Baritone Nikolai Putilin
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
• People’s Artist of Russia
• People’s Artist of Tatarstan
• Recipient of the State Prize of Russia
• Prize-winner at the I International Fyodor Chaliapin Vocalists’
Competition (2nd prize, 1989)
• Prize-winner at the International Vocalists’ Competition in Sofia
Nikolai Putilin was born in the Saratov Region. He graduated from the
Krasnoyarsk Institute of Arts in 1983 (class of Professor Ioffel).
Soloist with the Syktyvkar Musical Theatre (Komi Republic) from
1983–1985. Soloist with the Musa Dzhalil Academic Theatre of Opera and
Ballet (Kazan) from 1985–1992.
Mariinsky Theatre soloist since 1992.
His repertoire includes:
Boris Godunov, Shchelkalov, Rangoni (Boris Godunov)
Prince Igor (Prince Igor)
Demon (The Demon)
Eugene Onegin (Eugene Onegin)
Mazepa (Mazepa) [Note: The
Russians transliterate the name with just one p, so I have used that
format throughout. BD]
Robert, Ebn-Hakia (Iolanta)
Tomsky, Zlatogor (The Queen of Spades)
Mizgir (The Snow Maiden)
Venetian Merchant (Sadko)
Grigory Gryaznoi (The Tsar’s Bride)
Fyodor Poyarok (The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the
the Emperor of China (Le Rossignol)
Ruprecht (The Fiery Angel)
Tonio (I pagliacci)
Giorgio Germont (La traviata)
Don Carlo (La forza del destino)
Marquis di Posa (Don Carlo)
Baron Scarpia (Tosca)
Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro)
the Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer)
Alberich (Das Rheingold, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung)
the Messenger of the Spirits (Die Frau ohne Schatten)
Nikolai Putilin has toured with the Mariinsky Opera Company and
independently to Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands,
Belgium, Finland, Great Britain, Japan, the USA, Hungary, the Czech
Republic, Bulgaria, Korea, Israel and Luxemburg. He has performed at
renowned opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago
Lyric Opera (USA), the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Great
Britain), La Scala (Italy) and the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome as
well as appearing at the Salzburg Festival.
The singer’s recordings include The Queen of Spades, Sadko, Iolanta, La
forza del destino, Mazepa, Prince Igor and Boris Godunov (Mariinsky
Opera Company, Philips Classics and NHK).
-- From the website of the
When one does something long enough, even details that
seem unique at the time can come around again. Such is the case
with the circumstance presented here.
When interviewing an artist who does not speak English, as sometimes
happens at an international opera house such as Lyric Opera of Chicago,
I would arrange for a translator. For the Italians, I always
asked Marina Vecci, who was in charge of production backstage.
She was lovely in every way, and her work has been featured in quite a
number of my conversations both on the air and in print. There
were fewer Germans who needed translation, mainly because they were
taught English in school. The ones who did not know the language
were usually from the Eastern Bloc, and had learned Russian
instead! My friend for both French and Spanish was the head of
the Lyric Education Department, who also took care of the various Opera
Guilds around town and saw to it that a lecturer was provided for each
night at various restaurants to give background on the upcoming
performance. It was my special pleasure to do those talks several
times each season for many years.
But back to the second coming of the unique situation. In the
early 1980s, Lyric started their Opera School, and one of their most
talented students was a tenor named David Gordon. He was my guest
for a chat, and we remained friends for many years. He also sang
contemporary music, and put me in touch with a composer-friend of
his. That interview with Stephen Albert, who won the Pulitzer
Prize in 1985, can be read here. In the
fall of 1984, when I wanted to speak with bass Kurt Moll, I asked David
to translate. Those two were buddies since the production of Abduction from the Seraglio
featured Moll as Osmin and Gordon as Pedrillo. The three of us
had a wonderful time, and that interview can be read here. The second
tenor translated for the principal bass, a unique situation... until
the fall of 1998!
Two years before Y2K, the Lyric season opened with La Gioconda. Making his debut
as Barnaba was the Russian baritone Nikolai Putilin. In asking
about a translator, I was told that Moscow-born Misha Royzen of the
Opera School (then called the Ryan Center), who was singing the role of
Isèpo, was willing to do the task. Remember, Isèpo
is the scribe that writes the letter of denunciation dictated by
Barnaba, which is then put into the lion's mouth! Thus the
baritone and the second tenor have a bit of onstage interaction.
