Mezzo-Soprano Vesselina Kasarova
A conversation with Bruce Duffie
Nature can be strangely odd sometimes. Hearing Vesselina Kasarova onstage is a wonderfully thrilling experience. Her voice is strong and secure, and fills the house with no problem whatever. But when you meet her in person, the speaking voice is small and high-pitched, without any hint of the power and range that is available to her whenever needed for performance.
In 1997, Lyric Opera of Chicago was given the honor of her American debut as Idamante in a new production of Mozart's Idomeneo. It was impressive, and the mezzo has returned in several more seasons as Rosina, Romeo in Bellini's version, and Cenerentola. Meanwhile, her career has been stellar, and she now sings regularly in many of the major cities. Her only U.S. appearance this season, however, is November 7, 2006, when she appears in one of Donizetti's last operas Dom Sébastien with the Opera Orchestra of New York. So for the coming months, we will just have to travel abroad, or satisfy ourselves with the many recordings of complete operas and solo recitals. She also has her own website [link below] where you can find other details of her schedule and more photos.
Coming back to her 1997 debut in Chicago, as always, several
are given of each opera, and it was toward the end of that first series
of Mozart that I had the opportunity to meet with Kasarova in the
of the opera company. Her English was very limited, so her
provided the translation (from German), and also filled in a few
about her early career.
Bruce Duffie: You're coming to the end of your first engagement here in Chicago. Have you enjoyed being in the Windy City?
Vesselina Kasarova: Yes, I was very glad to have had the opportunity to make my American debut here in Chicago, in such a wonderful opera, and in such a fine opera house as well.
BD: How are our acoustics compared to other theaters you've sung in?
VK: Here at Lyric Opera, the acoustic is optimal, and you wouldn't expect it to be like that, because the room, for the audience, is really huge. But you really feel very comfortable as a singer, and if you compare it to older European theaters, sometimes here it's much better. You are not afraid to sing pianissimo, because you have the impression that it will go fulfill your whole audience.
BD: Does this help your artistry? Can you be more subtle, perhaps?
VK: Yes, definitely. Only under these conditions can you really show what you want, and what you can.
BD: Do you always know, when you come to a performance, what you want to show?
VK: I always have ideas, but what it will really be, at the end, depends on what's happening on the stage, just on the moment. So there will be also a part which is improvised.
BD: Each night, or in each different production?
VK: Each night is different. For example, the tempi which the conductor gives to the orchestra and to the singer differs every time. It's never the same. And also the way I feel is very important. So as every day is different, also every performance is different.
BD: When you come to the first rehearsal, do you also have an idea, and then wait for the director to flesh out that idea?
VK: Of course I have my own special view for each role, but I also want to work together with the director, so I’m open for other ideas. It's a combination, working together, bringing in the ideas from both sides and creating something together.
BD: How much is the character from the librettist and the composer, and how much is you, Kasarova?
VK: [Chuckles, evidently caught off guard.] I try to avoid showing myself, my personality, on stage, because it has to be the role I’m singing. But there's this danger, you know, that it's becoming all the time the same. So I always look forward to working together with other people, to find new ideas, to find new sides of her so the role itself will never be the same. It would be boring, for example, to perform in Idomeneo everywhere the same.
BD: Even though it's always the Mozart opera?
VK: Yes. For example, it's only a detail, but it has a quite strong effect on the result. In this production of Idomeneo, the costumes are very classical, and quite huge, very Baroque. They're also heavy, so you aren't that free to move on stage. If we would have had lighter costumes, my movements and acting would be different because I would probably show more action.
[Photo at left: As Idamante in Chicago]
BD: So the heavy costume restrains you?
VK: Absolutely. Yes.
BD: It doesn't restrain the voice, does it?
VK: No, but everything is connected. With that kind of style of the costumes, it fits well not to act too much, not to overact. So the movements are reduced, and this has another effect that you don't get tired too much by acting. It's no problem for the voice, but if you would have to move all the time, running on stage with heavy costumes, then it would be difficult, and it would have an impact on the voice.
