Q & A: Sonya Yoncheva On Singing ‘Il Pirata’ & Her Upcoming Wagner Role

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Dario Acosta)

Few sopranos have defined the last decade the way that Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva has. Since her major victory at the Operalia Competition in 2010, Yoncheva has become a household headliner at all the major opera houses around the world.

But what has arguably distinguished the soprano over these past few years has been her willingness to take risks with her repertory, moving from the expected to the unexpected with great proficiency. It seems that every year, the soprano is adding multiple new roles in her repertory across a vast array of styles whether it be Bel canto, baroque, Verismo, or (now) even German repertory. She has performed everything from lyric roles such as “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” to more dramatic works like “Tosca” and “Il Pirata.”

As she continues to explore her repertoire, the soprano is moving into some of the most challenging works of her career this season. She will be taking on her first “Manon  Lescaut” and “Fedora” and continuing to explore her signature roles as Mimì and Violetta.

During her acclaimed run of “Il Pirata” the Teatro Real de Madrid, Yoncheva spoke to OperaWire about her Bel Canto repertory, its great challenges, and even hinted at her first Wagner role in coming seasons.

OperaWire: You debuted Bellini’s heroine Norma in London in 2016. Were you thinking about Imogene in “Il Pirata” at that time?

Sonya Yoncheva: It came right after Norma actually. It was my agent who came and asked, “do you know about “Il Pirata?” And I said that I didn’t, and then he replied, “listen to this aria;” which was “Col sorrisso.” When I heard it, I thought it was one of the best music I had ever heard. He had already suggested that maybe not all the opera was that beautiful but that just for this aria I should try to sing the part. Two months later he offered me the proposal to sing “Il Pirata” at la Scala. I looked at the whole score to see it if fit me vocally and read the libretto carefully to see if it was dramatically interesting, and I very gladly agreed.

OW: How did you find the part, both vocally and dramatically?

SY: It is one of the most difficult things I have ever sung. I should say that for me, for my type of voice, Norma is harder considering the whole structure of the opera, but  Imogene’s role is very dramatic and it is full of fireworks. You have to be 100% sure about the coloratura but the more I sing it, the more I get used to it. This is normal because the muscles involved in voice production and singing in general adapt to this type of writing: to the legato, to the intervals from the very low part of the voice to the highest.

OW: Your second child has just been born. Did the pregnancy and post-recovery affect you?

SY: It is surprising but it has helped me a lot. As I have gone through one pregnancy already I was aware of what was coming so I was ready to keep my body as fit as possible and I was lucky because my belly was very low and round so it kept my diaphragm and oblique muscles tight and strong. I kept singing during my pregnancy as long as I could and did some concerts before coming to Madrid where I can select the repertoire carefully for my body and muscles to get used to singing again. I was surprised that my voice was in perfect shape from the very beginning.

OW: Do you have any plans to sing “Il Pirata” in the future?

SY: Yes, and one of the reasons is because I want to open the industry to this repertoire. It is very sad, but most opera houses where I sing and I adore, are not open to programming and discovering new tittles outside the common repertoire. They usually offer me “La Boheme,” “La Traviata,” “Il Trovatore,” “Tosca,” and everything we know. And I want to send a message and tell them to have a look into this opera. What I find is that they are getting interested in “Il Pirata” or “Medea” and I have plans to keep singing this opera. Well, when you have a name, they trust you and they program it for you. They give it to other singers as well and that’s fantastic because I don’t want it just to be one Imogene but five. We have, for example, three different casts of Imogene in Madrid and that is amazing.

OW: Are you considering any other Bellini operas like “Beatrice di Tenda” or la Straniera?

SY: I was thinking about “La Straniera” actually. I don’t have any commitments signed but I am working on the part to see if it fits me vocally. I am also considering Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” I like the Bel-Canto roles, it is a very difficult repertoire but it gives you so much satisfaction and it maintains your body and your muscles in a very nice shape which is good to do it from time to time.

OW: Will you keep combining Bel Canto with other dramatic Verismo roles?

