Classical Voice: Celebrity Interview                       

 
From Russia With Talent: An Interview with Russian tenor Daniil Shtoda and pianist Larissa Gergieva

By Nuno Miguel Marques
Special to Classical Voice


 
Daniil Shtoda   Larissa Gergieva

DESPITE his youth, Daniil Shtoda is already a matured artist. However, he has not lost the energy, enthusiasm and inquisitiveness of adolescence, which he wisely combines with the poise acquired through long and intensive years of musical study at the Mariinsky's Academy of Young Singers. The Russian tenor must surely have benefited from the companionship of Larissa Gergieva, both his teacher at the Academy and his accompanying pianist in recitals. One senses Larissa Gergieva, with her mother-like gestures and caring demeanour, supported her pupil through the crisis and less joyful moments, inherent to artistic growth. She must also have shared her lifelong experience with Shtoda, for his renditions surprise the listener by their depth and interpretative detail. His is a soft-grained and silky voice of unusual beauty. Even though he was carrying a slight cold brought about by Brussels’ rain showers, Shtoda's voice remained pure and limpid throughout his Gulbenkian Foundation recital in Lisbon. He was a master in dynamic shading, producing breathtaking pianissimi in Rachmaninov's Ne poy, krasavitsa, which the reader can marvel at by buying Shtoda's debut CD album at EMI. It's worth every cent.

First Musical Steps

Classical Voice: You were born in 1977 in a family of musicians in Saint Petersburg. What did your mother and father do?

Daniil Shtoda: My mother and father are now retired. My mother used to work as a kindergarten music teacher and my father was a famous Russian tenor.

Larissa Gergieva: I don’t know if you can call him famous. He was quite well-known in Russia, though.

CV: What are your first music recollections?

DS: When I was a child, my family enjoyed to go for walks in forests and, once there, we would all sing together in communion with nature.

CV: When you were four, you started studying the violin and, at the age of 6, you joined the Chorus Institute of the Academic Cappella M.I.Glinka. What benefits do you think studying the violin and singing in a chorus has brought to your singing career?

DS: It was extremely important to have begun my musical studies so early. During my first musical steps, I could learn what music was about and how I should perform it, because, after two years of violin playing, I began taking classes on conducting. I also had piano lessons and am still able to play it. I was taught to play such difficult pieces as Liszt’s Rhapsodies or Chopin’s Etudes. The 11 years I studied at the Chorus Institute of the Academic Cappella M.I.Glinka were indeed most productive.

CV: Your musical education was very thorough: piano, violin, conducting.

DS: A little bit like Placido Domingo’s who plays the piano and conducts, besides being such a great singer. He is an immense musician. I too try to have a musical education as complete as possible, without which I cannot achieve my goal of becoming a true opera and recital singer.

CV: When you were studying violin, piano, conducting, did you already know of Placido Domingo?

DS: No, I didn’t. I met Placido only after I entered the Mariinsky’s Academy of Young Singers. Larissa Gergieva introduced me to Placido in London, when he attended our recital at St. James’s Hall. During our conversation, Placido Domingo invited me to participate in his Los Angeles Competition, Operalia.

CV: You made your debut at 13 in the role of Feodor in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky. How did this opportunity come by?

DS: Traditionally, the Mariinsky would search for a suitable interpreter for Feodor at the Chorus Institute I studied in. And, since I had a very good child alto voice, they chose me. I recall that Nicolai Okhotnikov was Tsar Boris. At that time, I felt the role of Feodor as if it was real and started crying in my scene with Okhotnikov, when Tsar Boris dies. Despite singing at the Mariinsky, I did not enter its opera company till later when I met Larissa Gergieva. Amusingly enough, I sang for her an aria of Hermann in The Queen of Spades (“Prosti, prelestnoe sozdanye”). It was not very suited to my voice, for I am a lyric tenor and Hermann should be sung by a dramatic one.

CV: When did this meeting with Larissa Gergieva take place?

LG: It took place five years ago, just before we opened the Academy of Young Singers. Daniil approached me with a big bouquet of white roses. He was a very young boy with big blue eyes looking for an audition. I asked him what he was going to sing. “Hermann’s aria” – he answered. I thought to myself it was quite a challenge, since Hermann is a very difficult role. I accompanied him at the piano and, after he finished singing Hermann’s aria, I told him to simply forget it, because it was not for his voice. Nonetheless, I immediately took him to the Academy, which opened a few days later. He has become one of my favourite pupils whom I love to work with.