BD: Do you look specifically for productions that are unified, where the costumes and direction all together?
VK: [Thinks for a moment] Not really. Not really, because you don't know what the production will be. This was my first time working with John Copley, and it is a wonderful production, but I couldn't know before coming what it would be. Of course, you gain experience, and if you have bad experiences, then you try to avoid certain conductors or directors. [Laughs] There are just a few people who are on our private blacklist, but let me say that if I’m invited to Lyric Opera of Chicago, then you know it will be fine. Even if you don't know the maestro or the director, you trust.
BD: I see, so there's a trust of the company because of its standing.
VK: [Chuckles] Yes. However, if it's not Mozart, or if it's not bel canto but maybe a part which would be a little bit more dramatic, then I would be very careful that the conditions are right, because it makes a different effect. For example, the conductor can make a dramatic opera much more dramatic. Then one really has to be very, very careful. If Mozart is conducted with more power than usual, it can be quite strong.
BD: Too strong?
VK: [Thinks for a moment]: Quite strong. But, if it were an opera from Donizetti or Bellini, then it really would be different. Some people try to conduct Bellini… [pauses]
BD: Like Wagner?
VK: Ja! [Chuckles.]
* * * * *
BD: Your voice, obviously, dictates what roles you can sing. From this array of roles, how do you decide, "Yes, I will sing this role; no, I will not sing that role"?
VK: What is very strange is that you sometimes have to have some performances, to really have an idea what the role means to an audience and to yourself. Singing just in a room with the piano doesn't give the real impression of a role. You don't know what the role is like until you have really sung it on stage. Beside the vocal range, it’s also very important to know the character of the role. For example, there are roles I could sing now because all the notes are there, but the problem is to bring in the character, and that I couldn’t do right now. Maybe later, with more experience, then it would all come together. With the dramatic repertoire, the point is that you are singing with so much emotion that these emotions really can damage your voice. It's not the notes which are written, but there is so much happening in your mind.. For example, if young singers try certain roles too early, it can be a problem, because on stage these emotions, these feelings, don't fit your personal state of being. Maybe a boy who's thirteen years old isn't ready to do certain things. It's the same for the singer. You will have difficulties to control the balance of all these big emotions. So it's better to be a bit older.
[Photo at left: With the Opera Orchestra of New York, 1997]
BD: So you mean singing some of those parts would drive you crazy?
VK: [Thinks for a moment.] No, not crazy, but my way of being onstage is to be natural. It’s not a way of acting, to behave like something, but to have a natural, intelligent approach. You must not lose the emotional balance of what's happening. Otherwise there's the risk that something might go wrong. You don’t want to lose contact with reality.
BD: When you go on the stage, are you portraying a character or do you become that character?
VK: I try to behave like the person would. I try to become these personalities. That's the reason why acting is so important within an opera, because it belongs together. You can't separate acting and singing.
BD: So there's a real balance, then, between the music and the drama.
VK: Yes. Right now, since I’m still young, I sing mainly Mozart and Rossini, and a little bit of bel canto, and maybe some roles from the French repertoire. But, of course, I will wait for the future to sing other roles from Verdi, for example. The colors you use in singing are very important, because these colors reflect the personality of the role.
BD: The colors from the composer, or the colors from the singer?
VK: From the singer. I try always to give an interpretation, not just singing the notes, but filling them with meaning by the colors.
* * * * *
BD: You've made a number of recordings. Do you sing the same for the microphone as you do in the live performance?
VK: There's one way to record, which I think is dangerous, where you try to sing everything in a nice way. But then there's no emotion. So when I’m recording, I try to get myself into the atmosphere of the opera. You can see me moving a lot during recording sessions because I want to give so much. What I’m recording should be the same like on stage. Singing goes together with the body. The whole body's working while singing. So somebody just staying very rigid loses that. If there are emotions, they are also shown physically.
[With the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by
[Photos by Steve Sherman]
BD: That must drive the recording engineers nuts.
