Opera Lively has interviewed Dina Kuznetsova, Russian-born soprano who sang the role of Tatyana in our partners Opera Carolina's upcoming production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, sung in Russian with English supertitles on March 17, 22, and 25, 2012, at the Belk Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. [Opera Lively interview # 10]
Ms. Kuznetsova interview was simply delightful. She conveyed such a passion in the way she emphasized her words, in her intonation... Transcribing it to a dry text will never render the same energy that she has demonstrated - another reason to go see her live on stage! Usually we'd do some editing of the text for a more journalistic feel, but we've decided to reproduce it verbatim, so colorful her rendition of her thoughts was. Maestro Meena (Opera Carolina's principal conductor) referred to her as "endearing," and Opera Lively agrees! Ms. Kuznetsova seems to have this constant engine inside her in hyperdrive, full of love for the art form. Talking to her is contagious; one will easily catch the virus responsible for opera enthusiasm!
Image from Opera Carolina Press files, used with permission
Ms. Kuznetsova comes to North Carolina with an impressive resume, including acclaimed performances in leading roles with great critic reviews in prestigious houses such as Covent Garden, La Scala, the Liceu, Berlin Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, the Bayerishe in Munich, Glyndebourne, and in America, San Francisco, Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera. Her latest rendition of Rusalka at Covent Garden was particularly well received by critics. She has performed principal roles opposite Rollando Villazón, Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and René Pape. Opera News Magazine has referred to her as 'a voice of international stature.'
Ms. Kuznetsova is a graduate of The Academic Music College of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire (piano). She received her vocal training at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Major roles in the above-mentioned opera houses have included Donna Anna, Adina, Giulietta (Bellini) and Juliette (Gounod), Rodelinda, the Cunning Little Vixen, Rusalka, Violetta, Gilda, and many Tatyanas. She does well both in the lyric and coloratura repertoires.
OL – What can you tell us about Tatyana as a character?
DK – Oh, well, as you wrote in your email to me which is very correct, it’s a very iconic character in Russian literature and culture, because we study it at school and we memorize it. I can recite long stanzas of Eugene Onegin by heart ever since I was a child. It’s a very special character, and it’s lovely to play it, because on one hand there is so much character development in the poem and the music, and on the other hand she is one of the characters with the most integrity in the opera. She is this deep, uncompromising girl and then a woman who commits herself completely to whatever she does. She is in love and believes that it is a true love, she is willing to commit herself completely, and then when her heart is broken and she gets married she gives an oath to fulfill her duties as a wife, she commits to that completely, and that’s her drama, and it’s also why she is so beloved in a way. [laughs] There is always this big Russian question: who are you as a character, are you Tatyana or Anna Karenina? Because those two iconic characters of Russian literature, one stays true to her word forsaking love which is Tatyana, and Anna Karenina of course gives up everything for love, that’s her tragedy. There’s a lot to think about for this character and I love her with all my heart!
OL – Good answer! Have you done her many times?
DK – Yes, I have, yeah.
OL – The Letter Scene is probably very challenging due to its duration, right?
DK – Well, it is! But one gets very fired up with that, and also, you know, I’m slightly jumping, but in your email you asked what’s special about Eugene Onegin, I just want to encourage the public to give it a try, because despite the fact that it’s in Russian, and you know, it may seem out of the main repertoire, slightly, a little bit, but the story itself is so… [passionate tone] it’s one of the rare operas which combine glorious [emphatically] music with a story that is very relatable. There is nothing particularly over the top in the opera. It’s a realistic slice of life; it brings up all those deep emotions of characters. I think it is a very accessible opera for those who have not gone to the opera, who don’t trust themselves to go to the opera, I think it’s a very good one to sparkle a continuum, it should not be intimidating!
OL – That’s right! How did you prepare yourself for the character? You know her by heart, but what about the famous singers who sang her before you? Do you listen to say, Galina Vishnevskaya?
DK – Of course! [emphatically] I’m a big fan of historical recordings. I listen to a lot of people, in fact, when I prepare I try to listen to as many as I can, especially when I do it for the first time. Vishnevskaya is a huge, huge inspiration.
OL – Do you have to be Russian to relate to the character?
DK – I think not. You don’t need to be Russian at all. What you of course have to do is do a bit of homework, you know, in terms of the poem, the tradition, the kind of style of the time, and maybe the behavior of the time, unless the opera is updated. You know, we all sing international repertoire, in Italian and French and Czech, so I have absolutely nothing against other people of other nations singing it, and some do with very great success. Actually one of my favorite recordings on YouTube is a recording of Teresa Stratas singing the Letter Scene in German!
