Soprano  Ghena  Dimitrova

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ghena Dimitrova

Ghena Dimitrova, who died on Saturday aged 64, was a powerful lirico spinto soprano who often thrilled in the principal Italian roles at the major opera houses; though some critics thought her occasionally lacking in dramatic involvement, and her delivery could be less than subtle, she was always capable of a warmth and sonority which was firmly in the greatest conventional traditions, but had become increasingly rare.

Ghena Dimitrova was born into a peasant family at the village of Beglej, near Pleven, not far from the Bulgarian border with Romania, on May 6 1941. As a girl she climbed trees and "sang to the countryside"; though she had little formal musical training at first, she conceded: "I had a large voice even then." She trained at Sofia Conservatory under Christo Brambarov and made her professional debut on December 27 1967 as Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco, after two established singers pulled out of the part.

It was a role she was to perform often and, if more subtlety of line and coloratura could be found in, say, the version offered by Maria Callas, Ghena Dimitrova at least never failed to produce the appropriate level of sustained fury and excitability as the evil, distraught queen. Deutsche Gramaphon issued a recording of her in the part [shown below] under the baton of Giuseppe Sinopoli.


See my Interviews with Piero Cappuccilli, and Lucia Valentini Terrani

Three years later, she won a competition in Sofia, and received a grant to allow her to study further at La Scala's school, where contemporaries included Renato Pastorino and Enza Ferrari, and in 1971-72 she played Leonora in La Forza del Destino. In 1972 she won the Treviso competition singing Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, which she went on to sing (opposite Jose Carreras) at the Parma Regio and then, in January 1973, at La Scala with Placido Domingo.

dimitrova Ghena Dimitrova made her debut as Turandot at Treviso two years later.

Some 10 years later, when she made her debut at the Royal Opera House in the role, with Sir Colin Davis conducting, The Daily Telegraph concluded that she had "all the tonal splendour, the prowess and amplitude, to conquer even its most daunting challenges, all the burnished, finely honed steel in her voice to cut through the grandest orchestral climaxes and most exactingly charged ensembles". It was in the same part that she first appeared, in 1987, at New York's Metropolitan Opera, when the Wall Street Journal announced: "She is a wonder."

From 1974, she travelled widely, making her debuts in France and Spain, appearing for five seasons at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires and, in 1978, making her debut at the Staatsoper in Vienna. During this period, she took on the major lyrical soprano roles; in Aïda, Trovatore, Cavalleria rusticana, Manon Lescaut, La Fanciulla del West, Macbeth and Otello.

In 1980, she proved a sensation opposite Pavarotti in La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona; she became a regular, and a favourite, there, returning the next year in Nabucco and the year after in Macbeth. Turandot and Aïda were regular roles (in the latter opera she also played Amneris, and at La Scala, opposite Pavarotti, she alternated the parts).  [DVD (where she sings Amneris) is shown at right. See my Interview with Nicolai Ghiaurov.]

Her debut in Milan had been as Turandot in the Zeffirelli production, under Lorin Maazel in 1983, and in 1986 she appeared in Nabucco, Riccardo Muti's debut opera as musical director there.

In London, she garnered praise with an electrifying Gioconda (opposite Domingo) at the Barbican in 1985, and was hauled from her box in the audience to step in for Grace Bumbry in 1988, when the latter had to withdraw from Aïda at Earls Court at the end of the first act, suffering from tonsillitis and hay fever. The critics were of the view Ghena Dimitrova injected some much-needed zip into the largest opera spectacle which had ever been staged in Britain (and which they did not, on the whole, much like).

Among her lesser-known roles, she can be heard to advantage as Leonora, the wronged daughter in a recording of Verdi's Oberto, under Lamberto Gardelli.

Ghena Dimitrova was not particularly gifted as an actress, but she never held back in vocal performance. Set beside many modern performers, she seemed reassuringly old-fashioned in her insistence that every register of her voice be worked equally.

