Sticking to the Score – Krassimira Stoyanova On Finding Musical Surprises From A Conservative Approach to Verdi, Verismo & Bel Canto

By Francisco Salazar

Krassimira Stoyanova is not your typical diva. Nor has she managed to carve out a career with the “expected” working conditions for most singers of her caliber.

Since her debut at the Sofia National Opera House in 1995, the Bulgarian soprano has become a famed interpreter of the Italian operatic repertoire, singing at all the greatest theaters in the world. Her artistic excellence earned her distinction of Kammersängerin of the Vienna State Opera, an honor given only to the cream of the opera world.

In her view, Stoyanova’s success has come as a result of the approach to her artistry. For her, there is nothing more important or sacred than the score, tradition be damned.

Her success has also been the result of being highly adaptable and often learning roles and operas on the fly.

“When I’ve had to debut some of my hardest roles, it’s been with very little rehearsals and no stage rehearsals. I think when I write my memoir, I’ll definitely write about that,” she told OperaWire in an exclusive interview.

Aida and the Art of Learning Quickly

Stoyanova, who is currently singing Verdi’s “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera, made her debut in that very opera in 2015 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in a revival production where she had very little time to rehearse and learn the part.

“I did it in Munich and I learned it really quickly and did my debut with it in very little time. It was very stressful because we only had five days of rehearsal. But I see my destiny as always being constant stress,” she noted. “All my debuts have been stressful like this. But I am now used to these situations and I am happy to do this with the impulse. Now I feel fine.”

At the Met this season the experience was similar. The soprano was working in the second run of a revival and there were no stage rehearsals. In fact, there was actually one orchestra rehearsal but thankfully she was working with Violetta Urmana, who has done the production several times as both Amneris and Aida.

“During rehearsals, Violetta told me to be very attentive. For example, she told me ‘In this moment there will be two horses’ or ‘in this moment there will be stairs.’ She helped me prepare for some things that could be stressful for me. She was so gentle and she has a great sense of humor. Violetta is a great personality. ”

This is actually the first time the two have worked together and the partnership has garnered a strong bond.

“She has become a great friend. She is a great artist with a great career. She is a mezzo-soprano who became a soprano and this equilibrium was incredible. I have such great respect for her as an artist and person.”

Biding Her Time

Despite tight schedules and lack of rehearsals, Stoyanova’s portrayal of the Ethiopian Princess has had critics raving and has enlivened the most recent revival.

Aida, of course, is one of the most challenging roles in the dramatic repertoire. Not only does it require great power in the voice, but great delicacy and nuance. Throw in the lengthy sing and you have a monumental task that only the true greats have mastered.

Stoyanova has been a leading Verdian soprano for years and has performed 13 roles from the composer. That is virtually unheard of in modern times. This alone made it seem inevitable that “Aida” would enter her repertoire at some point. And yet, it took some time.

“I am so happy that I sang the Requiem before ‘Aida.’ Verdi wrote the Requiem for the same soprano,” she explained before noting that conductor Daniele Gatti suggested she take on the iconic soprano role. “When I was told that I could sing Aida after the Requiem. I laughed and said no.”

Instead, she followed a different path. Stoyanova notes that Aida looks like a heavy role but indeed it is the role that Verdi sopranos should sing after the famous three Verdi works.

“‘Aida’ comes naturally after singing the Verdi trinity, ‘Il Trovatore,’ ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto’ and even ‘Luisa Miller.’ The orchestra is almost the same as well as the vocal line.

And indeed having sung those three works, Stoyanova now feels comfortable with the role. “I feel 100% in Aida and I feel like her,” she said. “‘Aida’ starts with a very dramatic aria. It’s bloody because she is a princess and she is strong. But in that moment she is falling love and she loses herself in her Egyptian soul. And as a slave, she is very proud.”

As she was studying the role she discovered new aspects of the score that led to understanding the right way to approach the part.

“If you look at Verdi’s score it says Aida soprano and Amneris soprano dramatico. As a result, you don’t need to be a dramatic soprano to sing this role. You need to have a full lyric voice.”

And that is the way she approached singing the part giving it a more lyric approach. Stoyanova also emphasized that it was important for her to get into character and when learning a part she always had to approach it as an actress.

“I can not divide her as a character and as a vocalist. My interpretation is bonded as an actress and vocalist. It has to fit together to really create the character,” she revealed. “That really creates the character. If not you lose it and all you have are notes. It’s not even singing. Expression defines the character.”

In the end, Stoyanova has to become the role.

“When I do a role I always try to put myself into the character. If I cannot feel like Aida, I can’t do anything. I have to be in her skin. I have to live everything in the character. I have to think like Aida.”

Elisabetta vs Aida 

Following “Aida,” Stoyanova is slated to reinterpret Elisabetta in “Don Carlo,” a role that she just sang this past February and will next perform in Vienna and London.

Elisabetta is often categorized as a lyric soprano role but Stoyanova believes that is not the case.

“I finished a production of ‘Don Carlo’ at the Teatro alla Scala and if I can compare Elisabetta di Valois with Aida, I would say they are completely different. Elisabetta has a very long line that seems interminable. It’s like an ocean, long and is written in the middle of the voice. It’s dark and it really evokes the inquisition, which is the time period this opera happens in. Verdi used these colors and for all his characters, the lines are very long.”

Another difference that could be surprising to most is the size of the orchestra. Aida has many enormous choral sections that the soprano has to sing over while Elisabetta has mostly duets and one concertato. Yet Stoyanova believes that “Don Carlo” is heavier.

“The orchestra is also heavy and full. But Aida, which has a huge orchestra is written very differently. For example for the role of Aida, I would say its more vertical than horizontal. Aida is more comfortable than Elisabetta. Elisabetta, you need a bigger voice and a longer line that I don’t necessarily have.”

