Q & A: Soprano Venera Gimadieva on Balancing Her Profession & Motherhood

By Polina Lyapustina
(Credit: Kristina Kalinina)

At the beginning of the season, soprano Venera Gimadieva was forced to cancel a performance of “Francesca da Rimini” in Amsterdam. It was for the first time in her 13-year career as an opera singer that she had to take such an action and withdraw from an engagement. But the reason was simple and understandable for any woman — the soprano found out that she is expecting her first and long-awaited child.

However, what seems to be a natural and joyous occasion for most families is not that simple for an opera singer of our time.

In Gimadieva’s case, the matters were made more difficult as she experienced complications in the beginning of her pregnancy and, as a result, was prohibited by her doctor from the long flights. This led to the further cancelation of her performances of “The Golden Cockerel” in Dallas. Although she braved the first night of “La Traviata” in Munich, she ended up bleeding right on stage and had to be taken to hospital straight after the performance.

OperaWire recently spoke to the soprano about her decision to become a mother at the peak of her career and how she hopes to balance her career and her future motherhood. 

OperaWire: How did it start for you – such a hard-working person, a famous singer, a contemporary woman? How did this understanding that you were ready for something more come about?

Venera Gimadieva:  It’s not that I’ve never thought about it. I always knew that one day I’ll be a mum. I have not been preparing for it for my entire life, but this idea was always with me. When it comes, nevertheless, even if it is planned — it’s still a shock. You look at your schedule and see how many performances you will be forced to cancel, how many opportunities you will miss.

Of course, some of them are very important but I must accept that now I have something more important to do. For my family and its future, I have to sacrifice some of my career.

OW: These first cancelations were painful, but you certainly understood that pregnancy is just the beginning of your lifelong journey as a mother.

VG: I don’t expect it to be easy, but I hope I’ll be ready for that. After this period, I’ll have to get in shape fast — physically and vocally. I’m involved in some new projects for the next season, and I have to adjust my voice by that time. And of course, I will have to do all that looking after my baby at the same time.

I cannot even be sure that my voice will remain the same. During the first trimester, my body has already changed a lot. My immune system struggled, and I got tracheitis. It could easily cause complications. I also had early bleedings and was worried that I might lose my baby.

OW: How did you feel when you started to experience these changes you couldn’t stand up to?

VG: I was scared at first. I had to cancel “Francesca da Rimini” in Amsterdam. I felt like my world was slipping away. But once I got better, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t losing control.

I decided to take a risk and went to Munich to sing four performances of “La Traviata.” That turned out truly dramatic. I fell ill on stage but tried to finish the show as best as I could. That was the hardest performance in my life. I just wanted to go to the hospital, but then I would let my colleagues and audience down. So I took a few pills and performed until the end.

This moment was probably a turning point. It was hard to imagine I could continue performing like that. Of course, I canceled the rest of the run. Painfully. In my whole career, I haven’t canceled anything. I used to be the opposite — a person who was always ready to save the day, on whom you could always rely. And with every performance I had to cancel in the last few months, I tried to find a way to perform anyway but eventually understood that I simply couldn’t.

My cancelation of Dallas where I was scheduled to sing “The Golden Cockerel” was especially hard. However, I understand that I need to think of this little miracle inside of me. I also understand that I cannot risk my health as I did in Munich anymore.

 

Opera D'amore world premiere ft. José Carreras

 

OW: You said you were afraid to let so many people down. Why do you feel so much responsibility?

VG: When you are weakened by some reason, you want to overcome it. And if you do, you feel an incredible power inside. I used to sing being ill. When I was at the Bolshoi, I opened the run of “La Traviata” covering for Albina Shagimuratova, we were both ill but I couldn’t step back.

And in the situation with Munich, I was positive about my decision to sing. I rehearsed, prepared and was confident that I could do it. And then people came to see the opera, they don’t have to know about my problems.

OW: What makes a singer perform over any circumstance? 

VG: In the opera industry, we have a lot of competition and short careers. These factors hit singers with high demand because we perceive opera as a life path, not just a career. 

The logic is simple — if we don’t give in to our weaknesses, we win. But it also means that if we can’t do that, we lose. The reason is that we can’t feel secure and safe, we should always be ready to do our best. We are moved by the fear of being replaced. 

It affects our entire private life too. You have less time for anything. You have to sing, rehearse, perform instead of doing anything else. And it would be correct to say we choose this ourselves, but the alternative is to lose your position in the profession. 

OW: What are your thoughts about leaving the stage for a considerable time? 

VG: Several years ago, I would say I couldn’t take a break. To leave the stage even for a short while would be a professional suicide. But now I feel a bit more confident. I’ve built a name and have several upcoming projects that are waiting for me.

And yet, I can’t be sure who I will become when I’m back. What will happen to my voice? How my body will change? How much will I have to work on it? Will I have to change my repertoire? These questions slightly overwhelm me at present. 