So the three of us met between performances and that unique situation
of fourteen years previous was duplicated!
Putilin was a principal singer for many years with the Kirov Opera at
the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg run by Valery Gergiev.
The biography (above) and the photos (throughout) are from their
website. The baritone would return to Chicago in 2000 for Tomsky
in The Queen of Spades (which
again opened the season), and in 2004 for Amonasro in Aïda.
Here is that conversation . . . . . . . .
What are the big differences between singing the Italian style and the
Nikolai Putilin: First is
the phonetics. The phonetics create a different style of
singing. Italian phonetics is closer to correct singing than
Russian phonetics. It's much more natural to the human
BD: Because of the open
NP: Because of the open vowels
and the sharpness of the sounds. Russian has a very active
articulation and Italian comes more from nature. Now that I have
also sung German repertory, it took me a long time to get used to
it. I sang Jokanaan in Salome,
but when I started doing Flying
Dutchman, that was when I started feeling comfortable with the
German style. It really helps, and I was able to bring that back
to the Italian and Russian repertory. Wagner is a very
BD: Did he write well for
BD: Are you now looking
forward to singing more Wagner?
NP: I sing some
Wagner. I sing a lot of roles, but I really like Verdi.
BD: How do you decide
which roles you will and will not sing?
NP: I sing
everything. When Maestro Gergiev invited me to his theater in
1992, he gave me a lot of work. I had ten to twelve premieres a
year. I would have anywhere from twenty to forty days to learn a
new role. Whatever he would offer me, I would take. These
were both big and small roles. That was a great training for me
to have a big basis in which I could grow.
BD: Did you find that
some of these roles you would keep and some you would discard?
NP: I don't think
so. All the roles are great. Some I like more, some I like
less. The music is so different and so beautiful. Even the
smaller roles carry a lot in them. The big roles carry a lot in
them put there by the composer, whereas the small role doesn't have all
of that, so you really have to bring something into it yourself which
is not there to make it interesting. You have to bring in the
character of the person. The small roles are very difficult to
BD: Are they satisfying?
NP: Yes, but not as much
as the bigger roles. [Laughter all around] But the work is
very interesting because the small roles are what we call the character
roles. For example, the Simpleton in Boris. He comes out only
twice in the opera, but he's a very acute character. Even though
he is a tenor, the reason I bring up Boris
is that I have sung three roles in that opera. I did Shchelkalov,
which I learned for the Kirov's tour premiere at the Metropolitan opera
in New York. Later I sang Rangoni with Olga Borodina, and then a
year and a half ago I sang Boris, which was recorded for Philips.
It's the edition with no Polish act. That's the real thing!
BD: Your voice range
dictates which roles you will be able to sing. Do you like the
characters that are imposed on you?
NP: Of course not!
[Laughter] Of course I would like to sing the romantic lead, but
the dramatic baritone is either a jealous husband or jealous lover, or
a villian like Barnaba, or a sex maniac like Scarpia in Tosca.
BD: Then where do you
find it in yourself to be evil or maniacal?
NP: [Laughs] Mostly
from the music and the words of the character. I try to
understand how the composer thought when he wrote the opera and the
character. If I bring to life every direction of the composer
plus the indications of the conductor as well as having a good
director, I have nothing to do. Everything is there!
BD: Are these characters
NP: Yes. I see a
lot of them in life. Even in the street, I can see it in their
faces a lot.
BD: Do you take ideas
from them to use on the stage?
NP: Yes, very much
so. I look and I notice.
BD: Are there any
redeeming qualities in these evil characters?
NP: I will go from the
Bible. The redemption comes from repentance. When you
repent, you cleanse. Then you redeem yourself. Every
person, no matter where they stand, high or low, must repent.
BD: But we practically
never see this on the stage. What about Iago in the fifth act?
NP: Iago no, but Barnaba
yes. He has one sigh that finishes the opera. "What have I
BD: He's repenting?
I thought he was frustrated.
NP: One person in the
audience thinks he's repenting and another person thinks he's
BD: Which do you think?
NP: I am repenting.
BD: Does the audience in
general know he's repenting?
NP: It doesn't matter,
but they should feel it.
BD: What about
Iago. There seems to be nothing redemptive about him.
NP: Iago is a classical
villain. [Laughter] There is nothing you can do with
Shakespeare. That is why Tolstoy could not understand
Shakespeare. He did not acknowledge Shakespeare because in
Shakespeare everything is black and white.