And the last factor that Stoyanova sees that is important is the version she is singing. “Don Carlo” is often cut into four acts giving Elisabetta less music to perform allowing the final act to be less daunting. But if the five-act version is performed, it gets a bit more complicated.

“If it is five acts the most difficult thing for Elisabetta and for all sopranos is the finale. You have to sing the aria which is enormous and dramatic and after you have the duet. At La Scala, we had to sing so far into the stage and that was tough.”

Behind the Scenes of Verismo 

In addition to taking on these two challenging roles, Stoyanova is in the midst of releasing a CD that has been years in the making.

For most singers, CDs are a chance to show off arias and duet collaborations. In some cases, they are auditions for future jobs, the singer showing the industry the repertoire they hope to take on in the future.

That wasn’t on Stoyanova’s mind when she conceived of “Verismo.”

The idea for the album came in 2009 when she discussed with Robert Lombardo, her manager, about doing an album with Verismo arias.

“We looked at repertoire we could do and constructed this interesting CD. I wanted to do something from ‘Zaza’ but I had no time to prepare because the scene is really difficult and it requires a child singer,” she revealed.

When that idea fell through Lombardo suggested the final scene from Mascagni’s “Lodoletta.” The work is very rare and is best known for the aria “Ah! Il suo nome.” And while Stoyanova included the aria in the CD, she made sure that she recorded the complete scene surrounding the famous segment.

“It’s usually done as an aria but it is a scene that you have to do completely. For me, it’s so dramatic and it’s theatrical singing. It’s spectacular. I found it so special. There are moments that come from all of Lodoletta’s life and you see all her love and then you see her fragile moments. There is a moment when she has fallen and that is a beautiful moment. She dies of cold. It’s so dramatic and yet so beautiful.”

In keeping with that idea, Stoyanova sought to expand the presentation of every scene in the album, uniting the famed arias with the surrounding scenes.

“I didn’t only do the arias. I did the scenes and I wanted to bring some of the drama because that way it feels complete and it tells a story,” she explained. “You create a different atmosphere and it becomes more interesting for the listener.”

This kind of exploration also allowed for new insights and perspectives on the music. For example, the opening recitative from “Adriana Lecouvreur” that leads into the famed aria “Io son l’umile ancella” is actually a sung recitative that is usually declaimed by most sopranos. This discovery allowed her to create Cilea’s vision for these recits, in which she sang each note written in the score.

In doing the CD she also discovered the most difficult aria she has ever sung.

“‘Senza Mama’ is the most difficult aria that exists. Puccini writes it in such a way that he steals your heart with the harmonies and the words. When I read the text for the first time I started to cry. I told my husband, I can’t do it. I don’t know how I did it. And now talking about it I get emotional,” she enthused.

Reuniting with Collaborators

To realize her vision for the album, Stoyanova was able to collaborate with some of her favorite musicians. She reunited with conductor Pavel Baliff, a frequent collaborator, and one her friends.

“It’s the third time he does a CD with me and I would say that he is one of the great conductors right now. He follows you so well. He does not impose anything on you.”

The two have collaborated on Stoyanova’s Verdi and Slavic album and throughout the years, the Bulgarian artist has found a conductor that she can not only learn from but with who she has a lot in common.

“The great thing is that we both work together. We go into detail and we think about everything, the harmonies and he always gives ideas. This allows us to collaborate so well for the production and I learn a lot from him.”

Another collaborator that she has also found to be fundamental to the success of her recordings is Torsten Schreier. The engineer has been able to really convey Stoyanova’s voice on recording without enhancing or changing it.

“He knows my voice so well. He puts the recording together and when he listens to the tracks he is already prepared knowing which are the best tracks. That is one of the most difficult things.

“He feels everything and corrects so wonderfully and knows when intonation is not there or when we are not together. He knows what our ideas are and he knows when we don’t get them. He helps us create my vision in the studio. It’s like he has a third ear.”

The final essential collaborator is the Munchner Rundfunkorchester, which has recorded four albums with her.

“When you are in the studio it’s always important to have contact with the group that you are doing it with. I know them well and I know the musicians were really enthusiastic to do it,” she explained. “We’re almost like friends. You can see this fire when you work with these great musicians.  It’s fantastic.”

After five days of recording, Stoyanova feels that she was able to create what she intended.

“I think we found a wonderful atmosphere.”

Bel Canto

This summer Stoyanova returns to the Salzburg Festival for Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” a role she has yet to perform.

It marks her return to the Bel Canto repertoire, music she has performed extensively in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda” and Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell.”

Bel Canto’s tradition of change and improvisation is far more extensive than anything in the Verdi or Verismo repertoire. And most people actually expect to be surprised by what they hear out of each artist. For Stoyanova, the biggest surprise she can bring is to actually sing the work the exact way it was written.

“I don’t like tradition because it kills the music and the ideas of the composer. I did ‘Anna Bolena’ as it was written. I did the cadenzas that were written in the score and I thought about the cadenzas when I worked on the musical passages. I did ‘Maria Stuarda’ the same way.”

As for whether or not she will sing the famed “Era desso il figlio mio” in “Lucrezia Borgia,” an aria that was added by Donizetti upon insistence by renowned soprano Henriette Méric-Lalande, Stoyanova remains in the dark.

In her view, the aria does not make much sense to the drama, especially since it was not Donizetti’s original intention.

“I have no idea if we’re doing ‘Era Desso.’ I don’t think it makes sense because after death you can’t be happy. That’s why Verdi was always unhappy when they changed his music. That is why when I sing Aida I always make sure that I sing it the way Verdi wrote it.”

But regardless of the final version she performs, Stoyanova will always do one thing.

“I will always verify it with the original score.”


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