VK: [Chuckles.] Well, I don’t run around, but it’s not sterile. If something is sung perfectly, but without feelings, it's just sterile. The emotions and feelings are real, and that’s what’s important.
BD: In order to maintain a singing career, do you have to be part athlete?
VK: Today? Definitely. For example, in Europe opera is much more theatrical than here in the U.S., and directors sometimes make experiments. You are really acting on stage. You are running around, and this is much easier if you are in a good shape. It can be crazy, but you must be in good physical condition. Singing is like sport. You really think with your body, and it makes a difference if you are in a good shape.
BD: Do you like playing a boy?
VK: [Amused by the question] Yes. I am not a man, so playing a man is very interesting. It's really another world. Sesto, Idamante, Tancredi, have elegance in the way they’re written. They're not just men, they are different. They are men with a certain elegance, depending on the 18th or 19th century. There are many others. If I’m performing a female part, then something of your own personality gets into the character which you play. Of course you try to avoid that, because what you have to do is to present a certain character. But with performing these trouser roles, you can't bring anything of your own female personality, but you have really act differently, and that's interesting.
BD: Are you in any way trying to teach the men how to behave, by being a man on stage?
VK: [Chuckles] Well, not really, but I think it would be better for everybody if men would behave more the way like the characters of these trouser roles, because they are really special. They can be very fine and romantic, which, today is rather seldom. Many people are afraid of showing feelings, or of being romantic. So, for example, directors try to find a different approach which might be very aggressive, or even experimental. They’re not saying really something, but just trying to confront themselves to the feelings.
BD: Do you always confront yourself and your feelings?
VK: Yes, and you can make experiences for real life, then. This is especially true with Mozart. All his characters are showing real feelings, real emotion. They aren't pathetic, or unnatural like other characters from other composers. Mozart really loved all his characters, and has found his very special way to transform them into music. That's one side of Mozart which is really unique. His feelings are just real, and if directors want to make a modern production, it goes well with Mozart, because his music, his feelings, are still valid. With other composers it would be much more difficult.
BD: Such as Rossini?
VK: Rossini is different from Mozart. It's not easy to answer this question, because the way Rossini is performed today isn't the right way. It's often performed too fast, and concentrating on showing off lots of coloratura. But Rossini didn't mean to just show off with coloratura, but to express them with a meaning. You have to say something with the coloratura you sing. Just singing the coloratura itself is nothing. It must be combined with musicality to have its own character. So if Rossini would be performed in that way, then he could be very close to Mozart. For example, when you look at Tancredi, there you really have a drama. Too many conductors take the music fast, so it becomes funny.
[As Rossini's Cenerentola in Chicago]
BD: Do you have more fun, then, with Rosina in The Barber of Seville?
VK: Singing Rosina can be lots of fun, but she has also different sides. She can be very intelligent and tricky, and there's a romantic side in her. But the point, I think, is that I have to have a range of characters to perform. Only singing a few, like Rosina or Sesto all the time wouldn't be interesting. I have sung Rosina very often already, and it’s a lot of fun, but I’m very familiar with this role, so another part, like Roméo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi, or Tancredi, gets more interesting. Another part I love even more is Charlotte from Massenet's Werther.
BD: It’s a much more heartfelt part.
VK: Yes. The music Massenet wrote for Charlotte isn't, maybe, that effectful, like Rossini's Rosina, where you really can show your voice, but you have other possibilities that are very interesting. There are many more different situations you can show. The intimate feelings belonging to that character, for example.
BD: Could she have ever been happy with Werther?
VK: Yes in another time. They were living in the wrong time. Today it wouldn't have been a problem. She didn't have any opportunity to change the drama. When Massenet wrote it, and even with Goethe, where the story's different, conditions which were valid in that time wouldn't have made it possible.
[Photo at left: As Charlotte in Zurich, 1996]
BD: So today Charlotte would have just sent Werther to a shrink and get him straightened out and then come back to her?