CV: And did Daniil sing Hermann’s aria well?

LG: Yes, he did. I quickly grasped his musicianship, his personality, his soul and individuality. Obviously he was too young to sing Hermann, since he was only twenty years old. However, the quality of his voice was there and thus we started working together at once and won several competitions.

Vocal Competitions

CV: If I am not mistaken Daniil Shtoda won the Mario Lanza and the Moniuszko Competitions and was awarded the Grand Prix at the Rimsky-Korsakov Competition. In addition, he came second at the Elena Obraztsova International Competition and at Operalia as well. How much has the participation in these various vocal competitions helped your career?

DS: Competitions have been very important in the development of my career, for they make my name and my voice known to the world. Furthermore, in competitions, we realize what standards we must reach in order to succeed in our profession. I always enter a competition to win and work as hard as I can to realize this goal of mine. Competitions are similar to motor racing. Only Michael Schumacher is well known due to his wins. The race drivers who come second or third better bite the dust.

LG: In my opinion, the most beneficial aspect of competitions is the additional preparation. When a young singer is preparing himself for a competition with his teachers, professors, coaches, conductors, he is obliged to work very hard and thus develops and perfects his vocal resources. There are also different styles which he will have to learn and grow accustomed to. For instance, while we were preparing for the Rimsky-Korsakov Competition, we worked very hard in order to fully understand the Russian composer’s style which is a very difficult one. Although Daniil only sang two Rimsky-Korsakov songs at the Competition, we had to prepare 10 to 12 from which he chose the two he performed. Moreover, Daniil also had to read a lot about Rimsky and, for the Moniuszko Competition, he learnt a new language: Polish. Competitions are also a test to the singer’s individuality, since the young performer’s personality must stand out between singers of the same age. That was never a problem for Daniil, because he has got a strong personality and a most generous amount of charisma. Another thing I would like to add is that competitions become more and more difficult. After the first and second competition, people already knew of Daniil’s talent and, as a result, the third and fourth competitions were very demanding, for there were expectations that had to be fulfilled. Daniil had to be first.

CV: Is it possible to overcome the nervousness and anxiety during vocal competitions?

DS: In order to overcome nervousness, one should give, at least, 300 concerts a year. But that is not possible. I am always a bit nervous before entering the stage. However, a slight nervousness is beneficial for singing. This nervousness doesn’t mean you are frightened of performing, but, on the contrary, excited by it. Obviously, at the beginning of my career, I had stage fright, but, step by step, I have been able to overcome it.

CV: Since 1992, Larissa Gergieva has been director of the Rimsky-Korsakov Competition in St. Petersburg. Are you also a member of the jury?

LG: Yes, I am. Last October, the Rimsky-Korsakov Competition was held for the fifth time. We always have different jury members, except for two or three musical personalities who are permanent members, like myself. The development of the Competition has been impressive. We now have very interesting programmes as well as the possibility to use the Mariinsky Orchestra. During the fifth competition, the last round was held at the Mariinsky and not at the Philharmonic Hall as before. It is very important to hear the singers and their voices on the Mariinsky stage, for it is a big theatre and it is not easy to sing there. And, as a result, we quickly identify which voices are truly operatic and which voices are not. I vividly recall how difficult it was to organise the first Rimsky-Korsakov Competition due to the troubled times Russia was facing then. But now you can see the names of the first Competition winners on magazines and concert programmes. Vasily Gerello, Elena Zelenskaya, Larissa Rudakova, Khibla Gerzmava all are doing so well. Plus, we have been lucky to have in our various juries such famous names as Elena Obraztsova, Renata Scotto, Fedora Barbieri or Ileana Cotrubas.

The Mariinsky’s Academy of Young Singers

CV: When you are judging the contestants, what are you looking for?

LG: I look for new voices. However, it is very difficult to surprise me nowadays, because hundreds and hundreds of singers come to the Mariinsky Academy just to do an audition. I, as artistic director of the Academy, together with Konstantin Pluzhnikov and Grayr Khanedanian, listen to and choose the more talented applicants to enter the Academy. Singers come from everywhere: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Baltic countries, Sweden, Poland, Japan, Korea, China, England and Germany. Some singers come only to stay for a year either to improve their vocal technique or to learn the Russian repertoire. As you know, the Academy of Young Singers is an important department of the Mariinsky, not a separate institution. I believe we do have a unique system. Many theatres usually have programmes for young singers. That is the case of the Met, La Scala, the San Francisco Opera or the Bastille Opera. Nonetheless, I prefer our system, because, if the singers of the Academy are good, they immediately start singing in the Mariinsky and my brother (Maestro Valery Gergiev) welcomes them in his productions. Thus they have the opportunity to develop themselves as opera singers.

