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Galina talks about Galina

Galina Vishnevskaya was in Lyons for the world premiere of octogenarian composer Marcel Landowski's newest work, Galina, an opera based on the soprano's autobiography. Unfortunately, a disjointed libretto and the kind of music we have come to expect from France's unofficial official composer resulted in a disappointingly wan spectacle, as we overheard one spectator say on leaving the theater. Soprano Gwynne Geyer has a well-schooled voice but lacks the presence of Galina herself, which did not help matters, while director Alexandre Tarta did his best to make everything even more confusing with his totally obfuscatory production. Only the dedication of Jon Nelson in the pit offered some compensation. When I interviewed Mme.Vishnevskaya she was full of praise for the performers and production, but then how many singers have been made the heroine of an opera during their lifetime. And as you can read for yourselves, her life remains extremely active. In addition, EMI has finally reissued (7243 5 65716 2 4), as has Philips (446 212-2), recordings which have been sitting in their vaults for far too long with Moussorgsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky on the latter, to which are added Shostakovich, Glinka and opera arias on the former, all sung with the special feeling and emotion of which Vishnevskaya was capable. A recording on Russian Disc (11 003) of the soprano's last concert in Moscow, with much of the same repertoire, is a remarkable souvenir which should be in the collection of anyone interested in music as communication.

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 you calmer?

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 it.

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 concerts outside?

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 moment.

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 other music.

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.


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