VK: I think yes. [Laughs.] Maybe both would react differently, but Charlotte was engaged at that time and she had to marry Albert. That's the point about Charlotte, that she's the real victim, not Werther. Today, women are different. This wouldn’t happen any more, or it would be very different.
BD: Today it would be a ménage-a-trois. [Laughter all around]
VK: Like Carmen, Charlotte is a very interesting character. There is a tradition to show Carmen as a gypsy or a prostitute. If you look at the music and read the libretto, there’s nothing showing this. She is just one of the first emancipated women. Too many productions these days are just awful or primitive. I don’t know how it’s done here in America, but the real emotional drama is valid today. Carmen should be directed in a modern way, and by that I mean as a modern woman, not just a weird production.
BD: Would you ever try your hand at stage directing?
BD: Why not? You have some good ideas.
VK: [Thinks for a moment.] I think that directing needs its own talent to see like an architecture, to see before my eyes the whole system, what is happening, to see everything. That's a different kind of seeing it. I am a musician and have good ideas for different characters. But that isn't enough to become a director. Good directors are very rarely found, but they are very important. There are just a few with the real respect for their work. Many of them just come and try to make something out of what he has in front of him. He really can change the whole impression one gives. It can change 50 percent of a singer just by moving him, or painting his character in a different way. Sometimes you meet directors who even don't know what the people are, what the singers are doing on stage. They don't know the libretto, they don't know what they are saying.
BD: This is why I thought maybe you would be able to go into this, because you have such strong ideas about it.
VK: I have great respect for them and see how important it is, but I really don't want to try something like that, because I don't see myself as a director.
BD: I hope that your career is mostly good directors, and I'm glad you see yourself as a singer, because you do that so well.
VK: Thank you.
* * * * *
BD: Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?
VK: It’s fantastic. I have sung in Chicago and London and Paris... What has been happening is wonderful because I was born in Bulgaria, and grew up under very severe conditions. That was a communist dictatorship. That's the reason why I don’t speak English, because you risked your life when you were speaking English in Bulgaria. I had to learn Russian. There was no opportunity to learn English. Karajan invited me for the Salzburg Festival in 1989, just a few weeks before his death. It was fate… [Becomes very quiet, and at this point her husband picks up the story] The police in Bulgaria didn't want to let her go to Salzburg to see Karajan, because they said she was too young! They didn't understand. She was 23 years old, and they couldn't believe that somebody could be interested in her.
BD: [Sarcastically] It's always nice when the police make the artistic decisions.
Husband: But she was really lucky, because a German manager saw her in a concert and made just a normal cassette, and sent it to the Vienna State Opera and to Karajan, Covent Garden, and Scotland. She was immediately invited to all the theaters, and, not yet having finished her studies, she had the contract for the ensemble of the State Opera in Vienna. The way it turned out couldn’t have been better, because she was engaged by Zurich for the two years before Vienna started, and in Zurich she had the great opportunity not to be pushed to the big roles, but started with the best singers and best conductors in small roles just to become familiar with the stage.
VK: That was very important for me.
BD: Now, of course, everyone wants you all the time and you are scheduled to sing in major places for many years. Do you like being booked this far in advance?
VK: Well, it's strange, because you can't really feel for these years coming. It happens to be like that, and it’s the way the system works if you’re successful.
BD: We look forward to your return to Chicago.
VK: It’s been wonderful, and we thank you very much.
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© 1997 Bruce Duffie, and aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.
This interview was transcribed and first posted on this website in September, 2006, and permission was given for use by the Opera Orchestra of New York.
For more information and other photos of Vesselina Kasarova, visit her website .
Winner of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 1991, Bruce Duffie
was an announcer/producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from
During that quarter-century, he conducted well over a thousand
with classical musicians, some of which were also published in various
magazines and journals. Now, a few of them are beginning to
on this website. He also continues his on-air work with series on
WNUR-FM, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio. For
more information, including a complete list of his guests and photos
professional and personal, visit his
website . He also responds to serious E-Mail