OperaNet: How does it feel to see your
life as an opera?
Galina Vishnevskaya: I saw the dress rehearsal, but I was here a month
ago for the first rehearsals. Psychologically I wasn't ready. Landowski has been
working on the opera for four years. We would meet occasionally and he would
read me parts of the libretto. I would listen and it didn't really penetrate, it
had nothing to do with me. Yes, it all happened, but long ago. Landowski was
writing an opera about some other person. But the first time I came to a
rehearsal, I arrived directly from the train station; the soprano was rehearsing
the final scene - my farewell to the Bolshoi - I heard my words, a woman's
voice, I saw a woman who was reciting my text in my name. That was a shock. I
had to cover my mouth with my hand in order not to shout. I almost screamed. I
felt terrible, it was difficult to remain in control. My throat was choked up,
my mouth closed. I realized I had to regain my self-control. It was as if I were
watching my life from another world, after my death. It was one of the worst
experiences in my life.
OperaNet: Now that you've attended the dress rehearsal, are
Galina: Yes, now that I almost know the opera by heart, I know what's
going to happen. Nonetheless it touches me deeply.
OperaNet: You have done so many things, is there anything you
regret not having done?
Galina: The only thing I haven't done is dance Swan Lake, and
I never will. I sang operetta, I sang in music halls, for more than thirty years
I sang opera, I wrote a book, I've been giving master classes for many years, I
directed The Tsar's Bride, I've been in films, first as an opera
singer in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth and now I'm going to be in a
film version of a play by Ostrovsky, and I've acted Catherine of Russia in a
play at the Moscow Art Theater. What haven't I done? I haven't danced in public.
OperaNet: And now the other side of the question: is there
anything that you wish you hadn't done?
Galina: No. There may have been the occasional evening I shouldn't have
sung something, Muradeli's opera October, for example, which the
Bolshoi presented. It was the only time in my life I was ashamed to be on stage.
I sang it twice and that was it. It was an opera about Lenin, if you can believe
OperaNet: Do you teach now?
Galina: Only master classes. They are building a school for me in the
center of Moscow which should be completed by next year, the Galina Vishnevskaya
School of Opera. It will be for singers who have finished their studies at the
conservatory but who are not yet ready to go on stage. It's something new. Some
opera companies have their studios, but I know myself what that entails and it
doesn't really train a singer, or help him. Everything must be focused on the
singer, to enable him to prepare several roles.
OperaNet: Will you only have Russian singers at your school?
Galina: No, from all over.
OperaNet: Will selection be by audition?
Galina: We haven't decided yet. You can't really rely on cassettes, you
must hear the singer in person. We'll either send some judges to scout, for
example in a European city, but I don't know yet.
OperaNet: And who is financing the school?
Galina: A group of people. The students will in any event pay tuition,
as that is what will keep the school going.
OperaNet: Have you chosen your teaching colleagues yet?
Galina: I'm thinking about it, I have some ideas. We need great
musicians who will give master classes, conductors, stage directors. It should
be an atmosphere both cultural and encouraging reflection, musically speaking.
As it's something totally new, we have to consider seriously how it will be
organized so that the first two years get off to a good start.
OperaNet: You must spend a great deal of time now in Russia,
with the school.
Galina: I'll be there three months in the year - which I'll probably do
in three installments.
OperaNet: Will the students be allowed to sing operas or
Galina: There will be a theater in the school. Outside, that will depend
on the condition in which they arrive, to what extent they are ready, what their
potential is, how they move, their comportment. It's difficult to say at the
OperaNet: What do you think of young singers with respect to
their preparation, their attitude and devotion to their profession?
Galina: Opera is going through a difficult period. It is a closed world.
A singer turns up, he is totally unprepared but in the best of cases he already
has a voice, which is at least something, perhaps he even knows what his
register is. That's it. He is engaged in a small theater, let us say, sings his
first role, no one has done any serious work with him, because conductors and
directors don't work with young singers. He is thrown onstage and has no
possibility of developing a sense of the stage. In certain theaters, La Scala or
the Met, for example, there are whole groups of singers who are more or less
left to their own devices. In the best of cases they learn a role with a
rehearsal pianist. Or they sing something or perhaps they wait for years without
singing. If they knock themselves out, perhaps they'll be allowed to go onstage.
A young artist in such circumstances sings badly. Nothing happens, the audience
applauds; if nothing disastrous has happened or he hasn't fallen flat on his
face, he might even get a good review. But in two or three years he's finished.
