Wm: The following interview with basso Vitalij Kowaljow (pronounced Vee-TALL-ee Ko-VOL-yov) was conducted at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of the Los Angeles Opera, the day before the first night performance of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”. The facilitation of this interview by the Los Angeles Opera is gratefully acknowledged:
[ Below: Basso Vitalij Kowaljow; resized image of a photograph, courtesy of Mr Kowaljow.]
Wm: What are your earliest memories of opera? What kinds of music first interested you?
VK: As a child, I started piano lessons, but my musical experiences were not so great, although I did participate in a children’s program offered by a music school.
However, my parents, until they were 70, sang with our Baptist Church choir in the Ukrainian City of Cherkasy.
Wm: Ukraine has one of the largest Baptist populations of any country. Was it through the Baptist church choirs that you got your start in music?
VK: Yes, but this took a while to happen. I had started working very young, at age 13. From age 14 on, I worked as a mechanic in a garage, and in other occupations. Then I joined the USSR’s Red Army. They sent me as a Marine to the North Pole where I spent two years.
Afterwards, I returned to the city of Cherkasy, in the Ukraine, just north of the Black Sea. In the time of the Perestroika, I was offered the chance to study choral conducting for the church. I studied choral conducting at the Moscow Theological Institute. It was there that people suggested that I study singing.
I worked as a fireman while I studied. I had the misfortune of breaking my back, which prevented me from continuing to work as a fireman. But I was able to devote more time to the church chorale.
I never pursued vocal lessons in either Russia or the Ukraine, but I was invited to take part in a couple of concerts, as the conductor of my chorus in Cherkasy. Some tourists visiting from Europe attended one of these choral concerts.
As it happened, the bass soloists were sick and I agreed to sing the bass role as well as conduct the chorus. One of the tourists who heard us was a lady from Switzerland, who was excited about my voice. When she returned to Switzerland she arranged for the Bern Opera to invite me for an audition.
This was in 1991, and a very difficult time for everyone in the Ukraine. I didn’t know a single operatic aria and no more than five or ten words of German. But I prepared myself in short time and went to Switzerland.
I was invited to enroll in the Bern Conservatory of Music as a Masters student leading to a concert diploma.
Wm: That’s seems like quite a life-changing experience.
VK: It was. My life was in the Ukraine and it was a huge challenge for me to leave there. Moving to Switzerland was a very high-risk decision. My financial situation was precarious. It was a very difficult time in Bern, while I was both studying and working to finance my studies.
Wm: So you stayed in Switzerland, and went through the Conservatory. Was it there that you learned opera?
VK: There I got training in the art of singing lieder and opera. I became a student of the famous voice teacher, Professor Elizabeth Glauser, who has been my teacher for 20 years. I enrolled in the Opera Studio and spent three years at the Bern Conservatory for my Masters.
Wm: But how did you go from being a contract singer at a regional theater to an international star?
VK: I was encouraged to enter Placido Domingo’s Operalia Contest in 1998.
Wm: In Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition you were a prize winner. How did this affect your career?
VK: After the contest, I began getting wonderful contract offers in bigger opera houses.
[Below: Fiesco Grimaldi (Vitalij Kowaljow left) counsels the Doge, Simon Boccanegra (Placido Domingo); edited image based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Wm: In 2003, a career-advancing event occurred when you substituted for another artist as Procida in “Vespri Siciliani” under James Conlon at Opera National de Paris. Since then, you have been associated with Conlon at Los Angeles Opera in all three of the Wotan roles in the “Ring”, including as Wotan to Placido Domingo’s Siegmund.
At the time of this interview, you are performing Fiesco to Domingo’s Boccanegra under Conlon and earlier this season you were Frere Laurent in Ian Judge’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” with Domingo conducting. What are your thoughts about Domingo and Conlon and their importance to your career?
VK: I would not use the word “important”. It is more than important. They have been central to my career. My international career was established because of Domingo’s Operalia competition. It resulted in offers from the Washington National Opera (where he then was general director) to sing Banquo in Verdi’s “Macbeth”.
Then I was invited to sing in Drattell’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” with Placido as Rasputin and Maestro Rostropovich conducting. Ever since 1999 Domingo has been a central figure in my career.
From my very first meeting with Conlon, we have been good colleagues and friends. If you have on your side someone who is highly professional, then there is less chance for you to make a mistake.
