An Unusual Start – How Soprano Iwona Sobotka Transitioned Into the Opera World After Turning It DownBy Francisco Salazar
Most opera singers can’t wait to rush in and sing their dream roles. In fact, in today’s world, with the high demand for singers to mature at an earlier age, a lot of young singers start young and end young, the pressure simply too great to sustain a lasting and healthy career.
Iwona Sobotka was privy to this scenario early on. At age 22 she was the winner of the 2004 Queen Elisabeth Competition, giving her an opportunity to jump onto the opera scene in a major way.
But the Polish soprano was not keen on jumping into the deep and challenging waters of opera at such a young age, her voice still in a process of maturation that would take her into her 30s.
So she did something few prospective opera singers would do – she turned down opportunities from major companies across Europe.
Moving from the Concert Hall…
Instead, she dedicated herself to being a concert soprano, performing such works as Mahler 8th Symphony at Royal Albert Hall, Beethoven’s 9th with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Suntory Hall and recording Szymanowski’s songs with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Along the way, she has performed at famous venues, including Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall.
“From Bach to Górecki. I have to say I really have a need for this kind of music. It’s like praying and meditation for me,” she said about performing concert works in an exclusive interview with OperaWire. “It allows me to think deeper to feel deeper to connect with my deep self… it’s always a very profound experience. I just love to do it and am trying to always include this repertoire in my [calendar].”
…To the Opera House
She still manages to fit in a lot of concerts, though her schedule is increasingly filled with opera engagements. This season has seen her put particular emphasis on two masterpieces– Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”
The Mozart masterpiece has been her calling card all year as she has performed it a whopping 15 times since September in both Poland and Germany and she still has three more performances before the summer kicks in. Despite the familiarity, she noted that Mozart’s works are among the most difficult in the repertoire.
“Mozart and especially his German sung operas require extreme precision in the music,” she explained before noting that overcoming said challenge pays off in a major way. “I think if you know how to sing Mozart well you can sing everything! It’s always a joy to sing Mozart, after productions of Verdi and Puccini, as it helps purify my voice.”
Among her favorite productions of the year was a single performance in January at the Komische Oper in Berlin; she will perform the same production once more in Budapest next month. The Polish soprano particularly has been performing in Berlin for a long time, citing “a very good connection with the public.”
“’The Magic Flute’ production of Komische Oper is really magical. It’s surprising at first and very different from traditional opera as we used to know by now, it opens whole new possibilities,” she exclaimed. “It’s based on a huge screen and multimedia projections interfere continuously with our acting and singing. It allows different animations to appear and disappear in an instant, which in the traditional productions would be impossible to do.”
“This gives the audience an impression that you are watching a cartoon movie, as the characters combine and synchronize perfectly with the background. Instead of dialogs, we have text projections on the screen, and our goal is to introduce the texts with theatrical gestures like in silent cinema, of course, it has to be all synchronized.”
The greatest challenge, however, came from the uncomfortable position Sobotka had to endure on stage.
“One of the most difficult challenges is to sing on the platform on heights of 4 meters above the stage, being attached to the screen with security belts,” she revealed. “And on top of that, you need to act all natural as if you are not scared of height.”
As for “Eugene Onegin,” Sobotka has performed it three times this season in Poland.
“Tatiana is very special to me as a character. She knows deep in her heart that Onegin is her second half,” she stated regarding her interpretation of the work. “But life is all about making decisions, and sometimes we make wrong ones and this drama and tragedy for Tatyana and Onegin is a consequence of a bad decision.”
The soprano recently made her debut in what she calls her “dream role” of Mimì in Puccini’s “La Bohème” and will perform it extensively throughout the month of April. Next season sees more concerts and “Magic Flute” performances, but Sobotka will also take a turn as a Blumenmädchen in Wagner’s “Parsifal,” her first foray into that repertoire.
In her mid-30s, the soprano feels that the sky remains the limit and that her early vocal decisions will enable her a lengthy career filled with a wide-ranging repertoire. But even now, she remains cautious of jumping ahead too fast, opting for sticking to the repertoire that best suits her now.
“My plan is to sing all the Mozart soprano roles like Contessa in [‘Le Nozze di Figaro’], Fiordiligi in [‘Così fan tutte’] and Vittelia in [‘La Clemenza di Tito’] first,” she revealed before noting that there is another composer she feels comfortable singing. “I also want to explore more of the Verdi repertoire like Desdemona in [‘Otello’], Amelia from ‘Simon Boccanegra,’ because now my voice feels very comfortable with Verdi.”
This interview was written in collaboration with David Salazar.