SY: Yes, that’s for sure. It is not new what I am going to say but the clue is to mix repertoire all the time so you don’t get stuck into one color of your voice and your voice and muscles don’t get used to one type of vocal writing because if that happens then it is very hard to change to other repertoire: It is important to keep your voice as flexible as possible.

OW: How do you manage to control your emotions while singing such dramatic characters?

Sonya Yoncheva: It is a very tricky situation, specially with Bel Canto roles that requires a very strong physicality and you have to rely on your body completely. So to combine a very physical job with strong emotions while singing this beautiful music is exhausting. But I feel while doing all this that I reach my highest point of “Zen attitude.”

OW: Don’t you find it hard to switch from Verismo to Bel canto?

SY: For me Verismo combined with Bel Canto works perfectly. I find it harder when I go back to sing Monteverdi and Baroque repertoire which I still keep and intend to do in my career. I do not sing Baroque as much as I used to but I sing some operas from time to time. I think it is a very important thing for me as a musician as it is another world with a different way of singing.

OW: Have you sung any Wagner role before?

SY: Not yet and I am looking forward to it. Sadly, I cannot tell you right where and what opera it will be as I have to wait for the official announcement of that season, but it will happen very soon.

I have to try Wagner because it has been my dream for years since I heard Nina Stemme as Elisabeth in “Tannhäuser.” I was 22 years old and it was something exceptional to my ears at that time. So I took the score home and I started studying it because it was one of the most beautiful music  I had ever heard. So it was an old dream and now that I have received the proposal to sing Wagner, I did not doubt it. I feel much more mature to understand the score and to sing it.

OW: Isn’t it a challenge to sing Wagner and Bellini at the same time?

SY: Yes, it is but music is so vast, enormous and infinite. If you consider yourself as an artist and musician who is always there to search for new horizons this is very important, as it happens to me. I am always afraid to be or feel stuck in one repertoire and if I can do it, I will. Of course you have to have limitations and your likes. For example I have had proposals to sing “Aida” at least 20 times and I have always said no. I think that I will always refuse it. I can sing the part and it is one of the most brilliant parts written by Verdi for a soprano but it is not about the music. I don’t like her character and I don’t find anything interesting in it for me. It has always be an struggle for me to say “NO” but I would prefer to sing Ammeris. I am not saying that I will sing this mezzo-soprano role, but it happens as well with “Don Carlo” which I have already sung. I would love to sing Eboli because I find her much more interesting than Elisabetta. The same happens with Carmen and Micaela. This is my struggle and I am always on the other side.

OW: I find this really interesting, because as an artist and a singer you’re not looking only at the music but for a dramatic point of view too.

SY: Yes and I always look for strong characters. That’s something really important to me because as an artist I have to have something to say about it.

OW: Talking about strong characters, have you considered “Madama Butterfly” or “Turandot?”

SY: “Madama Butterfly” will actually happen next season and it is already planned. I don’t like “Turandot.” Talking about singing the role is crazy and I have seen it at least 20 times as my husband was conducing one production and I attended most of the rehearsals as well. So I am pretty much aware of what is difficult and what is not. It is a very demanding and challenging short part but I don’t find the plot interesting and it is usually done with luxury big sets. I think that if someone wants me to sing “Turandot” it must be “The Turandot.” If I get attracted by an interesting production I might consider it. For  me everything is important, not only the music or the role, but the team who is behind it. I think the vision, the costumes and more. It is very important to be okay with the entire package for me to get involved in a new role or a production because that is the way I can express myself. I did a production of Medea recently that was an amazing experience because it was something authentic to me and it was saying something modern. That is how we can connect to modern audiences.

OW: What do you think about this current production of “Il Pirata” that you already debuted at La Scala?

SY: I love it because there is nothing more and nothing less of what is written and Emilio Sagi, the stage director, knew that we had to sing something really demanding, so he did not push us into crazy situations. I have space to do my own interpretation and I think that this production is visually very interesting. I am glad that it has been filmed at the Teatro Real as it could reach people in cinemas or on DVD.





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