CV: You prepare singers for international competitions, namely Daniil Shtoda. Can you talk to us about it?

LG: First of all, we chose the repertoire more suited to his lyric voice. I think it is good for him to sing light repertoire, such as: Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini, very lyric Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert, Fauré, but neither Verdi nor Puccini. Daniil also had lots of lessons with a vocal professor and various language coaches.

CV: That certainly could account for the different languages Daniil sings in – despite only being 25 years old – Russian (Lensky, Tsar Berendey, Indian Guest and Guidon); French (Nadir) and Italian (Elvino, Don Ottavio and Ferrando).

DS: I learnt the foreign languages you mention in the Academy which hires language coaches to help us study the French or the Italian repertoire. We are also taught about different musical styles.

[Click here to listen to Daniil Shtoda’s performance of Tsar Berendey in Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Snegurochka"]

LG: As well as fencing, stage movement, acting, history of the Mariinsky Theatre and dance.

CV: What is the objective of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers ? To find and develop Russian talent?

LG: Not only Russian. We try to find talent in all the former Soviet Republics. At the moment, we have 103 students. We call them soloists of the Academy, because they already sing in public.

CV: Daniil Shtoda is then a soloist of the Academy.

LG: Indeed, and also an Honoured Artist of the Republic of Alania, situated in the South of Russia. Vladikavkaz, where my brother and I started our musical studies, is the capital of Alania. Daniil received this distinction from the government, because he did a lot of concerts there. He is still studying with us at the Academy, where he receives lessons everyday. I am a teacher of Chamber Music and Lieder at the Academy and thus I get the chance to have Daniil as a pupil. Unfortunately, I am absent too often, since I go abroad frequently. However, when I return, I give special masterclasses and listen to all of the students of the Academy, since I am its Artistic Director. And then I evaluate their progress and give them advice, particularly regarding suitable repertoire. I try to be very strong with my pupils, but like them all as if they were my children.

CV: Is Larissa very strict, Daniil?

DS: I believe she is kind of our mother.

LG: The Academy is one big family. At birthdays or other celebrations, we are always together.

[For more information regarding the Mariinsky’s Academy of Young Singers, go to: www.mariinsky.ru/en/opera/akademia]

Repertoire

CV: Daniil Shtoda has already performed in some of the most important classical music venues: Mariinsky Theatre, Covent Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Edinburgh Festival, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Théâtre du Châtelet. Where do you feel more comfortable singing?

DS: At Mariinsky which I consider my musical home. I am also very fond of Wigmore Hall, where I will give a recital, together with Larissa, June 19th. Afterwards, I will perform Arlecchino at Covent Garden. In this production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, I will share the stage with Placido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu. I am very excited about it all and looking forward to working with Placido. At Operalia, he conducted me in Cilea’s “Lamento di Federico” from L’Arlesiana. Placido understands singers. He is a singers’ conductor, for he helps us, makes us feel comfortable and never drowns us in orchestral sound.

CV: What roles would you like to sing in the future?

DS: Alfredo from Verdi’s La Traviata and Rodolfo from Puccini’s La Bohème. Last December, the Mariinsky staged a new production of La Traviata with Anna Netrebko in the title role. I would love to sing Alfredo in that production and have Valery Gergiev as conductor.

CV: What roles do you like to hear Daniil singing? And what roles do you think he should sing in the future?

LG: I like it very much when he does Don Ottavio and Nadir. Although Daniil prefers to sing in Italian, I would advise him to do Werther. I think he should wait at least a couple of years before performing Rodolfo. Alfredo, on the other hand, would be a very good role for him to sing right now. By the way, Daniil is preparing a new role: Laertes in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, which he will do in Barcelona’s Liceu.

CV: Don Ottavio as well as Elvino are parts which require coloratura ability and you have sung both. Is Daniil thinking of singing more bel canto roles?

LG: His voice moves very fast and is flexible. And he has also sung Il Conte di Libenskof in Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims. Furthermore, last December, Daniil interpreted Tonio from La Fille du Régiment in a concert performance in Moscow.