BD: What do we in the
West need to learn about Tolstoy?
NP: Tolstoy and
Dostoyevsky are things you keep getting to know. It would be
difficult to explain. When you read it at thirty you get one
thing. When you read it again at forty-five you see completely
different things. So it's probably like most of the classic
writers. When you re-read them, you see different things in
BD: Pushkin also?
NP: Yes. I am
amazed by how Pushkin worked. He has written how he was visited
by inspiration, by the muse. It's very difficult to understand
the geniuses, and they are geniuses.
BD: Is it better to sing
works by musical geniuses?
NP: I think so.
BD: Do you mostly sing
works by musical geniuses?
NP: Mostly, yes.
BD: Is there anything you
can do to help the lesser-lights?
NP: I had the chance to
do that, but now I sing very few modern composers. In the Soviet
Union, we had series with modern composers, and we were supposed to
sing the music of the person who had good connections.
BD: But even the
lesser-lights of the last century.
NP: I don't know the
second or third ranks of the last century. What has stayed for a
hundred or a hundred and fifty years has gone through the period of
human consciousness and has stayed. It's not a second or third
rank. We're not going to talk about how more or less genius they
are; they are still genius.
BD: So you find the
genius in each composer?
NP: Absolutely, their gut
BD: How are the audiences
different from Russia to Europe to America?
NP: The American audience
is pretty much the same as the Russian. They are just as
passionate and react very quickly and sharply to what they see. I
like the American public very much in New York and in Chicago and in
Los Angeles. The Russian public also reacts well.
What you give to them they give back.
BD: Are you conscious of the
public all the time?
BD: When you are singing,
are you portraying the character or do you become that character?
NP: There are different
situations. When you know that everything is going to go well
with the orchestra and everything will go well with your partners and
when you don't have a cold, you can live in the role. When you
have some kind of doubt or you feel something is not going to happen
with the maestro or with the partners, then you semi-live and
semi-portray the character. That's when your professionalism
kicks in. There are certain shows which the God's spark goes into
you and you just live through... but not to the extent that Canio does
BD: So you never cross
NP: I try not to.
BD: Do you go right up to
NP: I try to.
BD: I would assume that
most times you feel you succeed.
NP: No, not always.
I can't say that I'm always pleased with the performance.
Sometimes you feel some satisfaction, but most of the time you feel
some kind of dis-satisfaction with your work.
BD: Without being
specific, are there ever times when it all goes right?
NP: For me, no.
Almost never. There are times when it is more or less; more times
it is more, but never perfect!
BD: Could it be perfect?
NP: The way I see it, I
don't think so.
BD: But you always strive
NP: Yes, but I never can
achieve it. As soon as I achieve that, I should retire! I
would think that I am done as a singer, as an artist.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] So some night if you get to the last page and everything
has gone right, you'll purposely make a mistake???
NP: [Smiles] We're
not talking about technical perfection. We're talking about the
feeling that you get inside.
BD: Do you sing
differently in different size houses?
NP: I am trying to find a
different color for every role, to find the key to it, so from that the
way I send the sound is slightly different. The size of the house
doesn't matter. It's the role. I don't work to the
house. My voice knows by intuition how it should sound in each
BD: So it feels right?
BD: Are there times when you
rely only on feel and not by sound?
NP: I mostly sing only by
feel. If you sing by ear, by what you get back, it will be
different in each house. A lot of singers look for an echo and
it's comfortable for them to sing, but I sing mostly with my
professional feeling, with my breathing and how I feel the
breath. Here I feel great. It is always a pleasure to work
in a responsive house. I really like singing at the Met and also
here in Chicago. This house is very good.
BD: The recordings you
have made, are these in studio or live performance?
NP: Most are from the
stage of the Mariinsky, but Boris
was in studio. They are not from performances, but were recorded
in the house. The videos are from live performances. The Mazepa is from three live
performances both on video and audio.
BD: Do you sing
differently for the microphone than you do for the public?
NP: Yes, especially
lately. When Philips records me, a lot of resonance is cut out of
my voice on the record. So now for me it's two completely
different things, to sing live for the public and to record. The
manner of singing is very different because the microphone is very
close to you, whereas the public is behind the orchestra. You
have to sing over the one hundred twenty people in the orchestra to
reach the first row. If there are two thousand people in the
house, you have to make sure four thousand ears hear every word.