OL – Yes, yes, I saw it!
DK – Did you see that? [delighted] You know, when I was doing it for the first time and exploring different options, she just completely brought tears to my eyes. I was listening for her emotions and phrasing and her way to give it more voice, and to give it less voice, you know, the kinds of tricks of the trade, but also the emotional possibilities! She is absolutely stunning! The beauty of her phrasing and emotional commitment… despite the fact that it is not even in Russian! So of course there are famous non-Russian singers who did it. Mirella Freni was tremendous at the part, and many, many other people.
OL – On our web site we have a number of video clips with famous Tatyanas. Let me see, we have Glafira Joukovskaya…
DK – I don’t know her, no.
OL – And of course Galina Vishnevskaya, Mirella Freni, Anna-Tomowa Sintow…
DK – Yes, yes!…
OL – Rennée Fleming, our Renée Fleming…
DK – Yes, another great one, yes!
OL – Olga Guryakova…
DK – Yes, I know them all… [giggling]
OL – And there is a very contemporary one, Kristine Opolais!
DK – Oh, I have not seen that one! But I’ve seen her doing other stuff, and she is great, actually, I’m sure it’s very good!
OL – We have here Leontyne Price as well, Licia Albanese, Eugenia Moldoveanu. Teresa Zylis-Gara, Renata Tebaldi…
DK – Wow, where are you looking at? Are you looking at your web site?
OL – Yeah, our web site, Opera Lively. We have a series of articles on Eugene Onegin, I can send you the link.
DK – Yes, I’d love it, of course, yes, very nice!
OL – There are six articles that we wrote for Mr. Meena, we’re media partners with Opera Carolina, so we wrote up these articles with musical analysis, and discography, and trivia…
DK – That’s good to know, please send me the link!
OL – I will, OK. So, let’s continue the interview. What do you expect of this production? I understand that it is a traditional staging, right?
DK – Yeah, it’s a traditional staging. I’m not qualified to give many details because we’ve just started. I’ve been here for two days so far, but I’m very impressed with Maestro Meena’s grasp of the score! In fact he pronounces Russian perfectly, you know? By heart! And his phrasing is gorgeous, so I’m very, very impressed with what he does, you know, it’s always wonderful when someone gives you fresh ideas. Of course, I’m Russian and I’ve done it many times, but when someone has this understanding of the character and the music – because it’s all connected, you know – it’s exciting! You don’t want to repeat the same thing over and over. If I have a particular original character which I try to bring, I believe that I have to be very sincere. The productions are all different, but you have to be very sincere on how you believe in the character and the music every given moment. So when someone gives you a fresh idea it kinds of rejuvenates you. We have a wonderful director and a wonderful conductor, and I’ve been receiving these new ideas despite the fact that it is a traditional production. That’s what makes it interesting even if it’s a repeat.
OL – This leads to the next question, because it is an opera that’s been given so many times, it’s an important opera, so how do you plan to make of your Tatyana some unique or special Tatyana? Do you think this production will add something to the way Tatyana is given?
DK – You know, I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think one can add to the opera per se because it has been done, it’s a staple of the repertoire. The only way one can… We’re not adding anything, I don’t believe it, what we are doing is, we are making it right. Like, if you are doing Shakespeare, you know, people have been doing it for 400, 500 years… [laughs]… It’s from the 1600s… so, does an actor bring something completely new to the interpretation of Hamlet? I’m not sure, it’s been done for 500 years so it probably has been done before. So the important thing is… if one truly believes in the situation, and is completely committed to the situation that was directly created and goes with the music and the story. The immediacy of the performance is what makes it special. That’s why people still go to the theater and the opera, and don’t only watch it on computers, because of this energy, which has to just flow [she extends the word] from the stage, and the energy, the relationship between the performers, that’s what makes it special!
There are great singers and great conductors who have the honor to communicate this. Famous or not, what is really special is when one is generous with one’s energy, one’s commitment, and with one being the character. Because there is an immediate interaction between characters on the stage and the public, and people come to get involved. If everybody is in their own bubble without being generous with their colleagues, that’s when it becomes stale. So, I don’t know about new or not new, I don’t know everything about this production because we’ve just started the staging; what I know is that I think everybody is committed to make it immediate, I think that’s what is going to make it special.
OL – Do you usually get into the character’s head, like a total immersion? Do you feel like Tatyana in a sense?