CV: In Aix-en-Provence’s production of Eugene Onegin, you sang Lensky’s farewell aria standing by a fire. How difficult is it to adjust to the stage director’s ideas?

DS: It’s our job to do so. Opera performances are not concerts. We must be prepared to sing in whatever position the stage director wants us to. Obviously, I prefer stage directors who give singers the possibility to move and act according to their own ideas. I like to have a little bit of freedom and not to be told to move two metres right or one metre left. Fortunately, at Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev only chooses stage directors who understand singers. I recently sang Eugene Onegin at Théâtre Châtelet in Paris under Valery Gergiev. The production’s stage directors were Patrice Courier and Moshe Leiser whom I very much enjoyed to work with. I clearly understood what I had to do and was given a lot of freedom at the same time.

CV: Regarding your recital at Gulbenkian Hall, who chose the repertoire which will be performed?

LG: I did, because I know what best suits Daniil’s voice. At the moment, I believe heavy and dramatic songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are dangerous for Daniil’s voice. He should stick to lighter songs which are lyrical in character.

CV: Perhaps that is why you have chosen to perform songs by Aliabiev, Guriliov, Varlamov, Kozlovsky and Bulakov at today’s Gulbenkian recital.

LG: They are a bit sentimental and so light. However, they are deeply expressive, but a singer doesn’t need to push his voice or to plunge into his low notes to interpret them adequately. All of these composers had good voices themselves and they tried to perform their songs in salons. Thus, they wrote songs which do not damage the voice and, on the contrary, are very good for it. They are full of beautiful melodies and wonderfully fresh feelings. Unfortunately, they are a bit forgotten now. Except for the song by Kozlovsky, “I met you once”, which is extremely famous in Russia.

CV: Is Ivan Kozlovsky one of Daniil’s favourite tenors?

DS: Russia had a lot of wonderful lyric tenors: Sobinov, Kozlovsky and Lemeshev. But today’s style is an absolutely different one. Aesthetics and culture have changed. As a result, the tenor I admire the most is Placido Domingo.

CV: Is it correct to say that one of your goals, when choosing this repertoire for your recitals, is to promote less known and performed Russian music?

LG: Yes, it is. Daniil and I believe people should know and hear this kind of Russian music (russkiye bitoviye romansy – domestic or household romances).

CV: How would you describe Daniil’s voice?

LG: It is a lyric and light voice with a very beautiful and silvery timbre. In addition, the voice has an impressive extension and is even from top to bottom. It is also extremely agile and has a rock solid technique. Moreover, Daniil has no problem whatsoever with his high register which easily rises up to D. Finally, Daniil’s voice handles dynamics effortlessly. He can do one, two, three piani, sotto voce, whatever is needed. I hope his voice will develop and mature, but I would like it to keep its lyrical core. Daniil is a very emotional performer too. I always try to calm him down. His emotional side shows itself in his phrasing and diction which are very clear. At 25, he is already a polished performer.

Soviet Union vs Russia

CV: You studied and started your career as a pianist within the musical system of the old Soviet Union. How would you describe the changes that took place because of the demise of the Soviet Union?

LG: In Soviet times, musical training was guided by very high standards. We always had very good musicians: pianists, violinist and singers. The big difference is that now we have more freedom. Young singers, for example, can go anywhere they want to. During and after Perestroika, a lot of musicians left the Soviet Union. However, I believe most of them were unable to build a career abroad. In my opinion, artists should stay in the country where they were born, because they are part of its culture. Obviously, they can travel and show their talent to people in other countries. Nowadays, this is possible. And, for me, it is the greatest advantage the demise of the Soviet Union has brought about. Young singers go abroad for vocal competitions or to have famous singers as teachers. Before, that almost never happened, for very few were given these opportunities. Those were very strict times and the society was extremely closed. The end of the Soviet Union enabled society to open itself to the world. We are now able to get in touch with international aesthetic trends. No longer are you limited to hearing CDs or watching videos of foreign opera productions. Nowadays, we can witness opera performances in La Scala or Covent Garden live. Our horizons have become wider.

