Q&A: Sonya Yoncheva on the rebirth of the opera industry and finding her own freedom as an artist
(Photo: Alexandre Thompson)
Sonya Yoncheva has always played by her own rules. She never allowed anyone to lock her up and never followed a specific route.
She defended rarely played like “Il Pirata”, “Siberia” and “Medea” among others throughout his career, experimenting with all kinds of directors and often arriving at truly immersive and original interpretations of his roles. This made her one of the most famous and acclaimed sopranos of her generation and allowed her to perform in the biggest theaters and with the biggest singers in the industry.
She is also a deep thinker and the past year has allowed her to truly explore and reflect on her career and the new trajectory she is taking with his new album “Rebirth”. She spoke with OperaWire about how she sees the future of the opera world, COVID-19, and her new album.
OperaWire: Over the years you have forged relationships with such powerful institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, Rolex, Sony Classics, and Operalia. Tell me about these relationships and how do they bring greater responsibilities?
Sonya Yoncheva: If some say that they open all the doors and offer many opportunities, it can be noted that this also imposes a lot of responsibilities. All of these relationships were built in a very natural way. After the Operalia competition, I was accepted into a large family of young singers under the mentorship of Plácido Domingo. And in his circle too, which was just amazing. These people were very generous and simple in a way. Seeing them in real life for me as a young singer was a special opportunity. I felt like Plácido Domingo himself was a great institution, which he certainly is, but being with him was like being part of the family.
And so I learned that for all these connections that I cherish (the Met, Rolex and some directors), the most important thing is to keep them. direct and honest. We always keep in touch, talk about issues, support and trust each other.
OW: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected these relationships?
SY: In times of crisis, we all encourage each other. But I would also like Note that it was amazing for me to see how artists supported each other throughout this period. We have to understand one special thing here, independent musicians rarely thought about it something like that. We were absolutely unprepared.
When the pandemic started, my friend told me he was on the verge of losing everything; his career and his family. Many people immediately lost their jobs and within a few months they lost confidence in themselves and singing. And when I found my friend in this situation, I had to think about it.
I asked myself, “How can I help? And I realized that having a connection with Rolex was incredibly helpful. I came to them with my problem and shared my concerns. They were thinking the same things as me. Therefore my ideas were welcome, and that’s how we started the Perpetual Music series. It ended up providing over 100 artists with financial aid and a basic opportunity to perform again, which I guess was even more important during the first lockdown.
I understand that I live in a privileged situation and that I have opportunities to help others. Today I feel like what I want and need to do is help people come back to life and make it better.
OW: Is there something that you find excessive about the old ways of opera in this new post-pandemic reality?
SY: Today, we see that the industry has accepted for years a certain way of working, which was excessive. I’m talking about these long-term productions with huge budgets that we spend eight weeks rehearsing to deliver a result. And then, they are easily thrown in the trash so easily and too soon.
I hope this situation will force the industry to rethink the way we work and choose a simpler way. We have talent and such diversity in the repertoire. And yet, we got used to provoking (in a very “cheap” way) to engage more people and include a younger audience. But I think it’s better to pick a good idea and get straight to the point without over-decorating it. Presenting more diverse (albeit smaller) productions, focusing on the incredible work of the orchestra, actors and singers can be a great and effective way to rejuvenate the industry and engage new audiences.
I hope the artists will be more involved in the production decisions. I heard “Who the hell is this girl ?!” very often when I was young when I asked simple questions and made suggestions. It is not yet customary to ask and listen. But I believe that it is necessary to build a dialogue in the new world of opera.
OW: You once said, “I think every artist should seek freedom and independence in their career”. How does it work for you?
SY: I have always been very free-spirited. But when I started, I was told, “You have to do it this way and not another.” Which meant I had to sing Adina, Norina, and all those “-ina’s”. But I was nervous about it. It seemed so easy to put in a matrix, which I never wanted to be a part of. I knew it was always important to think about my own feelings. And that naturally led to the point where I broke the chain and stopped being the person other people wanted me to be.
And recently, in these difficult conditions, I had the time and wanted to do more. I wanted to give a concert to my country, but there was no way contact anyone. All establishments have been closed. There was no money or staff to produce the event, but I just decided to do it on my own. With my art manager friend in Bulgaria, we built this concert in just two months. We have found a venue, an orchestra and a way to invite people and the media.
Taking responsibility and making decisions on my own, whether it be choosing partners or general working conditions, is very inspiring. And when the concert was a success, I decided to continue. Not just for the sake of the activity, but to keep that feeling of being proactive. I didn’t want to stay at home waiting to be invited, but to create and build a reality. I guess there is a lot of creative energy and ideas that came to the artist industry during this time and pushed it forward.
OW: I have always admired this creativity and for me you have always been an explorer of female nature. But your last record sounds more spiritual. He seems to live in other spheres, art purer than life. What caused this change and how would you define “Rebirth?” “
SY: When I decided to record this album about 10 years ago, I wanted to explore this part of the history of music. This sound was magnetic to me and I was always delighted with it. And then, I had a lot of time last summer. I saw the pieces I chose, and they were all related to the Renaissance, such an important period in art history.
Today we have so much to think about. We are living in a time that can be difficult and feels like a finish line for some people. But it is also a new beginning for others. All of the songs on the record were related to this sense of rebirth in the art form. There was a feeling of rebirth for artists in this new reality and leaving the past behind.
I also wanted to redefine myself and show that no artist should be defined in a specific or definitive way. And it was an opportunity to show that you can be reborn and redefine whenever you want. A lot of people find it arrogant, but I see it very natural for an artist. We are curious, we are dreamers, let’s change!
OW: Is it difficult to defend your artistic curiosity and your right to change in the opera industry?
SY: There are so many cultures and characters in opera. Not obvious, not predictable. Medea is a good example. People asked me why I wanted to play it? For most people, he’s a monster. But there is always so much more for the artist. It is an opportunity to reflect on this character in our time, to tell his story, and even to defend her. It is important not to miss it at the opera.
Poppea is another shining example. The role I said I would never sing or play until I felt myself in her skin. And it was an amazing experience to have full freedom of interpretation in Salzburg.
OW: What advice would you give to female singers in the industry and what could they learn from their characters?
SY: I have sometimes heard female colleagues say things like, “I would like to had done that, but at that moment I did not understand the character. “Our dreams and opinions in this industry are fair and harmless, and I hope female singers, especially female singers, raise their voices and share their wonderful perspectives to enrich this art. They can make it even better. We should to be fearless and allowed to say it as it is. It may sound shocking. But it is the only way true collaboration in art will happen.