Andrey Zolotov, Jr. talks to Natalia Pavlova, the Mariinsky Theater soloist.
– Natalia, you have just sung Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. It is commonly agreed that for a Russian singer Tatiana is one of the most difficult parts. Did you have such a feeling? And what does Tatiana mean for you?
– At the moment, Tatiana is very comfortable for me both as far as the voice and the metaphysics of this role are concerned. I can’t say it’s difficult for me. Rather, it was a month-long development process for myself. I am grateful to Chen Shi-Zheng, who directed the production in Charleston and asked me to play a free-running teenager at the beginning of the opera.
Tatiana, of course, prone to melancholy, endlessly reads books, loves privacy. But she is still a young girl. She wants to run, cuddle, and play with Olga. Thanks to this interpretation, I recalled myself as a child and could relate to that. I read a lot of early XX century Russian poets Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. I’ve been interested in that since I was ten. But with all of that, I played football with the boys and dived from towers. Sometimes, after I read Leo Tolstoy, I wanted to go to the birch wood and stay alone. I also dreamed of someone. And it’s great when it’s combined with your own youth and your activities. It’s not like you’re some kind of a melancholic person from the beginning till the end. Tatiana is very strong! It is very well seen with the Letter scene. I mean, if she wasn’t a tomboy in something, she would never do that!
That was the most interesting aspect for me. The director just let me be myself in this puberty. He let me be dreamy, but still lively, not a lady.
There was a lot at stake, because it was my first performance in the United States, and I knew this festival is highly respected, and you never know who’s coming to the show. We didn’t have covers and we had to stay fit for a month and a half, both vocally and physically. And there was some thrill of anticipation that someone was coming especially to see you. And indeed, there were people from the Los Angeles Opera, from Chicago, from the Metropolitan Opera. I was the only Russian in this production, and sometimes I felt like a caged animal looked at by everyone.
You said you loved to dream when you were young. Have you ever dreamed of a singing career or maybe an acting one?
More like the acting one. I learned poetry very quickly and I always tried to play what was in it, to put myself in the situation. I mean, not to dress up, but to try to feel it. I always liked being onstage in any role – to play the piano, to conduct a choir. I guess I wanted to be an actress, but I didn’t know it.
I always wondered what had happened to the character before the action began, why she behaved that way, not otherwise, and what happened after the book ended. That’s my way of preparing for roles. I have read Stanislavsky’s book “An Actor Prepares” and realized that these were my dreams since I was a child.
What requires more attention and effort – vocal or artistic side of the part? And where is the boundary between the two?
I can’t say what requires more. Preparation is happening at the same time. Vocal and technical side is endless. Let’s say you’ve learned and perfected a part, but you’re developing, you’ve got a new voice color, or you can make something new. Thus, every time you return to the part, you’re going to adapt to it again. This is an endless process.
You read the sources, at the same time you analyze the music, phrasing, vocal performance, learn Italian or French with a coach. I don’t know what’s more difficult. Both are interesting. It’s a journey and an adventure every time.
But it’s not difficult for me onstage. It’s more difficult for me to stand and sing than to move and sing. When I start moving, I don’t think about the high notes or anything else.
So you're the perfect tool for the modern opera directors who need one to do anything and sing, aren't you?
In Tatiana’s Letter scene, in Charleston, I run across the stage, then spin, dance, and then the final part “Konchayu, strashno perechest…” So you’ve just ran one hundred yards and then start and sing the top notes as if nothing had happened. One thing doesn’t depend on the other. On the contrary, I like dancing and singing, running and singing, hanging upside down, and singing – it’s cool! Because then the voice works naturally.
Who do you think of as your primary teachers?
My primary teacher whom I met in Moscow and who told me that I would become a singer was Rafael Sirikyan. He taught me the technique. And now I have great coaches in the Mariinsky Theater. We have accompanists who know the opera well and help with both the language, music and phrasing. And there are accompanists who also know where my voice lives and peel the skin, so to say, of my performance. And I’m endlessly thankful to them, because I don’t have a vocal teacher here, but with my background from Rafael Sirikyan, who died four years ago, I develop every day.
– You have a lot of concert performances – both opera in concert halls and chamber repertoire. Do I get it right that this is no less interesting to you these days than the opera?
– I sing Handel’s cantatas. It’s like mono-operas, which I got to sing in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theater, too. There are plans for concerts with instrumental music. It’s another level, it requires entirely different technical nature and clears everything: head, soul, and sound. You cannot lie there, like in Bach’s cantata. You’re completely naked: if you’re lying, if you’re trying to pretend, you have missed and you are endlessly boring and wearily.
With Bach and Vivaldi, especially with their ecclesiastical music, you develop yourself. I really like doing this, alongside the opera. I wouldn’t want to sing just chamber music. But chamber music – lieder, romances, Handel, Bach – is more intimate, crystal clear, so it has to be clean from the ground up. There are no big brush strokes anywhere in chamber music. It helps in the opera further down the road.
