Q & A: Soprano Anush Hovhannisyan On the BBC Cardiff Competition & The New Generation FestivalBy Logan Martell
On April 9, 2018, audiences will gather at London’s Coliseum for the International Opera Awards to honor those who come from across the globe to make opera what it is today. Among them will be Armenia soprano Anush Hovhannisyan, who is coming off a massive success in 2017 when she was among the contestants for the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
At the International Opera Awards, she is nominated in the Young Singer Category and thereafter, she continues to grow her career in a hotly anticipated turn at The New Generation Festival’s production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which held in the beautiful gardens of Florence’s Palazzao Corsini. Operawire has had the opportunity to speak with Hovhannisyan and learn more of the process behind her rapid rise to fame, as well as the passion she brings to the arts.
OperaWire: What can you tell us about your involvement with The New Generation Festival’s production of “Don Giovanni?”
Anush Hovhannisyan: Yes! It’s an absolutely thrilling new festival. I think everyone who has even the slightest interest in classical music, theatre, or any kind of art form, just have to come and experience it. This is something that’s never been done before as a concept. Because it’s in Florence, which is the heart of Italy, and the heart of classical art actually, the festival comes with a concept of bringing every kind of music. We start with a classical opera the opening night. The next night is an orchestral concert with highly-acclaimed international soloists, and the night after that is the very first time we are putting together Shakespeare’s “Henry V” as a straight-drama theatre to be accompanied with William Walton’s incidental music from Olivier’s movies from the 70’s which has never been done together with Walton’s music since the movie theatres don’t have an orchestra to do it, and concert halls never the luxury of having so many actors, and so we’ll be repeating the concert to close the festival.
In between the performances there will be 75-minute intervals for dinner and picnics, which will be accompanied by various jazz and classical chamber musicians on different parts of the venue. Afterwards, we have a big after-party which goes up until 3 a.m., featuring DJs, acclaimed jazz musicians, and we already have a fantastic drag act joining us for the after party; an absolutely crazy deal, you start with thing and you end up with something else. Your taste buds, and musical taste buds, are really being treated royally.
The venue is one of the most mesmerizing parts of Florence, which is the private garden of the Palazzo Corsini al Prato, the Corsinis being one of the most influential and long-standing aristocratic families in Florence and in Italy. They had a pope in their family, and just a very rich history. The Palazzo al Prato has two palaces in Florence, one is Un Grado un Anno, which is a beautiful royal palace, and the other one is a slightly-smaller, humble palace on al Prato where they lived. We’re putting a stage for the week of the rehearsals; we’re actually building a stage for 500 audiences and we’re having the dinners in the gardens and opening various parts for the picnic experience.
On top of this, the festival is called The New Generation Festival so it’s run by people who are very much the next generation of performers. We have people from 18-years-old and up performing in and managing the festival, all the way up to 35. The two founders are Maximilian Fane, an English conductor who will be conducting for all the nights except for “Henry V,” and the director and producer is Roger Granville, who has had very successful projects so far; he’s 29 years and the conductor is twenty-five years old so this is such a fresh, new energy being brought to what is so historical and regarded as an old-fashioned thing. We’re bringing everything with a new understanding of it.
I’ve joined the festival since it’s embryonic stage two years ago, Max is a good friend of mine, we’ve taught at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland so our relationship goes back five years and I’ve been part of the artistic team, helping to hire singers or come up with the programs, so I’m very much involved. I have very much a commitment to this festival because I really believe in it, but those words are nothing; if you come and see the brilliance of the venue, it just makes all the difference in the world.
OW: Having performed at the festival last year, as Adina in “Elixir of Love,” how will the outdoor garden venue of Palazzo Corsini change the way you perform?
AH: The acoustic was very interesting because we’ve kept the natural stone look the palace has and built the stage within it. Also performing in such heat, of course we start it at 7:30, but you can imagine in August in Florence it’s very, very hot. It was very challenging to start to actually adjust the technique and see where you can give more or how to actually enhance the experience of the audience because the acoustic is never going to be as you would experience in a normal house.
Of course, artistically, it didn’t change anything but added a lot of glamour and a lot of history. This year we have some plans to slightly change the layout and design of the auditorium’s seating part so the audience has a more precise view, although the audience is only 500 per night, but it’ll give more focus onto the stage and we’ll make architectural adjustments to make the acoustics work much better this year.
OW: How does the role of Donna Anna compare to that of Donna Elvira, in your experience? Do you have a favorite between the two Donnas?
AH: Well, I think Anna is my favorite but that’s a difficult question. Donna Elvira is a very interesting character, she was the only wife of Don Giovanni, which already says a lot. Donna Anna is a very troubled woman; depending on the interpretation of the director, and no spoilers here, but she can be an absolutely confused woman being trapped by the system she was born into, or she can actually be a very brave and forward-looking woman.
So I think also as an actress I would have a lot of different dimensions to make Donna Anna very interesting, but Donna Elvira is naturally very passionate, very woman-like, very real, someone that the audience instantly starts to connect with.
For me, singing-wise, I prefer being Anna, because Mozart has written Donna Elvira’s part initially, while he was in Prague so perhaps she was performed initially by a very dramatic artist. The entire role was written within an octave for the dramatic speech, for the second time they revived it in Austria, Donna Elvira was cast as an operatic singer with an aria, which Mozart would write to add to the role and give it weight. My completely personal opinion is that I think it’s not a balanced role and it’s very challenging to sing because it doesn’t feel comfortable for the singer unless they have a very specific coach to tutor voice. I remember when I sang Donna Elvira, in the other cast there was a mezzo-soprano and we had lots of talks together and she would find the role challenging in the same ways I found it.
So for those reasons I prefer singing Donna Anna. But we have a tight cast and probably one of the best Donna Elviras in the world: a very young Rachel Kelly, who is an Irish soprano that’s trained in London and we became very good friends, and she’s coming to take the challenge for us this year.
OW: What was it like to represent Armenia at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2017?
AH: “It was such an honor. There weren’t many Armenian singers in the history; I was the fourth one I think. It was such a festival of art and opera and I remember being absolutely thrilled to be part of such an incredibly talented bunch of singers that came from various countries and gave their best. I really felt very lucky to get to know them because these are the people we’re going to have a career with and end up meeting in different theatres and projects in the future, I’m sure. We had a wonderful support structure and we had such great fun. I felt very luck to be there to start with and then very lucky to represent Armenia and I feel I’ve made my county very proud.”
OW: What are some of the venues you’d like to perform at in the future?
It’s great to be performing in world-renowned venues of course, but for me the most important thing always is the connection I make with the audiences because this is what the bottom line of performing is for me. I like to share my experience with the people I perform with, I like to make them experience the same things I’m going through, I like to share the beauty, and the gorgeous art that I’ve been very lucky to be blessed with the ability to perform. So regardless of the venue it’s an absolute honor and privilege to have the opportunities to perform.