Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova enjoys a reputation as one of the world's most gifted singers, as strong a vocal technician as she is a committed actress. After singing most of the big Mozart roles for the mezzo during her early years, she has more recently turned to Handel and the baroque composers for inspiration, while in summer of this year she sang her first Carmen, in Munich; Eboli and Dalila are also on the cards.
But it's for the bel canto repertoire that Kasarova is most admired, which is why London audiences are lucky to have the opportunity to hear her sing a new Rossini role later this week: Edoardo in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, opposite Juan Diego Flórez. The singer's London appearances are all too rare nowadays (though she returns to the capital next May for a concert performance of Handel's Agrippina), so we caught up with her to ask her about her ever-expanding repertoire, her approach to the bel canto, her new Handel CD and her plans for the future.
Kasarova is enthusiastic about the opportunity to sing a new Rossini role.'It's the first time that I have sung Edoardo, and it's great to be doing it in a traditional production,' she says. 'Edoardo is a young man, a prisoner of Corradino, and he stands for the serious part of the drama. One must be aware that even though it's not the title role, he's still very important.
'It's wonderful to be performing with this calibre of cast,' the mezzo continues. 'Edoardo may not be onstage all of the time, but he has two very special arias. I especially love the second one, in Act 2, which is accompanied by horns. I sang it in a concert in Tokyo with David Syrus [Head of Music Staff at the Royal Opera], so I know it well.
'Vocal colour is so important to Rossini. I'm very confident the audience will love this opera because it's full of great moments, and there's nothing disturbing or upsetting about it.'
I ask Kasarova whether it bothers her that she isn't playing the lead role. 'As a mezzo-soprano, I'm used to it – I don't have a problem with it,' she explains with a laugh. 'In the case of Edoardo, it's very challenging, vocally. The tessitura is demanding: it covers three octaves and goes both very low and very high. Not everybody is capable of doing that – some mezzos only have the high notes or the low notes – so I take it as a compliment that I'm asked to play the part. The main roles in this opera were composed in a difficult way by Rossini because he had access to very special singers. Today, you can't perform this opera without Juan Diego Flórez! There are many difficult roles in this opera.'
Does she think that's the reason why the opera is not performed so often (i.e. it's impossible to cast), or is it because it's an inferior work? 'Well, it's certainly not an opera that works automatically, like Il barbiere. It only works if you have a great cast, who are all great actors as well as singers. I think that's the only reason it's not in the main repertoire. It's an ensemble opera. I only have two arias; the soprano only has a couple of arias. That makes it expensive to stage, I think, because you have to get everyone together.'
How does she find it working at Covent Garden? 'I haven't been here for a couple of years – it was the concert performances of Dom Sébastien. Covent Garden is one of the most important opera houses in the world, as everybody knows. The theatre is neither too small nor too big; it just has the right dimensions. I find that the audience can really see your face, and as a strong actor, that's significant for me. Everybody loves to perform here because it has the right balance. You can perform everything from Mozart to Verdi here, and it works. I like to perform at the Bavarian State Opera, for the same reason. The Vienne State Opera has a slightly bigger stage, but it's still a good feeling. In other theatres, however, the distance can be too long.'
Does she have plans to come back to the ROH? 'Yes – in January 2011 I'm coming to sing Il barbiere di Siviglia. For me, Covent Garden is more important than, for example, La Scala. An opera house is not just the singers and musicians; it's a whole organisation. The people behind the scenes here work very smoothly and very carefully. That gives you the confidence to be able to concentrate on your performance. That's very special to my experiences here.'
I raise the subject of Kasarova's long-awaited debut in the title role of Bizet's Carmen, but the singer explains that it's not as big a step for her as one might think. 'Carmen came this July in a new production in Zurich. But she's always been part of my repertoire because I've sung all the arias in concerts for years. Therefore, it wasn't something terribly new or big for me, on one level.
'But I am always careful to wait for the right moment when adding new roles to my repertoire, and with this very special role I wanted to wait for a new generation of audience members to come along before presenting my Carmen. I didn't want to do an old-fashioned version of her. I wanted it to be more psychological.
'My characterisation always depends on the interpretation and style of the production, of course. A more traditional production with gypsies and flowers in the hair would have meant a different kind of acting from me. You can't just do what you feel like. I felt lucky that the Zurich production was very modern, so Carmen herself was a modern young woman. This reduced the drama to its essence, and I was really impressed by how well the director moved the chorus around in a very natural and meaningful way.
'It was still a difficult debut, because some people in the audience were so used to seeing the opera done in a certain way that they were expecting something different. Sometimes I wish that people would be a little more open-minded about looking at things in a new way. I found it more interesting to do it like this for my first Carmen than if it had been a traditional production. I could create something new this way – it was stronger and more personal, and I could give new life to the piece.'