It's a vicious circle. The public should be more demanding, but critics should
be more serious, not nasty or snide but truly professional. Serious professional
criticism is indispensable to young singers, it can help them. A good review
should advise them, not simply make fun of them if something has gone wrong,
because that can be totally destructive. He will lose his self-confidence.
OperaNet: What would you advise a young singer?
Galina: Never start with difficult roles, unlike me who started with one
of the most challenging. I sang Leonora in Fidelio for my debut at the
Bolshoi. I started with Tatiana and Fidelio. When I think today that I did such
a thing at 25 years old, accepting...
OperaNet: Tatiana, yes, but not Fidelio.
Galina: Absolutely. Fidelio, no, 100% no [in English]. What
happened to me was exceptional. With that role I learned to sing. I had a brain,
after all. I had already been singing professionally for eight years - operetta,
music hall - I was a professional and I sang. If i had shouted I would have lost
my voice and ruined the performance so I shrank my voice and cut through the
orchestra with a compressed voice, piercing, like a silver trumpet,
effortlessly, but it was the only way. Melik-Pashayev, who was the principal
conductor of the Bolshoi, never allowed singers to force, never. And Boris
Pokrovsky was the director. From the start I worked under exceptional
circumstances. I've nothing to complain about. You can't advise people to look
for the same set of circumstances, however.
OperaNet: The big difference is that when you were young there
were people like Melik-Pashayev and Pokrovsky, whereas today there is no one,
there are no longer any troupes.
Galina: Not even at the Bolshoi. The Bolshoi lasted much longer than the
others as a troupe. There was at least an ensemble feeling. Now everyone is
going in a different direction, there is a new system. In fact, they should all
be on contract, but the Bolshoi should nonetheless manage to achieve a new type
of ensemble in order not to lose the precious ensemble feeling.
OperaNet: Do you think that the Maryinsky has today taken over
in that respect?
Galina: The Maryinsky has been at a high level for several years now.
Gergiev has worked hard for that. I see another danger now. They put on a lot of
operas, too many, with not enough rehearsal time. They tour a lot. Can a theater
survive under such conditions - it's hard to say.
OperaNet: Now that you are able to go to Russia, how do you
feel about the changes in daily life, in the theaters, in musical life? We've
already spoken about the ascent of the Maryinsky and the decline of the Bolshoi.
Galina: Things are difficult for all the arts in
Russia. A natural selection is in operation. In the old days, there were too
many theaters which were all supported by the State, and even bad theater were
supported by the State. If you take the Bolshoi, for example, at its high point,
during the time I was there, the highest monthly salary was 550 rubles - that's
what I was paid for six performances a month. Another singer in the same
performance who had only three lines to sing earned 300 rubles. And if the
maximum was 550 at the Bolshoi, at the worst theater in the most backwater
province the principal singers earned a maximum of 400 rubles. And there were a
lot of theaters, all supported by the State, and a lot of bad singers made a
living. Now it's necessary to close half the theaters so that the others can
continue to exist. You can't fill that many theaters without good singers.
OperaNet: But the same is true in the West, because of the
number of recordings in circulation. Audiences are no longer prepared to listen
to young singers or singers who are not highly mediatic.
Galina: But the fact that the great singers have recorded allows us to
encourage a professional approach and set a good example for the young singers.
If recordings were not available, nothing would be left.
OperaNet: We were speaking more from the audience point of
view, as the promotion of certain singers has operated to the detriment of
others. If we have nothing but Pavarotti and Domingo...
Galina: In art, you must be first. That's all. If you can't be first, be
second and keep quiet. No one needs the third place artist. Opera is not for the
general public. There are 44 opera house in Russia. For whom? If the
performances are bad, there are 50 people in the theater. For whom is all that
work being done? The singers are bad, there is no audience. The theater has to
support true art.
OperaNet: Why haven't you staged any productions since The
Tsar's Bride ?
Galina: I staged that opera because I adore the work and I wanted others
to see a wonderful opera, an extraordinary opera, as it should be done, in a
traditional fashion, without any of the improbabilities that would occur in
transferring it to another period, for example, as is the general tendency
today. If that were to happen, the audience would detest the opera and quickly
forget it. That's why I wanted to stage it. But I myself am so used to being
onstage that I demand too much of the singers, 100% all the time, and that
during two weeks. In a few months I would have reached my goal, but directors
shouldn't be like that. They should take into account the singer and his
capacities. But I don't want the singer's capacities, I want mine.
OperaNet: When you see a modern production - without
mentioning any names - what is your reaction?
Galina: In the first place, the director should never switch periods.