DK – You know, yes, part of me does! Yes… [laughs] you know, to be completely believable is impossible, because you have to think about breathing, you have to think about timing, think about acting, but yes, I think a part of you knows that this character that’s me at the moment will do this at this moment. We rehearse, but it’s still… it has to become this kind of line of development that you truly believe in, then it becomes good! So part of you is Tatyana, and part of you is thinking, OK, breathe well! [laughs a lot].
OL – Is Tatyana your favorite role?
DK – One of, for sure. One of two, yeah. Another one would be Rusalka!
OL – Oh yes!
DK – It’s a gorgeous role!
OL – It is! What are your next engagements?
DK – Next I’ll be actually singing quite a few chamber music concerts, because I am a big fan of the concert repertoire in chamber music. I just did a recital in New York, and I’ll be doing recitals in Washington and in Sarasota. And then my next big plan is to have my first Lisa in Queen of Spades in Australia, but it’s not until the fall.
OL – In Sydney, wow, that’s traveling all over the world, huh?
DK – Huh, huh.
OL – Is it difficult to manage this as a person, to be working one month in one place, one month in another place?
DK – Honestly, yes. [adopts for the first time a more mournful tone] It is awful, because I have a family, I have a husband and a 7-year-old son, so I'm constantly trying to strike a balance between being away and being a wife and a mother… When I’m at home I’m completely committed to my family, and then when I travel they come and visit, or then it’s long distance, yes, it’s not easy at all.
OL – I see. Well, we’ve covered a lot, but there are a few other things I had planned to ask you. Your piano playing, does it inform your vocal performances? Why did you go from piano to vocal music and opera, how was that transition for you?
DK – Well, I started taking voice lessons pretty late. I didn’t think I had a natural voice. I did piano all my life. It helped, in as much as I learn things fast, I’m a well rounded musician, I listen to all kinds of music and I can come to the piano and play it, but I’ve always been very much in love with theater and with poetry, with words and how words relate to music, that’s why I love concerts and art songs, they are a big, big passion, and also opera. Because it’s how the words and music are closely integrated with each other, it was always my big love; when I was playing piano I was always gravitating towards the singers, accompanying singers, I was an accompanist for vocalists, it was my leaning and my repertoire.
Then when I started taking voice lessons I thought, maybe I can do it myself. Then I knew that I had to pursue it, and just gamble and see if I could make it, because I was so happy doing it! [enthusiastic tone] Despite the fact that it was so hard, because I was already a professional pianist, I could earn money playing piano, and I had to absolutely make a new start as a singer, so I was very lucky that it worked out.
OL – At what age did you start taking vocal lessons?
DK – Early twenties.
OL – Wow! Let’s talk about your career. You’ve performed opposite some really, really famous people. Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Rollando Villazón, René Pape, and all those great conductors, Sir Andrew Davis, Barenboim, Jurowsky, Pappano, Runnicles… We’d be curious to know how was it for you to work with these people, if you have any anecdotes, any striking memories…
DK – [laughs hard] It’s not that I don’t want to, but I’m very bad at anecdotes… I can only tell you that… [hesitates, laughs…] you know, I’m bad at it, I don’t remember any. In terms of how to work with them, ah… everybody is different! Mostly… [hesitates], it’s wonderful. Mostly, I found that the very famous singers and conductors are very well behaved, they are simply fantastic at what they do. And also not very famous singers and conductors are also fantastic at what they do. It’s just that… You know, I think it’s a matter of quality rather than character. [laughs] You know, some are extremely nice, some are less so, and of course I’m not going to say which ones… [laughs]
OL – But you could always say which ones are your favorites to work with.
DK – Oh, gosh! [laughs a lot]. Oh, I love them all, no, seriously! [laughs] I’m really not prepared for this! [laughs]
OL – [laughs] OK! All right, so, I’ll not insist. I understand it. Professionally it would be delicate to talk about it.
DK – Yes, not only that, but it’s really… I truly have to say that most of my experiences have been just tremendously good with those people who are considered superstars, they are very down to Earth, very generous, just quite normal [laughs], you know, so I think if I start naming one, then I’ll start feeling guilty that I didn’t name the other one that I also love, so, I’m just not going into this.
OL – Well, that’s fair, no problem. It’s a good answer, too! Anything else you want to tell us, you know, some closing statements or something?
DK – [laughs] No, except that it is really, really beautiful music. We are rehearsing, and sometimes we just get stuck and say, isn’t it amazing how Tchaikovsky wrote that? I’m very much in love with this opera. I hope we can present it in a way that the public will like it, and see it for the beautiful piece that it is. I’m very much looking forward to singing it again. Thank you very much for taking the time talking to me.
OL – Thank you, and I look forward to watching the performance on the 17th, I’ll be there.