STEVEN MERCURIO catches up with the Bulgarian soprano who became one of verismo's most thrilling performers.

Reunion Kabaivanska hdl 913

Photographed by Joseph Nemeth in Modena, Italy
© Joseph Nemeth 2013




OPERA NEWS: As a singer born in Bulgaria, did you find any resistance to your making a career in Italy?

RAINA KABAIVANSKA: You need to know that in 1959 — as soon as I arrived in Italy to study at the Liceo Musi-cale di Viotti in Vercelli, at the age of twenty-five — my teacher, Zita Fumagalli, right from the beginning gave me roles in Italian to study. Almost immediately I sang in a production of Puccini's II Tabarro, at the Teatro Vercelli. In this Vercelli debut there was also a young Italian baritone named Piero Cappuccilli. The same year I won a vocal competition, the Concorso Avanti in Rcggio Emilia, where Luciano Pavarotti took second prize. After that successful debut, I studied all of the major Italian roles - Nedda, Miml, Desdemona, etc. I have to say that in Italy I was accepted immediately. In Italy, it's very important to not only have a voice but also to have good pronunciation. It was probably in that young arts program at the very beginning of my career that I learned about the connection between music and words. In Italy, it is absolutely fundamental. Studying in this manner, pronunciation-text-music, made it possible for me to make my La Scala debut in 1961, at the age of twenty-seven. That is to say that my "old school," traditional musical education made this journey possible.
When I was beginning my studies in Italy, I won a vocal competition in the central, Emilia-Romagna part of the country, where eventually I made my home — in Modena. The winners of these competitions would then be given roles in productions that would travel throughout the region in many theaters. These were coproductions at a time when the opera as an art form was quite popular, and each city would have a lyric opera season. Therefore, for example, in 1965 I did my first Adriana Lecouvreur, and I had the chance to sing the role for twenty performances, going from Modena, Bologna, Parma, Ferrara, Ravenna, et cetera — a wonderful way to learn a role and really make it one's own. I was also fortunate in that in those times, if a singer had a success in this type of musical environment, the general director would ask you personally, "What role would you like to do next year?" It was a wonderful wav to learn enough for them. We would make these deals without a contract — without an agent!
While doing my first Tosca, I met a young stage director [Franco Guandalini] who would in time be my husband. It was he who first told me, "You must sing Francesca da Rimini." So began my affection for both the opera and the role of Francesca, and as before, I made my debut in the role in Modena and toured it in the other theaters in the area.

ON: What were your first impressions of Zandonai and Francesca da Rimini?

RK: Ah, listen, my dear, I fell in love with the role of Francesca immediately, and in no small part due to the text of D'Annun-zio, one of the most revered authors in Italian history. This is no ordinary opera libretto. The whole world opens up to you with the words of D'Annunzio. And perhaps I've always had a weakness for that literary period. I also loved the connection of those words with Zandonai s music.

ON: How would you characterize or describe Zandonai s music in contrast to the other composers from the early part of the twentieth century?

RK: In my opinion, Francesca is not a verismo opera. It is very refined and elegant. For me, Zandonai is a Richard Strauss "all'italiana." It's clear that Zandonai knew the music of Strauss, Debussy. His music is a wonderful combination of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century compositional influences, and yet with the lyric Romanticism of the Italian vocal style — just one step removed from the world of Puccini.

ON: How much do you attribute your early successes to the work you did at the time with conductors? Often in todays musical environment, conductors find themselves in a situation where the singer is "prepared" or has learned the role in a particular way, with little interest in learning, sharing or discovering more.

RK: [Laughing] Yes, those times were completely different! We approached our work with much more humility. We were like little soldiers in front of the conductors. I remember during our rehearsals with Maestro Antonino Votto that not only the young singers but also the famous ones gave all their attention and respect to every bit of advice and observation made by the maestro, without ever saying a negative word — just "Yes Maestro, I understand."

ON: Much has been said and written on the subject of come scritto in determining the interpretive style of a performance. Critical editions are often at odds with traditional interpretations of old. What docs knowing "the tradition" mean to you, and how did it affect your performances?

