Interview with Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova

When I first saw Galina Gorchakova entering the Barcelona Hotel in Lisbon, I gave a sigh of relief. There was no capricious diva to be interviewed, just a friendly and smiley woman, casually dressed and carrying several bags, perhaps full of Portuguese souvenirs. "Simple" was a word she frequently used to describe herself and rightly so. She spoke with a wonderful rich voice and an evident Slavic accent. Her words conveyed her strong will and convictions and, above all, a deep love for opera who has been the top priority of her life.

She was always impetuous in her speech, often resorting to expressive gestures in order to get her message across. Gorchakova warned me, from the start, that she would be honest. Some might consider her statements highly controversial, but they were uttered without a hint of bitterness. She was less a vindictive Turandot cutting the heads of Princes because of past injustices and more a misunderstood Tosca trying to find out the reasons behind the current state of her career.

CV: Both your parents were singers at the Novosibirsk Opera. Could you describe us how was your first encounter with operatic singing ?

GG: I can't really remember. I was too small a girl. I was only five when I first visited the Novosibirsk Opera. Unfortunately, I have lived all my existence within the opera world. I have always believed and lived opera in such a deep and intense manner: it was my life, my family, my first priority.

CV: Why did you begin studying singing ?

GG: It was not a conscious decision. It was merely natural, because my parents were singers. For a while, I thought I could become an actress and even studied in a drama school. But it was boring, not intense enough for me. I don't like to speak on stage. I want to sing. Singing, for me, is not only more expressive, but also the main means of expression. Perhaps I think that way, since I grew up in an opera house.

CV: You won the Glinka and Mussorgsky prizes. How do you feel about vocal competitions and how did you cope with their pressure ?

GG: They were but national prizes, but, yes, I was nervous, especially because I hate being given a number. I hate when they label singers "first", "second", "third" ... I am and I feel unique and that is why I dislike comparisons and hierarchies. Some may like me. Some may not. Nonetheless, I remain unique.

CV: Did the prizes boost your career ?

GG: No. They didn't help me at all. I worked at the Sverdlosk Opera during three seasons and I was not chosen because of any prize. In fact, as soon as I finished the Conservatory, I had already two offers career-wise. I was invited by the Novosibirsk Opera as well as by the Sverdlosk one. I chose the last. Just imagine: I grew up at Novosibirsk Opera. Everyone knew me. Not as a singer, but as a little girl with her hair full of ribbons. I couldn't start my career at Novosibirsk, where I was sure no one could be impartial and objective towards me. So I had to take the risk and choose Sverdlosk.

CV: How did the move to the Mariinsky occur ? Did they go to Sverdlosk to hear you sing ?

GG: Not by a long shot. It was I who went to Saint Petersburg and was auditioned in order to enter the Mariinsky. However, for two years, I sang with the Mariinsky without being a member of it. In fact, I was still a soprano from the Sverdlosk Opera. I only entered the Mariinsky after the start of my international career. In 1991, after having sung Renata from Prokofiev's " The Fiery Angel" at Albert Hall, Gergiev finally invited me to join the ranks of the Mariinsky. Terrible, isn't it ? Only after international success was I offered a place at Mariinsky.

CV: How was the transition from the ex-Soviet Union to the West ? And how did you cope with such a huge and immediate success as Renata in "The Fiery Angel" ?

GG: It was very difficult. It was an entire year devoted to learning this most treacherous of roles. And I had no choice. I had to sing it, since I could no longer stay at Sverdlosk. Moreover, this part is extremely dangerous to young voices and of great technical demands. I sang it during a year. No one wants to sing this role again. Ask our new stars. Ask Renee Fleming. Ask Angela Gheorghiu.

CV: I wouldn't be too keen in asking anything to Angela Gheorghiu, since she has just cancelled her "La Traviata" performances at Lisbon's Sao Carlos Theatre with no justification. All the performances were sold out by the way.

GG: How can an Opera director hire a star like this? Like Angela Gheorghiu? Why did she cancel ? Because she is a diva. I never did anything of the sort during my entire career.

CV: You never cancelled a performance without a justification ?

GG: No, of course not. I love my public. She only loves herself. I know Angela Gheorghiu and her personality. She is unpleasant, very unpleasant.

CV: But you never worked with Angela Gheorghiu, did you ?

GG: I know her from backstage. When her love affair with Alagna was beginning, there were plans for a "Tosca" recording with me and him. She ended all those plans by insisting that her and only her could be Tosca opposite Roberto. And I think she is not a real Tosca.

CV: Why?

