impossible to score as an interpreter of Onegin.

Prolog: And what about the vocal demands?

SK: Let’s put it like this: if I don’t practise, make vocalises and similar things every day, particularly before the rehearsals, my voice is in danger of taking damage from Onegin. In a way there is a similarity to Mozart’s Giovanni. There you have to be very careful too not to hurt your voice permanently. I learned this from wretched experience and am sort of armed in the case of Onegin.

Prolog: In this production in the main parts singers from England, the GeorgianRepublicand Mexicomeet. Where are your approaches to Russian music?

TI: For me Russia and Russian music were quite obvious because the Georgian Republic was part of the Soviet Union. At school we learned Russian for twelve years – this was virtually our second language, but also much about Russian music, poetry, culture. Many Georgian artists were trained in St. Petersburg or Moscow, musicians, singers, actors studied in these metropolises of course. Accordingly Russian is obvious for me, parts like Tatiana are very familiar to me. With these parts I feel like a fish in water!

Prolog: But the Georgian school of singing is different from the Russian one?

TI: That’s true. In the Georgian Republic there are totally different vocal colours than in Russia, with us it sounds “more southern”, more related to the Italian or Spanish tradition of singing. Thus in our country tenors like, say, Mario del Monaco or Enrico Caruso were admired.

RV: To get back to the approach to Russian music: I think that Tchaikovsky is incredibly popular in the whole world, his famous piano concertos, his ballets – of course they are very well-known in Mexico too. I also saw Eugen Onegin on stage at home. But apart from that: I think that it is part of opera’s magic that we all can come together from different countries and make music together. This is the biggest lesson: in an orchestra every single musician can come from a different culture and yet together they achieve a whole thing. Music has a uniting power.

SK: 25 years ago I swore to myself that I’d not touch any Russian parts because there are so many good singers for this fach. But then by and by I took songs by Glasunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky into my repertory. For different reasons: I learned the first song about twenty years ago in memory of my Jewish grandfather. He had died shortly before and I wanted to send him a salute with a song by Glasunov that seemed particularly appropriate to me. Another song is about a nightingale and as I am interested above all in the European bird life I took pleasure in this piece. So there was one after the other. Each a treasure that I love. After all, Eugen Onegin is a wonderful part about which I’m very happy even if I don’t feel too much affinity to this character. If I’m honest I correspond to Papageno’s self-description from The Magic Flute rather than to anything else: “Ich bin so ein Naturmensch, der sich mit Schlaf, Speise und Trank begnügt.” [I am more of a child of nature who is content with sleep, food and drink.] (laughs)

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Prolog: To what extent is there still a Russian tradition in the interpretation of Tchaikovsky –outside of Russia?

SK: This is a very interesting question. 30 or 40 years ago you could tell a German singer very clearly apart from an Italian, English, Russian or French one. Today it is not so easy any more. Of course there are still traditions but there is also something like an international mixture which has its advantages and its disadvantages.

TI: For me it’s important that you turn to this repertory only if you really love this music, love the Russian soul, language, the Russian people – and that you don’t sing Tchaikovsky roles just to have completed another part. What I like in Tchaikovsky, but also in Mussorgksy or Rachmaninov so much is their rootedness in folk music. You hear elements from it again and again, peasant songs, church music, traditional melodies.

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