"Remember, there are many divas," she once said, "but only someone with a voice can be a prima donna."


[Obituary published in The Guardian, June 26, 2005, by Alan Blyth]  [Text only; photo and links added for this website presentation]

Ghena Dimitrova, who has died aged 64, had one of the most formidably dramatic voices among sopranos of the past 25 years. As such, she was ideally cast in roles that other prima donnas think twice about undertaking, such as Turandot, Abigaille (in Verdi's Nabucco) and the title part of Ponchielli's Gioconda. She was not the subtlest of performers, but her basic style of acting had its own validity, and her stage presence was almost as arresting as her voice.

dimitrova When she first appeared, as Turandot, at the Metropolitan in New York in 1987, one eminent critic simply described her as "a wonder", and her Turandot at Covent Garden in 1983 provoked the same sort of reaction. I recall her a little earlier the same year, at her British debut, singing Gioconda in a concert performance of Ponchielli's work at the Barbican, opposite Domingo's Enzo, and being mesmerised by her trenchant yet not unsympathetic characterisation of that tragic heroine. It was a portrayal in the old, grand scale of operatic performance that was already rather out of fashion. She sang Lady Macbeth with Covent Garden on tour in Greece in 1986.

Dimitrova studied singing at Bulgaria's Sofia Music Academy, and made her professional debut in 1965 at Sofia's National Opera as Abigaille. Success in a singing competition in the capital in 1970 brought her to international attention, and she sang her first Turandot at Treviso in 1975. That year she first sang at the Colón in Buenos Aires, where she appeared for the next five seasons. The Vienna State Opera welcomed her in 1978.

Her first American appearance was at Dallas in 1981 as Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, another role that suited her forthright style. A notable appearance was as Aïda on site at Luxor in 1987. Other roles for which she was noted include Leonora (Il Trovatore), Desdemona, Manon Lescaut, Tosca and Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana).

Dimitrova's short but significant career is quite well documented on CD and video. In a 1989 La Scala set of Aïda, she sings Amneris rather than the title role, and gives a vital portrait of the jealous princess. Her impressive Turandot was taken on film at Verona in 1983 [shown at left], when she was at the peak of her career, with Nicola Martinucci as her equally stentorian Calaf [shown at left; see my Interviews with Cecilia Gasdia (Liù), and Ivo Vinco (Timur)]. They are also partners in a CD version recorded at Genoa in 1989. Her Abigaille was caught at Verona in 1981, a suitable antagonist to Bruson's tortured Nabucco, and a striking assumption in its own right. Her Giselda in Verdi's Lombardi, filmed at La Scala in 1984, is a more rudimentary reading of a part that calls for more subtlety.

In Bulgaria Dimitrova was something of a national hero. On hearing of her death the country's culture minister declared that: "Bulgaria has lost a great voice and a great Bulgarian, who had promoted her country and its culture around the world." [She is depicted on a plaque and a postage stamp (shown below), and a coin (shown at the bottom of this webpage.]

She was undoubtedly an artist who gave her all to any role she attempted, and was a larger-than-life performer in an operatic world now rather short of such beings.

· Ghena Dimitrova, singer, born May 6 1941; died June 11 2005

--  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Ghena Dimitrova appeared only once with Lyric Opera of Chicago, in January of 1987, as the title character of La Gioconda.  Others in the cast included Giuliano Ciannella as Enzo, Mignon Dunn and later Diane Curry as La Cieca, Hartmut Welker as Barnaba, Paul Plishka as Alvise, and Alexandrina Milcheva as Laura.  Bruno Bartoletti conducted and Maria Tallchief did the ballet.

dimitrova It was a busy time for the soprano, but she graciously agreed to spend a half-hour with me backstage between performances.  She was mostly serious and thoughtful when responding to my questions, but occasionally her humor showed through, and it was a very memorable encounter.  My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for providing the translation for us.

Since many of the characters she sings are the title roles, please note the distinction between, for instance, Tosca (the opera), and Tosca (the character).  