RK: For me, the phrase "come scritto" as it pertains to singing the right notes and rhythms, yes of course is basic, but that is just the beginning. After that work was done, one began to deal with "the tradition." Rubato, phrasing, high notes, et cetera, all were always part of studying the meaning of the score, but always with good taste and knowledge of performance history. I remember my Met debut in 1962,1 believe conducted by Maestro Cleva, who was absolutely terrifying. I was singing Nedda, and Carlo Bergonzi was singing Canio. Singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticatia was [Rita Gorr, and then later] Simionato. Everyone respected the authority given to the position of maestro. It was important to get it right. But once again, these conductors had the insight to understand talent and how to help bring it out of everyone, which in my opinion is at present unfortunately and sadly missing.

ON: It seems that the challenges for today's young singers arc a bit different from what they were when you began your career.

“I honestly had no idea who Herbert von Karajan was.”

RK: Today, young talent is often judged in a superficial manner. If a young singer can sing a loud high note, or a long high note softly, he or she is immediately judged as a talent.

ON: As if singing were merely a circus act...

RK: Exactly. Bravo!

ON: When you work with a conductor or stage director, do you like working on details, or do you prefer a more spontaneous approach?

RK: I prefer using the rehearsals to work on all details. In this way, we will have a good understanding of each other and what we need from each other in order to be together. Then, during the later rehearsals, and when we arrive at the performance, we can both be open to the feeling of being spontaneous — but it must be connected with what was done in rehearsal. I remember one time when I was doing a production of II Trovatore. It was I who had to insist on rehearsing with the conductor. When I first asked him for a rehearsal, his response was, "Don't worry. I'll accompany you." I had to say, "I don't want to be only accompanied. I want to make music with you." We need to rehearse together to become

ON: In the film production of Pagliacci you did with Jon Vickers and Herbert von Kara-jan, were there any adjustments or musical concessions that you had to make in your acting or singing in order to deal with the fact that it was being filmed? Were there differences between a film performance and a theatrical one?

RK: (Laughing) Listen, with Herbert von Karajan, I had an incredible adventure. I was very young, and I was asked to do at La Scala Nedda in Pagliacci, with Jon Vickers. And, as was my stage temperament, I moved around a lot, and I was, let's say, "active." My Nedda was one who was young, energetic and very much in love. Karajan was always telling me, "Enough! You're moving around too much. Stand still every now and then." In hindsight, I believe he was telling me this because he was already thinking of how it would look on film, but back then, since I was very young and naive, I said, "Maestro, this is my temperament — this is how I act," and I left the theater.

As soon as I got home, the phone rang. It was the general director of La Scala, Antonio Ghiringhelli,
and he said to me, "Don't you know who Karajan is?" I, being very young, had no idea who he was, as a young girl coming from a world of communism. We, as young artists in these countries, knew nothing of the Western world outside of ours. I honestly had no idea who Herbert von Karajan was. The next day I returned to rehearsal, after having apologized to Karajan, and I did the film as he requested. After this silly, youthful gesture on my part, it was more than ten years until I worked with him again.

ON: What do you think of the quality of musical education in our conservatory system, especially in Italy, a nation with the richest of operatic tradition, being the birthplace of the lyric opera?

RK: I have to tell you one thing. In Italy, there are eighty musical conservatories. In these eighty conservatories that teach all of the musical disciplines, throughout all of them, there isn't one voice teacher with whom I have worked in my fifty-year career as a singer! Rather, they are singers that haven't even had a career as a successful singer. Unfortunately, these are positions that are filled politically, as if it were any other type of work done by the government. Therefore, a conservatory becomes only a place to work, not a school run by the qualified.

ON: What a shame. With the culture that it had, Italy's great gift to the world should not be reduced to that level.

RK: Unfortunately, the same is happening to the theaters themselves. Similarly, they are being run by people who aren't truly qualified for the position. Often, they don't even have the love and the passion for the music. They lack the musical qualifications to understand the operas, the singers or the productions. They are political appointees who don't understand anything, so that when someone like Carlo Fontana gets the opportunity to work artistically in Parma, then, "Finally — someone understands the opera!" But unfortunately, that's just one — the exception. There you have it. It's ironic that I was born in Bulgaria and that I am here in Italy fighting for the great Italian vocal tradition.

STEVEN MERCURIO is a prominent conductor, composer and arranger.