Absolutely . The decors may be conventional, sometimes that can even
be interesting. But the essence of the work should not be touched. If Verdi
wrote Aida as he did, he saw it in a particular fashion, in those
costumes, and if he saw the desert, he didn't see a factory onstage. If he had
visualized a factory, he would have written other music. I just saw Aida
in Stockholm. They transposed the period to a war in Morocco or something like
that. Amneris arrives in trousers and boots, carrying a whip, Aida looks like a
schoolteacher with a black dress and a little white collar. In the temple when
they are asking the blessing of the gods, Radames - for some strange reason -
gets into a bathtub from which he emerges covered in blood [horrified
expression]. And, really, the triumphal scene afterwards is a reception at the
White House, everyone in black tie and a glass of champagne in hand. I left at
the intermission, I had no desire to stay. The tempi were twice as fast as usual
- faster and faster. It's sneering at everyone, really. It's the audience's
fault. They shouldn't accept such things.
OperaNet: But it's not only the audience. It's also the
critics, who may have seen an opera many times and wish to see something new.
Galina: If they want something new, let them go to a modern opera with
OperaNet: Do you think each country should try to hold on to
its own traditions of singing?
Galina: It's part of the culture of a people or a country and it should
be retained and not allowed to disappear. It's not just a way of producing a
sound. Technically everyone sings in the same manner: how they express
themselves, what are their goals and the repertoire constitute the differences.
OperaNet: Do you think that singers today find it difficult to
articulate in any language?
Galina: I recently noticed at the Bolshoi, and I think it's the same
everywhere, that singers who travel a great deal, who learn operas in various
foreign languages - without sufficient knowledge of the language in question -
learn by ear which has an echo on their own language and their attitude towards
the words. I just heard Khovanshchina which Rostropovich conducted in
Moscow. I was at all the rehearsals - after twenty years I was back at the
Bolshoi - and I couldn't understand the text, not only the words which can
happen, but I couldn't get the sense of a phrase. In Italian, non-Italians sing
without knowing the language, and the same for German, they learn without
knowing the meaning. Afterwards that has an affect of their own language. I
hadn't realized it before. If we require proper enunciation from the singers
without an understanding of the meaning - the meaning of the phrase - but
sufficient understanding to know where to place the tonic accents, emphasize an
artificial articulation, then they forget the musical side.
OperaNet: You must be proud that composers like Shostakovich
or Britten wrote the works for you that they did.
Galina: And how. I find it difficult today to believe that I was worthy
of such an honor. My husband and I were on friendly terms with Shostakovich for
twenty years. We used to spend New Year together. It's difficult to realize
today that we so often ate together. It still amazes me. He wrote and dedicated
to me the Satires to poems by Sasha Chorny, another cycle to poems by
Blok and also the orchestration of Moussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.
I sang the world premiere of his 14th Symphony and I sang and acted the role of
Katerina in the film of Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk. He wrote so much for
me, which means he thought about me, He heard my voice in those works. I was the
happiest of women.
OperaNet: We listened to the recordings which EMI has finally
reissued and also that on Philips, as well as a recording on Russian Disc of
your last concert in Moscow, with much of the same repertoire. Did you feel
comfortable recording in the studio or do you prefer live recordings?
Galina: Live. Only live. I hate the studio. They're right to make live
recordings today. in the studio, you rehearse and it's always the same thing.
And the studio can play with the sound with their countless buttons.
OperaNet: Are there any composers from the Soviet era who have
been unjustly forgotten or neglected?
Galina: Boris Tchaikowsky, for example. He just died and was only 64. He
was a fantastic composer.
OperaNet: And more recent composers?
Galina: It's difficult to say because I wasn't there. Don't forget,
there were at one time 10,000 composers who belonged to the Composer's Union and
each one of them thought it very unfair that he was unknown in the West. And the
State supported all of them. It was the same thing for writers, and there were
10 or 15,000 writers in the Writer's Union. It's now total catastrophe for them.
OperaNet: To return to Landowski, you've known him for a long
time, and I believe he's composed a number of works for you.
Galina: Un Enfant Appelle is one of the works, and also Une
Prison which is dedicated to Rostropovich and me. He writes beautiful
music, like Galina also. It's music one wants to listen to again. With
respect to modern opera, it's very important for the audience that comes to the
opera - which is not the same as that for symphonic concerts - that the music
fall easily on the ear, not only brief moments. You need something which flows.
OperaNet: One last question. If you look back on your life,
what has given you the greatest satisfaction?
Galina: The theater, obviously. But I also had the time to raise two
daughters and now I am able to gather the fruits of that heroic act: I have six
grandchildren, five boys and one girl.