Bruce Duffie:   First, tell me the secret of singing Verdi!  [Recording shown at left has arias from four Verdi operas
Attila, Aïda, Forza del Destino, and Nabuccoas well as Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Andréa Chenier, Gioconda, and Cavalleria Rusticana; with the Sofia Philharmonic conducted by Rouslan Raychev]

Ghena Dimitrova:   To have the voice!

BD:   Did Verdi know how to write well for the voice?  

GD:   Yes, notwithstanding the fact that for his early operas you need a voice of great technical ability.  You also need a really healthy voice that has resistance to wear in Verdi’s first operas.

BD:   What are the differences between the early operas and the late operas, between Nabucco and Aïda?

GD:   The early operas are more distended in the sense of having more vocal leaps, and they exhibit the instrumental side of the voice.  They make you jump two octaves in the cadenzas, and then he often put the nose-dive, octave leaps that are very harsh.  The difference between Abigaille [in Nabucco] and Aïda is really big one.  In the cantabile part of Aïda’s role, the sophistication of the phrasing is perhaps present in Abigaille’s music, but it’s very hard to express when you’re singing Abigaille because that role is written in such a way that one needs to know the voice.  At her first entrance in the first act, she has four high-Cs!  Abigail is to be treated as a very primitive kind of character, and so the music expresses this primitiveness, which is very harsh on the voice.  The feelings Aïda expresses in the music that she sings are far more sophisticated that one would think of for the daughter of the King of Ethiopia at the time.  She’s very European, very
civilized... like she has two college degrees.  [Much laughter]  Whereas Abigaille, very brusquely and very bluntly comes in and tells her lover she loves him, and if he doesn’t love her, she’ll kill him!  She expresses very blunt emotions.

BD:   Is going from Nabucco (1842) to Aïda (1871) a gradual line, or is there an abrupt change in the middle period around Macbeth (1847, revised 1865)?

GD:   Nabucco is his first successful opera, so there’s a lot of changes very soon.  Aïda is much more near to Don Carlos (1867) and Otello (1887).  Macbeth is the turning point, or bridge between the early and the later Verdi.  Lady Macbeth already shows a lot more skill and ability in treating the voice, and also in the way theater is made in which the drama is unfolded.  So, it’s the bridge between the two Verdi’s, but it shows a great deal of theatrical skill.  Verdi was a genius who matured into an even greater genius.  In Nabucco you see the early traces of this great genius, whereas in Aïda there is the full blossom of this genius.  Remember, Aïda was commissioned, and he was supposed to write a suitable opera on an Egyptian theme.  You can see that it’s not only the genius that has matured from inside, and has developed along his own line and maturity, but he also shows that he’s capable of absorbing things from the outside, and lets them influence what he wanted to do.

dimitrova BD:   What about his very first opera, Oberto (1839)?

GD:   You cannot really speak a great deal about Oberto.   It was indeed the first opera, but Nabucco was the first success.  Oberto is really very simple and spontaneous.

BD:   Should it not be done at all?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Carlo Bergonzi, Rolando Panerai, and Ruža Baldani.]

GD:   It’s very rarely done.  I recorded it, but can’t even remember one aria or one melody from it... nothing!  I remember studying it and preparing it, and just thinking that it was too youthful to be really worth all the pain of learning it, and being able to represent the character, and that you just had to put in all the emotions yourself.  It’s very hard to find the things from which to start to express that.  Verdi’s early operas, such as Nabucco and Ernani, are all very simple, with set-numbers
meaning an aria and a cabaletta.  It’s all done and finished, and the cadenza is always the same, and it is kind of monotonous.  But you could already see a great talent, and how he could really do things very well, and put them together in a very effective way. 

BD:   How many of the Verdi operas have you sung?

GD:   Fourteen.

BD:   Will you sing the rest?

GD:   No, because I never learn something unless I’ve been requested to learn a new role.  I had prepared Don Carlos, and for eight years I never did it once.  So, now I wait until they ask for something, and then I prepare it.  Only once was I asked to do a part which I didn’t know.  I’ve always been asked to sing operas that I already had in my repertoire.

