22 May 2011
Liudmyla Monastyrska — An Interview
Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska certainly knows how to make the most of every opportunity.
"Although there are now more people on this planet than there have ever been before, there are fewer dramatic voices. Something is wrong with that equation. I thought there needs to be some sort of helping hand so that dramatic voices don’t fall through the cracks in the system as they advance through their various stages of development."
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Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska certainly knows how to make the most of every opportunity.
Although well-known and esteemed for many years in her native Ukraine, as principal soloist of Ukraine National Opera, it was a surprise last-minute debut at Deutsche Oper Berlin, as Tosca, in 2009 that won her immediate international acclaim and led to a much heralded Italian debut at the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, cementing her reputation as a world-class performer with great vocal control and huge power.
And, another eleventh-hour call propelled Monastyrska onto the Covent Garden stage in March this year, when Micaela Carosi unexpectedly withdrew from Aida and Monastyrska stepped hastily into the Ethiopian princess’s shoes— thereby pre-empting by a couple of months her planned ROH debut, in this month’s revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
When I ask Monastyrska whether this was an exciting or nerve-racking challenge, she is remarkably relaxed and unruffled: it’s a role she knows well, and has performed many times before. Moreover, she was the understudy for the role at Covent Garden and so was familiar with the production. “During the rehearsals, when I was covering the role of Aida, I just wanted to sing! And my fellow singers could see this too. So, when I had the opportunity to sing they were genuinely very happy for me— and I’m grateful to them for being supportive.” She adds, “It wasn’t a question of being nervous. It was just a great honour to sing in one of the greatest opera houses in the world”.
Monastyrka’s performance won her superlative accolades. One critic noted her “powerful, opulent voice, form and controlled in the lower register, and full in tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria, ‘O patria mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease, her breath control superb”. Many were struck by the sheer power of her “sumptuous instrument”, and enjoyed the Slavic duskiness which she used to introduce shade and colour.
It’s clear that Monastyrka truly relishes the Verdian idiom. She admits that although it’s hard to anticipate how one’s voice will develop in future, the roles one sings play a predominant role in shaping the voice, so it’s essential to choose one’s repertoire carefully. “Verdi is so comfortable to sing, so that seems like a good path to follow at the moment.” She will repeat Aida in 2012 at La Scala. She currently has no plans to tackle Wagner or Strauss, despite being offered Salome and some Wagnerian roles, though she has performed some Puccini, including Turandot (which was in the repertoire of the Ukraine National Opera in Kiev), and other verismo roles such as Gioconda, Nedda and Santuzza.
Verdi’s Macbeth does not always win the critical respect of his two great late Shakespearian operas. This is Monastyrka’s first Lady Macbeth, a role which she declares is the most difficult out of all the Verdian roles— both technically challenging and dramatically and psychologically complex. “It’s not something for very young singers to tackle, it needs a mature voice and while it’s not necessarily a role that I’ve been planning or determined to sing, I am happy to have the opportunity.”
She has a clear dramatic conception of the role. “Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is a pure incarnation of evil, but in Verdi she has more of a conscience; in her final aria the audience actually see her going out of her mind, and thus they don’t judge her as much as in the play. The music is her inner consciousness. In the duet with Macbeth, when he has murdered Duncan, Lady Macbeth takes the knife and goes to make sure that the deed has been done; when she comes back and looks at her hands, from that moment she realises her crime— she has sinned and is immediately tormented by her guilty conscience. This troubling remorse arrives much later in the play, in Act 4.”
Lloyd’s production is dark and radical: the evil of the witches is the force which drives the action forward, and thus we see them taking Macbeth’s letter to his wife, or engineering Fleance’s escape from the assassins. As Monastyrska puts it, “Lady Macbeth is the weapon that the witches use to carry out their evil”.
I wonder whether it’s easy, or even possible, to leave such an intense and demanding role behind at the end of a rehearsal or performance? “One tries to, but in addition to the concentration of the rehearsals, one is thinking constantly about the role and the production— I even dream about the role! The performance ends but one can’t put it away straight away; it’s so deep and involving.”
Home is still the Ukraine, and while Monastyrska recognises that operatic success will inevitably take her overseas, she doesn’t like being away from home for too long. “I love to sing in Kiev, for it’s my homeland and it’s given me much strength— it’s pleasing to be able to give something back. It’s wonderful to perform in Kiev, where my family and friends are, and where I grew up— I’m very attached to my theatre there.”
Do Russian audiences respond differently to Western European audiences? “Yes, they’re very different. People have been very enthusiastic about my performances in Europe; but the audiences come to the opera already knowing the score, and often having seen the productions, and they make comparisons with others’ performances. They even know just how long you should hold a particular note— and if you don’t, the critics don’t take any pity on you! This is good, and absolutely fair, because the singer should strive for perfection.”
Monastyrska also recognises the importance of language in opera and stresses that it is essential to have a good language coach, something that she really appreciates at Covent Garden. “When rehearsing Aida, if I got two consonants wrong the coach would point it out and we worked very hard to get it right because when you are actually performing you are thinking about other things.”
Although her family are not trained musicians (her father is a businessman and her mother a teacher) there was always music in the house, in particular the folksongs which her mother sang, and which have become very important to Monastyrska. “At the age of 15 one’s tastes start to change, and you develop your own interests; I was very lucky as a teacher directed me towards singing. I wasn’t sure if this was for me, but he said, “You have a gift from God!” I sang often at school in festivals and concerts and music has become as important to me as the air we breathe— as necessary as that …”
Committed and passionate, and with a busy schedule in the months ahead, it’s not surprising that Monastyrska finds little time to relax and unwind, although she does enjoy listening to symphonic music, in particular the music of Rachmaninov. She also likes to read, but performances can leave her so drained that sometimes she just falls asleep over a book.
And, what roles would she like to explore in the future? Not surprisingly, the answer is more Verdi— possible Amelia in Simon Boccanegra; “And,” she says, with a smile and a shrug, “maybe Carmen.”
Macbeth will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 24, 27, 30 May 3, 6, 10, 13, 15 June at 7.30pm and 18 June at 7pm. On 13 June 2011 (GMT), this production will be broadcast live into cinemas around the world, including: the United Kingdom, Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands and Spain, with delayed relays to the United States and Australia. Please visit www.roh.org.uk for further information.