– There are musicians who love to listen to the records of great predecessors, to study them carefully. And there are those who say, “No, I’m not listening to anyone.” Are these exemplary performances important to you?
– First, I listen to the records that are available, just to get to know the music, and then I work on my own, with the coach, from the score. And then I listen again. I recently prepared Bach’s 82nd cantata. It is sung by both men and women. You listen to different performances, different voices, in different modes, but you already know it and understand what you might have to borrow in terms of style – say, pronunciation or pause. But you already have something of your own!
There’s never any ideal singers I’m learning from. Someone only listens to Maria Callas, someone else – to Anna Netrebko, or Natalie Dessay, or Renata Tebaldi. But everyone sings something their own way better than the other. And you can be growing with anything you listen to or watch.
Are there any favorite singers you can say "I want to be like her"?
No, I don’t want to be like anyone. But I admire all the great singers and learn from everyone, including basses and baritones.
Was there any special performance or a record that really impressed you?
I recently attended “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” when Netrebko sang it here in the Mariinsky Theater. I didn’t see the premiere, but I read different reviews. Someone wrote that Markov was the best, Netrebko is past prime, and so on. I had a concert on that day, I was late for the first act and I came to the second one. Then I couldn’t contain myself and wrote to Anna. I never write to castmates for flattery. But I just couldn’t restrain myself. No one ever, neither Ferruccio Furlanetto, nor Jessye Norman or Plácido Domingo, ever brought me to such ecstasy. I yelled like crazy at the end of the performance. Because she is the queen in terms of energy, but also great singing, beautiful sound and performance onstage. That was the latest big impression.
Ten years ago, I was impressed with Schubert’s Erlkoenig and Wagner’s songs performed by Jessye Norman. She was so energetic she seemed to lead he orchestra with her back. I cried, I couldn’t stop. Daniel Barenboim brought Wagner in concert performance and I cried after that too. Every time this magic happens, I am endlessly thankful to God and the arts, because then you get inspired from that.
– Do you have your favorite performed parts?
– I think it’s really interesting for me dramatically to go back to Violetta. She’s new every time. It depends on the partner and something else. I’m very interested in the personality of Violetta Valery. She is not fully developed by Verdi. If you combine it with Duma’s novel and with historical letters — how she educated herself, what a strong woman she was – then you will get the whole picture.
Now I’m very interested in the role of Tamara in “The Demon” by Anton Rubinstein. Who is she, that the Demon decided to become recanted and return to God? What kind of personality is she, what does she have inside her? It’s very interesting, too. Even the poet who wrote the original behind the opera, Mikhail Lermonotov, doesn’t give you that description. You get this from history.
Well, I guess Tatiana by Tchaikovsky and Rusalka by Dvořák are also my faorite.
You will sing Liu in Turin, directed by Gianandrea Noseda, in the coming months. It is a renowned European theater and one of the world's most renowned conductors of the Italian repertoire. How did this happen and what do you expect?
The agent sent my video to Turin and they invited me to audition. I was lucky enough. Thirteen people were singing prior to me without the conductor in the hall. I was the fourteenth. And in the middle of my scene of Tatiana’s letter, cast directors suddenly began to move, straightened, and I realized there was something going on in the theater. As a lump, he stood during the whole scene of the letter up to the end somewhere on the sidelines, then approached the cast directors, read my biography, came to the stage, and spoke in Russian to me, “Hello, where are you from? What do you sing? What do you have in your Italian repertoire?” He said, “Get some rest and sing us another aria.” I came back and sang Violette from the beginning to the end. I thought I sung rather badly. Four days later I returned to St. Petersburg and the first call was from my agent. She said that Gianandrea Noseda had personally sent me an invitation to participate in Turandot, to sing Liu.
I think it’s a better set of circumstances. Because when a cast director listens to you, he or she would assess you in general, and when a director or a conductor listens to you, they see you in the context of their production to see if you fit their vision. So if Noseda had not heard me personally, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
I’m expecting a lot from Turin. I know the singers who worked on some parts with Noseda that they would sing it for years like a clockwork. He has a very clear idea of how it should be. I hope that Turin will give me some kind of push that I’m going to have the opportunity not only to work on Liu, but also with coaches on Mimi, Violetta, or Desdemona. It would be extremely interesting for me!
Do you have a Big Dream?
I don’t want to be looking for a job. I want to get to a level where you have an opportunity to develop every day. I really like developing and growing. And to do so not against the circumstances, but because of them. For example, when you get to the Spoleto Festival in the United States, you get so many coaches, from choreographers to vocal and linguistic ones, that it is impossible not to develop. I don’t want to waste time going in circles. I want to be onstage all the time and reach the souls and hearts of people.
It’s not some kind of artificial pathos. Every time I take the stage, I pray that the audience does not leave the theater with an empty soul. I ask for success in bringing what I prepare inside myself to their hearts. If there is God’s will, I’d like to keep going on the stage and give my art away to people. This would be the biggest happiness for me.