BD:   How do you decide which roles you will learn and accept, and which roles you’re not going to?

GD:   I’m not going to sing in German, though I’ve had many offers to sing Wagner.  But I made a decision not to sing Wagner, the reason being that I don’t speak German.  Also, because I have had many requests in the Italian repertory, which I like more.  Why should I take two years in learning something in German when I can do ten productions of Masked Ball in the meantime?

BD:   When you’re on the stage, do you become the character or are you portraying a character?

GD:   You cannot become the character.  I consider myself to be a good professional, and feel that I can always be the character when I get on the stage and start singing a role.  In that moment I become the role, and never for a moment am I Ghena Dimitrova singing the role.  When they’re out there, there are some artists who only become the character when they sing their own music, and then when the other characters sing, they sort of detach themselves and become the artist again.  From the beginning of my career, when I step on the stage I become part of the action whether I’m singing or listening or reacting to somebody else’s singing.  My teacher was a baritone who was a wonderful actor, and he said that when you’re out on the stage, you don’t have to laugh to make the audience laugh, but you have to cry in order to make the audience cry.  This is the difference, and I’ve always tried to do that.  That is where the professionalism and acting comes in for me.

*     *     *     *     *

dimitrova BD:   You’ve sung all these Verdi roles and you’ve also sung some Puccini.  What is the difference between the compositional qualities of Puccini and Verdi?  [Photo at left shows three sopranos who were noted for TurandotDame Eva Turner, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Ghena Dimitrova.]

GD:   When you start your career, it comes easier to sing Verdi.  Verdi carries you on his shoulders, whereas you have to carry Puccini on your shoulders when you sing.  Going on in her career, I have come to realize that even if I’m not feeling too well, I can go through a whole role of Puccini and sing it without any problems.  But in Verdi, if you’re not in perfect shape, you cannot do it well.  In Puccini, you can phrase and you can breathe within a phrase many times if you know how to do it.  In Verdi, when you start a cantabile, if you’re not feeling well you don’t have control of your breath, so you cannot separate anything.  You have to do these long phrases, and you have to go through with it by supporting all the way.  One of the most difficult roles of Verdi is Lombardi [1843, after Nabucco and before Ernani, which was his first international success], in which the role that I’ve sung requires three types of voice
the dramatic, the lyric, and the coloratura.  There are very hard pianissimos in the aria, and then you start a cabaletta all the way down in your voice.  It’s very hard to go from this cabaletta that’s sung low, and then requires an agility to go all the way up.  I worked hard with Maestro Gavazzeni on this opera at La Scala, and he said, I just don’t think that God was with Verdi when he wrote this opera.  He must have left him for a whole month to his own devices!  [Much laughter all around]  

BD:   Many of these things that you’re saying are the complaints that singers make of twentieth-century composers!

GD:   Today’s composers don’t write a melody that is used to express feelings and emotions.  I cannot feel anything in modern composers’ music other than robot’s feeling, and since I don’t have feelings like robots, then I don’t understand her music.  This is not to say that I would advocate modern composers not to write music.  God forbid!  Everybody who has the creativity to do it should write music he or she pleases, and have it performed, because you have to have music of your own time.  People have to listen to that.  But they have to test themselves somehow.  One shouldn’t detach the feelings from the melody that expresses universal feelings, and that was has happened in modern music today.  There is no expression of feelings anymore.  I feel more at home with things that are more traditional, whether it’s music, interior decoration, or any of the arts.  I feel somewhat disturbed by some expressions in very modern paintings, and very modern decorations in homes.  I find them cold and distant.  I’m saying they should not do it.  There are lots of people who should live in their more modern surroundings, love modern art, and write modern music.  But I am not completely at ease with that kind of ultra-modern art or style of life.  

BD:   Is there anything special that needs to be done to make these characters from a hundred and fifty years ago, speak to the people of today?