Is her voice or her acting more important to her when she expresses herself onstage? 'I feel they belong together – just singing would be very boring! But there is a process to it: as a singer you have to have technique, so you breathe, you feel the emotion, then you sing and act. It's a step by step process, and you have to feel it first. There's always a danger that you can lose control, but it's so important to stay in control if you want your career to last for a long time. Otherwise, your emotions can be too strong and you can lose yourself and that's dangerous for the voice. Breath technique is so important for singers, but it's increasingly rare – that's one reason why a lot of young performers rise to stardom but don't last, and it's a pity.'
The addition of Agrippina to Kasarova's repertoire (with a concert performance at the Festival Hall on 17 May 2009) seems an important step for her, because it continues her new-found affection for Handel's operas. 'Until a few years ago, my favourite composer by far was Mozart, and I must confess that I discovered Handel for myself quite late. But now I find him so expressive, such a genius, that I'm looking at this repertoire more and more for the future. I think it's perhaps more relevant for the public.'
Any more Handel in the future? 'On the one hand, it's a privilege, but on the other hand, it's a bit of a dilemma to have such a wide repertoire. I have three important role debuts this season, with Nerone in Poppea in Barcelona, Agrippina in Zurich and Edoardo here, and I also have more Carmens, and Dalila in Berlin. That's the wonderful thing about my voice – it will let me do all those different roles.
'I'm looking at heavier roles now: Eboli is definitely coming in a few years, and the time is definitely right, but there are so many things for me to do!
'I feel I have a voice more like the classical singers in the past, like Simionato. They sang everything from Mozart to Verdi, starting with Cherubino and ending up with Azucena and Eboli – it was normal. Today, we're living in a time of specialists: there are a lot of lyric mezzos who sing a particular repertoire, but my voice is more in the old-fashioned style and has many more possibilities. I have the tessitura and colours of the mezzo; my voice isn't only powerful. It can be both powerful and dramatic and sensitive enough to do baroque music.'
Kasarova has a new Handel CD out on Sony/RCA, featuring arias from both well known (Ariodante) and unusual (Arianna in Creta)operas. 'The focus was on music written for the castrato Carestini. I wanted to do a more wide-ranging recital, but there were just too many arias to choose from and we only had three days to record them in!
'This album was planned a couple of years ago with the former BMG, and it was intended to go from Rodrigo right to the end of Handel's output, and it would not have been confined to castrato roles. I wanted to do arias from lots of operas, such as Acis and Galatea and Orlando.
'Then when the project resumed and we didn't have as much time, I was already singing Alcina and Ariodante on the stage, so the focus on Carestini came, and we made the whole programme around his music. I wanted to do some more unusual things, though, so we added things that weren't very well known, such as Ottone.
'As I said, Handel only goes back a few years with me, so it's wonderful to have the opportunity to sing this expressive music. In the past, some people liked to perform baroque music in a very strict way, not taking account of the drama in the music. But style has changed.
'Another thing that is important to my approach to this repertoire is the use of vibrato. Some people think it should be performed without it, but I can't see how an outstanding singer like Carestini could have sung them straight. The conductors I work with today tend to feel that you can only produce the drama by using vibrato. Of course, it should only be used as an expressive device, and in special moments it can be good to sing without it for a particular sound or gesture – but not the whole time.'
A few years ago, Kasarova released a disc of Bulgarian songs, and I ask the singer about the importance of the music of her homeland to her. 'In the past, I had often been asked to sing Russian repertoire – people think that as a singer from Eastern Europe, that's what you should sing. So I decided that I wanted to show I was from Bulgaria, and I did this album of music from my native country and culture. This kind of music is very different, very special. I collaborated with a Bulgarian composer (Krassimir Kyurkchiyski) who arranged the music so it would fit my voice and yet be true to its folk origins. I didn't want it to be a crossover album; I wanted it to be genuine.'
Music was always an important part of Kasarova's life. 'I started studying music at the age of four. Initially, it was as a pianist, and I went to music school as a teenager. At that time, the Communist regime in those Eastern European countries was providing a lot of money for music – only the best would do – so I had a very intensive musical education. My success today has a lot to do with the fact that I was trained as a musician, not just as a singer. I don't just think like a singer or listen just to the vocal line; I try to have a wider perspective on the music.'
Does she have any big ambitions left? 'I have been very lucky, and I'm also very happy with what I've been able to achieve. It's not a question of what will come in the future; my focus is more on keeping the level I have reached. One of the most important things for me is to work with good conductors. There are very few conductors who really understand what the voice is doing and how to judge tempos properly for singers.'
What would she like to be remembered for? 'To have been a special personality, and for my acting.'
Vesselina Kasarova appears as Edoardo in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at the Royal Opera House from 23 October. Her new album Sento Brillar: Arias for Carestini is out now. She returns to Britain next May with Handel's Agrippina with the Zurich Opera.
Photo credits: Marco Borggreve/Sony BMG
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