Although she looks unassuming enough, Ruxandra Donose exudes a certain air that screams passion. Perhaps it is her fierce Romanian heritage or her well-spoken demeanor that shines through most intensely, but there is another, subtler passion that is written on her face, in her eyes. It is alluring yet, one imagines, gained only through a lifetime of devotion to the arts and of course, all that both underpins and undermines artistic endeavors, cultural discourse. I sat down with her after her first rehearsal for English National Opera's production of Calixto Bieito's Carmen, in which she makes her debut.
Donose began her musical career as a pianist (she started at 6), and although she was born into a family of musicians (her father is a noted opera director and critic while her mother is a music theory teacher), singing didn't make its true mark on her until she was 17. "When I was 12, I remember seeing Die Walkure, and don't remember much except [the stereotype] the singer with a spear and helmet on a rock singing for hours [she laughs]." Despite this run-of-the-mill image, she sensed that there was a tantalizing quality in the music, and it drove her to get a hold of an "LP of La traviata with Ileana Coltrubas. I think to this day it is one of the most incredible Traviata recordings. I listened to it a million times and know it by heart; it's sad that I will never be able to sing it!"
It was around this time that, whilst studying piano at the musical high school in Budapest, her own voice was discovered and she decided to continue her studies as a singer. Why? Because when she sang, she felt that it was more direct, easier to express, and fewer hours to practice. Although this was undoubtedly sad for her piano teacher, it was fantastic for the operatic world; a flame was alight and burning brightly. "I learned from that recording [of Traviata] what opera is all about: the connection between words and music, the connection between the emotion created by the words and music. I thought that, when I listened to it, I understood what I wanted to do. I would just be sitting, crying at the turntable!"
When I ask about her heroes, she names Coltrubas as one, but is hesitant to elevate any other singers to that status. "I have singers I admire…at the risk of sounding boring I am very much in awe of Maria Callas, because she is not just a pretty voice, she is a voice with personality and a woman with personality; it is powerful, real, and fully justified. I think any other singer that we can think of that does that would be one I admire." She continues, "one of the reasons is that they are more than just singers, they are incredible personalities, they build their singing with sense, expression and emotion…this is the whole point of singing opera; I admire singers who show us incredible vocal performances, but [she pauses] that's not enough; you know Callas was so ahead of her time…it is all about communication."
What better role to portray for a singer so perfectly aware of the requirements of singing than Carmen? Donose has lived with the role for a long time (she has previously sung it in Vienna, Leipzig, and Prague) but this will be the first time she sings it in English. "I like singing [Carmen] in English because I speak English. I love singing in languages I understand. I would never sing it in, Russian, for example, because I don't speak Russian. It is easier to feel when you understand the language in the first instance; otherwise you are just singing words you don't understand, like a parrot. Although I don't think English is an easy language to sing in - you never know if you need to roll your Rs or what [she laughs]."
But how does Donose describe Carmen? "The first thing that comes out of my mouth is that she is a free woman, a survivor, a strong woman who is trying to live in a man's world."
I counter and ask if Carmen is perhaps an anomaly. "Who is Carmen? She is a human being; how is she supposed to be? I think one of the greatest dangers in playing a role like this is playing a cliche. I'm not even sure if she is confident...Carmen is a victim. She is by nature an attractive woman, and men have always objectified her, and we have to remember that women, especially in that time, had to possess a great deal of intelligence and had to put a distance between what was happening around them and to them. She has to be real and sincere." She elaborates, "a book that was hugely influential on me was Mikey Walsh's Gypsy Boy, because he reminds us of the brutality of gypsy life, something that I am close to as a Romanian."
Of course, if she is a victim, then one wonders how much of, say, the habanera is actually false, or simply a show? "One thing this production has allowed me to do is look at the aria in a different way - it's quite sad because Carmen never expects the outcome she gets. She intimidates men, [perhaps especially] Don Jose, who I think is just bi-polar and too volatile."
Although she won't say too much about the production (first seen in Barcelona), I of course try to pry as much as I can about and, indeed, what it is like to work with its infamous director, Calixto Bieito, out of her. She resists, however, and simply says that it's "wonderful" to work with Bieito because although she was "a bit worried and even scared initially", because Carmen is an opera that could give him quite a bit to work with "everything is right. It is so real, because we see just how human Carmen really is."
How does she balance the requirements of the drama and the music in an opera like this? She looks puzzled and with a matter-of-fact tone simply says, "You just do it. It's a huge amount of work…in this production especially, it's quite psychical and intense…we are all full of bruises!"
Since this is a production by a director that has been less-than-critically-acclaimed in the past, I have to ask, is she nervous?
"Of course I do. But the way to deal with this is to return to what I believe, and perform the role in a real, sincere way; one cannot do more than that. On the other hand, I have accepted that, because Carmen is such a larger-than-life image and because everyone has different expectations, the only thing I can do is sing it with as much heart and thought - and that's it."
Portrait by Nicolae Alexa