Q & A: Leo Nucci & Sonya Yoncheva on their “Homage to Maria Callas” at the Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Khalid Al-Busaidi, ROHM)

OperaWire has been in Oman at the Royal Opera House Muscat to review a production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” and a concert performance entitled “Homage To Maria Callas,” starring the great Italian baritone Leo Nucci and the fabulous Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, along with the Egyptian tenor Ragaa Eldin.

The stars of the show, Yoncheva and Nucci, kindly took time out to answer and discuss their thoughts about Maria Callas, the concert and their impressions of Oman, which may not yet have a very long tradition of opera but possesses one of the most beautiful and modern opera houses in the world.

OperaWire: What is your view of Maria Callas and what made her so special?

Sonya Yoncheva: Our generation has a strong connection with Maria Callas. She left not only an unforgettable memory but is also a part of the history of our art. We can get close to her art, her music and her way of life because she was a very important personality.

We singers have one thing in common: fragility. Maria gave this fragility incredible strength. She was special in so many ways, including her incredibly versatile voice with a wide range and the ability to express a vast array of emotions. This unique ability allowed her to convey the deepest emotions of the characters she portrayed. But Callas was not just a singer; she was also a consummate actress. Her performances were characterized by intense dramatic interpretations that brought the characters she portrayed to life on the stage. She approached each role with meticulous attention to detail, delving deep into the characters’ psychology to convey their emotions with unparalleled authenticity.

Moreover, she played a crucial role in the revival of the bel canto repertoire, particularly the works of composers such as Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. She breathed new life into these operas, rescuing them from obscurity and popularizing them again. Finally, beyond her contributions to music, she became a cultural icon whose influence extended far beyond the world of opera. She is one of the few household names known even to those who have never set foot in an opera house.

Leo Nucci: Maria Callas became “La Callas” because she understood the importance of being in the media. As a singer and as a musician, she had the humility to want to delve deeper into the thoughts of the composers about the the great roles she played. And she did so not so much in a philological as well as in a theatrical sense.

Two years ago, I received the Maria Callas award, and it has been very rewarding for me as a performer. I have sung with singers and conductors who had worked directly with Maria Callas and have enjoyed talking to them about their thoughts of this extraordinary woman.

OW: As with all great singers, there are always some detractors. What do you say to people who complain about Callas’ voice?

SY: Whether or not one likes a voice or the color of a voice is always a matter of taste. Callas’s voice certainly had a very particular color, recognizable when hearing only a single note. Since hers is a voice that is so out of the ordinary, this might be why some people don’t like it. I can only say it’s their loss if they choose not to listen to her recordings.

LN: Her great work, which is full of depth and understanding, allowed her to overshadow her defects, and we must remember that every artist is still a human being and by definition will have defects. She was able to transmit her art through her singing which was the result of intense study, in which she prepared her interpretations in minute detail. Classical music requires this in-depth study. This is the great message we can all learn from Maria Callas, especially young people. It’s not enough just to have the voice and the high notes to be an artist.

OW: Do you have a favorite piece by Callas?

SY: This question is almost impossible to answer because Callas excelled in so many roles and works. She recorded so many pieces that I absolutely love that it’s really hard, if not impossible, to choose a single one.

LN: Everything that Callas sang excites me for the reasons I have explained. In 1949, in Venice, while she was singing “Tristan and Isolde,” she had the opportunity to replace Carosio in “I Puritani,” thanks to Maestro Tullio Serafin’s intuition, and thus began her career singing the “bel canto.” repertoire. This is my favorite repertoire of Maria Callas; who doesn’t know her interpretation of “Casta diva?”

OW: What attracted you to make the long journey to Oman? What were your expectations about performing there?

SY: I had never been to Oman before, but I had heard many good things about the country. I love discovering cultures I don’t know, so I was very excited about coming to Oman for the first time. Also, the Royal Opera House of Muscat is quite an incredible building. It really is breathtaking, and it is an immense joy to sing there. I was so happy to see that everyone seems to love opera in Oman, and it seemed to me just like in London, New York or Paris. We received such a warm welcome from everybody, including from the audience, which was super enthusiastic.

LN: I have already sung in Oman’s wonderful Royal Opera House in Muscat, and it was a wonderful experience! I was supposed to return earlier for a production of Zeffirelli’s “Rigoletto,” but COVID unfortunately prevented my return. I am very happy that I was able to return and to visit, as I did during my first visit, the most significant and beautiful places in the city, where I also met many opera enthusiasts who were so interested in talking to me.

OW: Who decided on the program for this performance, and how were the pieces chosen?

SY: We oriented ourselves according to the repertoire that Callas was known for. There are so many operas and arias and duets from operas that Callas was famous for, which we liked a lot and suited our voices very well. I sang “Pace, pace mio Dio” from “La Forza del Destino” and the Act two duet from “La Traviata” with the great Leo Nucci. Callas recorded and performed both operas. Violetta was, of course, one of Callas’s signature roles with which she wrote operatic history. For me, it was so special to sing this duet with Leo Nucci because it was during performances of “La Traviata” that we got to know each other almost exactly 10 years ago. It was great to sing this together again after all this time!

LN: The program was agreed upon, as always, based on the singer’s repertoire and, of course, in this case, taking into account Callas’ repertoire. For example, it was thanks to Callas that I sang an extract from “Macbeth.”

OW: Will you be making any attempt to liken your singing to Callas? Obviously, not by mimicking her but by making suggestive connections to her.

SY: No, not at all; I always sing with my own voice.


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