OW: Would it be a positive challenge or a problem if the voice changes?

VG: I love my repertoire, but sometimes it’s hard mentally and emotionally to be a lyric coloratura, to exist in the scope of those high notes. I expect it to be a bit easier to sing lower. But it would require time to adapt to the new repertoire. I always wanted to challenge myself with more lyric roles.

But let’s not forget that competition is even higher for lyric sopranos. Maybe it’s just easier to stay, hopefully, in my voice.

OW: What if your voice changes but the industry still offers you coloratura roles?

VG: You know, voice is not just a skill but an emotional state. I never went low in my career, I pushed myself up. Because I knew, if I gave up a high note, if I allowed myself to sing lower, next time I would do it again. I am not prepared to just give up, I will be working on whatever my voice demands of me.

OW: Is it somehow connected to the Russian school of singing? This statement seems specifically cultural, like at Borodino battle in 1812 – “Moscow is behind us, so not a step back!” 

VG: Sure, everything is connected to how we were taught. Russian education is often spartan but it makes us, who survived, stronger. Also, as opera is becoming more and more demanding, singing is expected to be more sophisticated. And it’s definitely an advantage to have the stamina.

But it also places great pressure on a singer. However, when we think about the top world opera stages this level of singing and ability to overcome your challenges is definitely required. Singing comfortably is not our reality.

OW: Is opera possible without stress?

VG: I wish it could be possible, but I think it’s not. Any high art is born in agony, and so we know we’re doing something important. But there should be a reasonable limit.

Although I often find challenges enjoyable – singers are all a little masochistic – I feel it affects my voice more and more over the years. I might not have felt it being 25, but now the risk is higher, and I realize the importance of taking good care of oneself.

OW: Let’s talk about age. This topic is sensitive to every woman. What are the features of aging in the opera world?

VG: Changes that occur with age are difficult and stressful for any woman and with this career, we have to add the changes in voice. While we are getting older the industry is getting younger. We now have 20-25-year-old stars. With all those competitions, young girls get to the major stages in title roles way before they are 30, and often before they are ready. 

As “young singers” they are offered lower rates which benefits opera houses. Today, there’s always someone younger, more beautiful, and cheaper than you. You are always challenged to reach a notable position in the industry before a certain age, so you are not replaceable.

OW: But who decides that you’ve reached this position? What gives you this feeling of security?

VG: I think the level of productions, your full schedule, and a strong understanding of your own voice. It also helps to have a good agent. Another important thing is your uniqueness, which is as desirable as it is unreachable. There are 1000 Violetta’s around, how can one be unique? But we have to find the way.

OW: Opera houses today look for unique artists and for a particular standard of appearance at the same time. How is it possible to manage that for a female singer?

VG: Requirements are now tightened not only for girls but for male singers too. We all have to be slim and good-looking. Directors, not conductors, now make casting decisions. We have opera streams and being on screen we are supposed to look like Hollywood stars. I’m ok with that for now but I also know it will not last forever. Fortunately, the voice still comes first. 

OW: Now you meet the requirements. But what would happen if one day you don’t?

VG: I know I will always look after myself and will challenge myself to stay in shape, but I think more about staying in a good voice because there is only that much you can do about your appearance. You don’t imagine Gilda or Violetta as a big girl but some people sing them wonderfully despite this. And you don’t see a singer, just an amazing character. Outstanding acting turns old women into girls. But I don’t know if I can do that. It’s going to be another adventure.

OW: If your appearance changes, you’ll fight upon one or another: against your body or the perception of it by the industry and the audience? 

VG: There’s a very precise image for a soprano for every role. And talking about a lyric voice it’s a young white girl, with long hair, even longer legs, big eyes and so on. A singing model. And this perception puts pressure on me even now, and I have no idea how I will change after pregnancy. Meanwhile, many talented singers across the world are still rejected due to race, weight, and body type. I find it unacceptable in art.

Even being typically Russian in expressing your emotions could be a problem on stage. Too much passion for Western Europe. And in Russia, it was too little at the same time. But we are all different. And I hope we will be appreciated and admired for that. Most of the operas were created centuries ago by people of particular tastes for people of particular tastes. But the world has changed, and we can add some new value.

OW: What do you think you have learned from this recent experience and how do you think it will change your life?

VG: I am feeling very strong overcoming all the challenges in my career and preparing for motherhood. Before a woman has children, she doesn’t know the full extent of her own strength. So many people explained to me how important children were to them, how they changed their lives, but only now it is becoming a reality for me. Now I feel that the whole life is not just me — my challenges, and my wins. This journey is, however, at the very beginning.

To me, my future child is the greatest value of my life and I am prepared to sacrifice what is necessary for his or her future. But I will be a better mother for being a strong woman, a woman with a profession she is passionate about. And I hope I will be able to pass my passion and strength on to my son or daughter.

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