GD:   There is a tendency today to trying to bring up to date certain woman-characters in famous operas, which is perhaps going too far.  It’s all well and good to have beautiful set decorations and beautiful costumes according to the taste of today.  But sometimes this goes too far.  For instance, in Tosca, the stage director says today that Tosca has to be slender.  Beautiful women in those days were a little bit more robust than the beauties of today, and one has to understand that they express their feelings in those strong terms, as Tosca does.  So, that is not totally legitimate, bringing up to date the character or a role in a certain and extreme way.  There was a recent Tosca that was set in 1944, in which Tosca was wearing a raincoat and Scarpia was an SS man.  All you do is rob the story.  The music and the dialogue and the words exchanged are the same as Puccini wrote them, so they don’t fit with this new interpretation that the director has imposed upon it.  What they’ve done is rob the character and the opera of the fascination of the times and the actual setting that it had.  Tosca should say, [in a strong, accusatory style]
Assassino!”, not [softer and quite weakly] Assassino.   Tosca is written the way it is written, so you have to respect character, and time, and all these things.  People today insist that the beginning of the aria Casta Diva [in Norma] should be lyrical.  It’s just because you haven’t had the voices to sing it the way it was supposed to be sung.  Any time somebody tells me that it should be very lyrical and very light and very soft, I say, “Let’s go and look at the music.  I know that people have grown up with a certain image, a certain sound of a singer in mind.  For instance, although Caballé understands the passion and desire of Norma, I have to sing the way I sing.  Caballé will sing a particular phrase the way she wants, but I will sing it the way it has been written!  [More laughter]


BD:   When you’re on stage, do you feel that you are competing against recordings which have been made over the years?

GD:    No, I never feel that way.  Also, a singer should never learn operas by listening to many records.  The only reason why I sometimes listen to records is to learn other roles in that opera.  But I always study my own part at the piano without referring to the records.

BD:   Do you ever feel you are competing against your own recordings?

GD:   I never listen to the recordings I make!  It’s not only me that feels that way, but many singers feel the same way
they have trouble listening to their own voice on a recording.  Every time a true artist goes out on the stage, they create a new performance every night, even though you’ve done the role twenty million times.  The aim and the desire is to go and do it anew, a new thing.  

BD:   Do you sing the same way in the recording studio as you do on stage?

GD:   I haven’t had a great number of recordings, but I sing in the same way.  The first recording I ever made had the mike placed all the way down on the floor, and I felt very uneasy about it, so I insisted they move the mike up to where I was singing directly into it.  But the result was terrible.  I don’t have a lot of trust in the devices that are very sensitive.  They change the voice from what it sounds like in real life.  The same thing happens in photography
there are very beautiful people that look like potatoes in photos!  Recordings of the voice are the same thing as photography in terms of results and of changing what is there.

BD:   [Patting his ample stomach]  Then there are some of us who really look like a potato and still look like a potato!  [Much laughter]  Do you sing differently from house to house, depending on the size of the hall?

GD:   No, it’s always the same.  The only thing I’m very aware of and very sensitive to as I’m standing on the stage is the back wall where the voice has to go, to the end of a theater, as it were.  So, I change somewhat my projection according to how distant that wall is from where I am.  This is what basically motivates me
how my ear reacts to how her voice goes over in a given auditorium.

BD:   You are aware of the acoustics?

GD:    Yes, the acoustics.

*     *     *     *     *

dimitrova BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to the opera today?