But you have a barrier of the orchestra which you have to cross.
BD: Do you ever feel the
orchestra is out to "getcha"?
NP: [Smiles] That's
a difficult question.
BD: Do you then rely on
the conductor to make sure the balance is correct?
NP: Yes. I love the
orchestra, I love my orchestra, I love the Met orchestra, La Scala has
a very good orchestra, and Salzburg has a very good orchestra because
the Vienna Orchestra plays at that festival. The musicians are
brought up in a way that they can never decline. When they are
asked to play very lightly, they are great professionals.
BD: It's nice to have an
orchestra that loves the human voice.
NP: Yes. It's very
important. I really love the orchestra here in Chicago and I love
Maestro Bartoletti. He's a legendary person. He understands
the voice. There are very few people right now who can do that;
people of the old school.
BD: Is Gergiev of the old
NP: Not really, but he
has such a great intuition and is such a genius that he grabbed both
the old and new schools. He has a phenomenal intuition.
BD: How do you balance
your career between opera and concert?
NP: I have very few
concerts. I used to have more, but now I am very busy with the
opera. Actually, concerts are more difficult to sing than opera.
NP: Because you are doing
a program that has twenty characters. The songs or arias are
always different. Even in the big song-cycles, the hero is
changing and his character changes.
BD: One character per
night is enough?
NP: One character per
night is Barnaba.
BD: Are any of these
NP: Most characters are
more-faceted. They go and progress. Not the big villians
like Barnaba, Iago, Scarpia. They don't change. They mostly
just carry a certain weight.
BD: You also sing
characters like Rigoletto.
NP: I have sung him about
a hundred times.
BD: Do you use a
left-hunch or a right-hunch?
NP: On the left.
BD: If the next costume
changed sides, would that change the character for you?
NP: I don't think
so. My first Rigoletto
was at the age of thirty-two. That's normal.
BD: Are you doing the
roles that you want to at the right time in your career?
NP: That's a very
difficult question. If you've built the career they way you
wanted, then you should go from the other side. But I rarely get
to choose. Tomorrow I will sing Barnaba, but I might rather sing
Rigoletto. That's professionalism.
BD: Do you sing any comic
characters at all?
NP: Figaro is not a comic
character; maybe semi-comic. I started my career in
operetta. I graduated from the conservatory and went into the
operetta theater and my first role was Barinkay in Gypsy Baron. Then I did Count
Danilo in The Merry Widow,
and the last show that I did was thrown together very quickly when I
was asked to fill in as Eisenstein in Die
Fledermaus. I was still slim at that time...
[Laughter] They taught me how to move onstage, they taught me how
to project when I speak, and they taught me how to dance.
BD: Did that all help you
NP: That's why when I
came to the opera I was bored. The school of operetta really gave
me a lot as an actor. That made it much easier for me to work
with the directors in the opera because I knew what they wanted and I
would do it.
BD: Are you always able
to accomplish what they ask?
That's why I never have a problem. I never have to tell them
something is uncomfortable for me. If he thinks I should do
something in a certain way, there's probably something in it. It
usually turns out that this is the way it should be. You are one
stroke of a big picture. If you are doing that stroke, the
picture comes out. If you go the wrong way, it's a different
stroke and the picture tends to fall apart.
BD: Directors must love
NP: I hope so!
BD: It's a rare singer
who is willing to be a stroke rather than the entire picture.
NP: You can't fill the
space if you are not the space. The space is too big, so you
cannot occupy it by yourself.
BD: Are you at the point
in your career you want to be at this time?
NP: I always think I
could have done more. It could turn out that I would have done
less. If I wouldn't have lived in the situation I did... I
did not live in the city. I grew up in a very small
village. I would walk five km through a forest to school.
It was in the north part of Russia. It is understood that you
should learn three languages, but we didn't have that. The first
time I saw a sheet of music I was about seventeen. So in view of
the kind of education that I received, maybe I have achieved a
lot. I have to expend four times the amount of time and energy
than the person who got a very good education from the beginning.
So I have to thank God that he gave me this chance. That's all I
BD: One last
question. Is singing fun?
NP: I think it's
BD: Thank you so much.
NP: Thank you.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 1998 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at
Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 15, 1998. My thanks to Misha
Royzan for providing the translation during the conversation. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB five weeks later. The
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
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
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.