GG: She is not Tosca at all. She is not serious, not human. She is like a doll, light, without any deeper emotional feelings – says Galina while making coquette-like mannered gestures -. She is a soubrette. Tosca is a heroine, not a soubrette.

Stage directors and Gergiev

CV: Having grown up within the opera world, you must have gained experience on how to deal with fellow singers, stage directors and conductors. Let's take one at a time. Could we begin by talking about stage directors ?

GG: What would you like to know about them ? – asked an amused and smiling Galina.

CV: Have you been involved in an opera production you disliked ?

GG: Very often.

CV: And what do you do ?

GG: I try to be as honest and as professional as possible in my work, but I cannot change that which is not under my control. If theatre managements invite certain stage directors or set designers who are crazy, they will get equally crazy productions. There is nothing I can do to avoid it.

CV: During rehearsals, do stage directors ask for your contribution or listen to your opinions ?

GG: [After a loud and sound laugh] Never. They don't even listen to the opinions of the major operatic stars, such as Placido Domingo. I hate them. I hate them – she repeats with emphasis. They are stupid, because they don't know what they really want. Their only objective is to be fresh and new.

CV: From your words, I suspect that you think stage directors hold too much power in the current opera scene.

GG: Yes. I think so.

CV: Am I also right in assuming that you never encountered a stage director you enjoyed working with?

GG: That is not absolutely correct. Intelligent and good stage directors increase my pleasure in rehearsing. They are, as I said, rare, but I have encountered a few, such as Frank Corsaro. I worked with him at the Washington Opera in a "Tosca" production and he took the time to show me various and efficient gestures and movements.

CV: How would you define an intelligent and good stage director?

GG: It must be someone with whom dialogue can be maintained. I think it is crucial that both stage director and singer can express their own particular opinions and perspectives about a specific character. I myself am always open to suggestions, provided that they are interesting and adequate to the character we are studying.

CV: Turning to conductors, I was very surprised when I noticed that you only have two operatic engagements for 2003: "Norma" at the San Diego Opera and "The Queen of Spades" in Munich's Opera. You have said that maestro Valery Gergiev is trying to ruin your career. Is this true ? If you wish, you may not answer this question.

GG: I will answer it. I am honest and I fear nothing and no one. They have already begun slowing down my career. And, as you pointed out, I have now no contract of major importance. In other words, yes, it is true Gergiev is trying to destroy my career. He is very powerful. I don't know exactly what he has been saying to opera theatre managements. Perhaps something like: "She has lost her voice". I only know he is doing his best to prevent opera theatres from hiring me.

CV: Why was there a break up between you and Gergiev ?

GG: Because I left the Mariinsky.

CV: And why did you leave ?

GG: Because he is a dictator and I couldn't keep up with his mad rehearsal schedules. In a tour, for instance, we will arrive to the country where we'll sing at 11 o'clock. 5 hours later, we will have to endure a rehearsal in full voice. And, that same night, we will perform an opera as demanding as "Aida". Furthermore, during the Kirov tours, there are performances virtually every night and singers are obliged to interpret different roles. Obviously, this sort of insane schedule can wreck your voice in no time. And – as if it wasn't enough – we are paid badly. For interpreting a leading role, you are given a mere 500 dollars. With Gergiev, one gets no thanks, no money, no career, no glory. This is what it means to work with him. He treats us like Russian slaves. To tell you the truth, Gergiev does not even understand voices, nor is he able to identify its qualities. He just uses them for his greater international glory and to promote his career. Conductors like himself, who do not like voices, should stick to instrumental music. He used me the same way he used Chernov, Leiferkus, Prokina and, afterwards, he simply kicked us out. Gergiev is a monster. And soon everybody will realise how horrible he is.

CV: How do you feel after having left the Mariinsky ?

GG: Alone. I am unable to find a director, a conductor, anyone who loves me, my personality, my singing, my acting. I have the support of no one, including my agents – visibly sad, she murmurs between sighs.

CV: And the public ? Have you been abandoned by it as well ?

GG: Fortunately not. The audience is most generous towards me. Its reaction resembles a volcano. However, after the performance, I get no invitation to return to the place where I sang and was so warmly received by the public. For instance, I have never performed at Sao Carlos Theatre in Lisbon. And this lack of invitations does not derive from any capricious demand of mine. I ask for no high fees. Nor do I insist on a luxurious hospitality. I think the blame lies with my agents who do not work hard enough for me. They have an artists' hierarchy: 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class ... I suspected I'm placed in the 2nd or 3rd class.

CV: Getting back to the public, what do you expect from the audience members ?

GG: I expect them to love me, to carefully listen to me and applaud, because I have done everything for them. I have dedicated my whole life to them and I try to give myself to them in every performance to the best of my ability.