GD:   My first worry is that usually I sing in a language that people don’t understand, and I feel that.  [Remember, this interview was held in January of 1987, just when supertitles were beginning to be used in many theaters.]  I have a beautiful instrument that communicates beautiful things which, however, are not fully understood, and I’m very aware of this.  However, given this lack of communication, I feel that supertitles are not the answer because they become very distracting, and they become a show-within-the-show that takes away from what’s happening on the stage.  For example, in the duet between Tosca and Mario, at the beginning when they speak about the Madonna and the painting, people laugh because of what appears on the supertitles, whereas people who understand the language never laugh at this point.  In Trovatore I mistake one person for another.  When the supertitles appeared, people were just laughing all the way.  There was no reason for them to laugh, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a matter of the translation, or just a matter of how it came out.  But there’s obviously nothing to laugh about.  It’s a convention in opera that is very much used, that people mistake someone for someone else, but you don’t laugh.  So, the atmosphere was broken completely.  The audience goes into something that has nothing to do with the opera.  It’s better for the audience to read the libretto, and prepare, and pay attention to what happens on the stage, than just reading as if they were at the movies.  They should be taking the opera as if it was a symphony, or a piece of chamber music, or a piece of theater by itself, and just let it go even if they don’t understand the whole thing.  Just pay attention to what’s happening on the stage!

BD:   Do you feel opera works well on television?

GD:   Are you talking about live performances, or an opera made like a film?

BD:   Both, please.

GD:   You don’t have the immediacy of the performance in the recording or a live transmission.  But, then when I think about the fact that we have very little of Tebaldi and Callas, that’s a great pity.  So, we welcome the cassettes and the movies of opera that can be witness to the presence and the artistry of very good artists.  We have gone so far away from what bel canto was
both in conducting and in singingbecause there are no witnesses, no recordings from a hundred years ago showing how people sang and how people used to conduct, and this is a great shame.  Now we are in the moment in which business is all encompassing in the opera life, and we are moving more and more away from what it used to befrom the real bel canto.  It would be extremely useful today to go back and look and listen to how people used to sing, and how they used to direct and conduct certain operas.  So, I guess it’s a good thing that we have modern means of keeping things for the posterity, just to show them how things were done at a certain time.  We don’t know what the future of opera might be.  It might be a form of art that is all together doomed to disappear for lack of interest, or because there are so many other shows that are more immediately grabbing people’s attention.  Opera, after all, is still something for few people.  You just can’t go to the opera for the first time and enjoy it.  So, videos might be just for those documentary purposes of an art that exists today and perhaps won’t exist tomorrow.  We should have as many recordings of what’s going on, and of all the artists that are doing things today as we can, to keep it in case the whole art form disappears and they will want to start again.  Otherwise they will never know what it is that is happening today.  We do have such incredible things, and are able to hear some of the great tenors or baritones of the past, some voices the equivalent of which are not existing at all today.  You can hear that those things did exist, and you can take heart with that.

BD:   [With a bit of trepidation]  Are you not optimistic about the future of opera???

GD:   I’m optimistic in the sense that we would want to go back to certain traditional values, and moral values, and artistic values that have been neglected for so long right now.  It’s not an art that is made for a very large audience, because it’s not an art of immediate gratification.  That doesn’t mean it is an art meant for the wealthy or for the rich.  It’s truly an art for those who like it, and for those who are devotees of it.

BD:   Are there some great voices coming along in the younger generation?

GD:   There are some very beautiful voices, but a beautiful voice doesn’t develop by itself.  It needs treatment and good care.  In order to develop a good voice you have to make a lot of sacrifices, and nobody in the new generation is ready to make all the sacrifices that are required.  The new generation wants everything now, and that’s not good for a successful opera singer. 
I remember listening to a young singer who had a wobble.  When you have a voice that is solid, then you can start teaching this voice the vibrato.  But if you have a voice that has a vibrato, you have to learn how steady it.  People right now haven’t even learned their roles, and they’re already given this enormous amount of money to sing something.  So, they think they are great singers, and there’s no foundation to any of that.  

BD:   Thank you for being a fine singer!  

GD:   Thank you for having the patience to listen to me.

BD:   Will you be back in Chicago?

GD:   I don’t know yet.  It all depends on the Lyric Opera.  I hope to, but I want to come at a different time of the year because I want to see the city in September, not January!

BD:   We hope that will happen.  Mille grazie!

GD:   Grazie a Lei


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 27, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.