Unfortunately, in general, the musicians' future has become less secure and less safe than it was before. The Minister of Culture who would give you a permanent job and tell you where to go has ceased to exist. Today, in order to maintain a secure job, you must be very good, have talent and be willing to work very hard. Mariinsky is an exception, since it does give its singers stable employment. But Mariinsky is one of the greatest theatres in the world. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, for Valery Gergiev is my brother, but he too is a great and famous conductor. He brings Mariinsky and Russian music with him everywhere he goes. Thanks to him, everyone can attend stagings of unknown Russian operas or listen to a CD or watch a video of them. Sometimes people in the West surprise me with their knowledge of Pavel Lisitsian or Leonid Sobinov. The demise of the Soviet Union made that possible too. Western people now know much more about Russian music and Russian artists. I believe the world has become quite small and cultural exchanges between countries much more frequent.

Galina Gorchakova

CV: I recently interviewed Galina Gorchakova who was very critical of the way the Mariinsky functioned. In her opinion, schedules were too heavy at the Mariinsky and, as a result, were ruining singers’ voices. Would you like to comment on these statements?

LG: I believe she is just jealous of young singers. It is very difficult to accept the arrival of a new generation at the Mariinsky, especially if they have a more perfect vocal technique, are better as musicians and, above all, are willing to work as hard as they can. Everything seems terrible to people who are experiencing problems with their own voices. Mariinsky is terrible. Conductors, pianists and directors are terrible. Friends and agents are terrible. If you still have a voice, you should work very hard everyday, otherwise you will be heading to trouble.

CV: You were one of Galina Gorchakova’s coaches and her accompanying pianist.

LG: Exactly. But we went our separate ways more than four years ago. For me, it is only interesting and enriching to spend my time with singers who are ready to work, irradiate positive energy and are grateful for all the things the maestro (Valery Gergiev) and the Mariinsky have done for them. Mariinsky provides its singers with a stable future they will find nowhere else. Obviously, life in the Mariinsky is not easy, for we need hard-working, strong and dependable performers. The Theatre could not survive if it is solely comprised of Stars in the heaven who do nothing but look down on people on Earth. Maestro works extremely hard. He sleeps but three or four hours a day. The rhythm at Mariinsky is very intense. Daniil Shtoda, for instance, learnt and prepared more than thirty songs during a single month. He prepares an average of sixty or seventy new songs a year, plus six or seven operatic roles. Life is not easy. I am not at all surprised Gorchakova gave this interview. Maestro greatly helped her. He took her from the very far city of Novosibirsk to the Mariinsky. He offered her several premières, countless recordings and always paid her top fees. It is not very pleasant of her to lie about him. Gorchakova used to be very kind and had a lot of friends, but, when she felt she was a star, she changed completely. As I said, I am not surprised, merely disappointed. I wrongly thought she had a good and grateful nature. If you have a problem in either your private or professional life, it is your problem. You should deal with it and not blame everybody else. Moreover, you should always remember who helped you in the past.

Young singers need to realize that their professional life is a short one and thus they should be very careful. That is why the Maestro and I always insist on them singing light repertoire. However, when a singer rings us up and says: “Today I’m not coming”. And the day after: “I do not want to work”. Sooner or later his or her voice will disappear. You can’t start skipping rehearsals once or twice a week.

CV: Regarding your work as an accompanist, is it difficult to reach agreements with singers concerning the tempo, dynamics or proper interpretation of the song? How difficult or how easy has it been to work with Elena Obraztsova, Larissa Diadkova or Olga Borodina?

LG: Please put what I am going to tell you in the interview. I would be extremely happy, if you did so. Obraztsova is a great musician, a fabulous artist and a beautiful woman who had an incredibly big career. “Great” is the only adjective which can be applied to her. Nowadays, she loves to help young singers. She gives excellent masterclasses at the Academy and all my students like her very much. I think all artists should be like Elena Obraztsova. She is a very open and friendly person. You cannot but immediately like her. She was always at the top of her profession, but she was wise enough to think about the future. Besides masterclasses, Obraztsova has also become an actress. And she works with the Mariinsky, the Bolshoi ... everywhere. The young generation ought to follow Obraztsova’s example. They should think about the future in advance and take very good care of their voices. If Daniil started singing Hermann or Cavaradossi, his voice would be ruined. Thankfully, the Maestro is very fond of the new and young voices of the Mariinsky’s Academy. He wishes to develop them which is why my students participate in the Mariinsky’s opera productions. Furthermore, the Maestro knows everybody’s names and, when he calls me, he always asks about Shtoda, Semenchuk or other soloists of the Academy.

 


Nuno Miguel Marques is a Classical Voice correspondent in Lisbon, Portugal.

 

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