When Placido offered me Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring”, for me it was a scary idea. I am a basso and I had no experience with Wagner at all. My vocal teacher assured me that I had a voice that could sing Wagner and she convinced me that I had the top notes required to sing Wotan. I prepared myself during four years to sing these three parts of Wotan in the “Ring”.
[Below: Fiesco (Vitalij Kowaljow, left) considers information brought to him by Pietro (Kenneth Kellogg, right); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: Several years ago I reviewed your Fiesco at San Francisco Opera to Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Boccanegra and noted that only six artists had ever sung Fiesco in San Francisco before you – Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, Giorgio Tozzi, Cesare Siepi, Marti Talvela and Samuel Ramey – and that I felt that your performance properly belong with that distinguished group. Do you feel a connection with the great bassos who have sung this role in the past? Which of the bassos of the past have particularly inspired you?
Wm: I have a story about this. At one point, I was about to quit my career. I had not finished my Masters at the Bern Conservatory. Although I was getting some onstage experience, I was not happy with my performances. But just then, in Switzerland, I was offered the title role of Verdi’s “Attila”, which was my very first big Verdi role.
I said I would try the role and started listening to a CD, but thought that I needed to hear another recording. I went to a record store and bought a CD of Samuel Ramey’s complete recording of “Attila” and also a DVD. I don’t know how many times I watched the video. I thought, if this guy can sing like this, then I will try to sing that way also.
I sang the role of Attila in Switzerland, and prepared Attila’s big aria and cabaletta for the Operalia Competition. Since then, I have had many offers to perform Attila.
I found Ramey to be a great colleague and a great human being, as well as a top quality singer and professional throughout his long career.
One time, I was disappointed about a rehearsal in which one of my colleagues made a little gesture of disapproval, but Ramey came to my defense.
I’m so happy to have worked with him. He is like Domingo and Conlon who are so supportive of me when they conduct.
Wm: The late basso Jerome Hines argued that the bassos and baritones of recent years have higher ranges than their equivalents earlier in the 20th century. You sing the role of Sarastro with its very low notes and also roles like Wotan that some self-described baritones include in their repertory. I’ve used the term “basso cantante” to describe your present voice. Do you think that is a correct characterization?
VK: Yes, I think I can be described as a basso cantante or perhaps a basso nobile, depending on the role. If you consider Verdi’s basso roles, you can use the cantante designation for Count Walter in “Luisa Miller”, the nobile for the title roles of Verdi’s “Attila” and Filippo in “Don Carlo”.
Even though Sarastro is associated with his low notes, the range that he sings is the same as for Zaccaria in Verdi’s “Nabucco” and Fiesco in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”. I sang Zaccaria in Verona, and it has both very high and very low notes. You really have to take care of your voice, to be able to sing it with the power technique that it requires.
To sing Wotan, you also need a really good technique to keep your voice in a good position. The range of the Wotan roles is actually the same as that of Sarastro, but you have to be able to sustain singing high in his range for long periods, such as in the third act of “Die Walkuere”.
Wm: You were Wotan in Achim Freyer’s highly choreographed production of the “Ring” at Los Angeles Opera. Do such highly complicated choreographed movements add to the complexity of singing Wotan?
VK: For me it is important that the director can prove to me that there is a reason for the choreographed positions. Then I can understand what I’m doing. It’s easier to be in a position that I would not normally sing in, if I know what I’m supposed to be doing and why I’m doing it.
[Below: Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow, front left) creates the Magic Fire to surround Bruennhilde (Linda Watson, right) during her long sleep; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Wm: You’ve sung Wotan in different stagings than the Freyer production in Los Angeles.
VK: In 2010, Maestro Daniel Barenboim asked me if I would step into the role of Wotan at La Scala, with only two weeks before opening night. It was very hard to jump into an unfamiliar production in what was only my third Wotan.
I just tried to sing it. A newspaper critic wrote that the stage director had not worked with his Wotan. But I found that it was so different from the Freyer staging. I was able to bring more and more of my feeling into the role.
[Below: Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in La Scala “Die Walkuere”; resized image of a La Scala production photograph.]
For me, it takes time for a role like Wotan to settle in my body, not just in my voice. The directors tell me what they want me to do, but I think I need time for the ideas to cook. If and whenever I do Wotan again, I will want to have the time to work with the director.
Wm: From the standpoint of the audience, some directors seem to stage an opera in ways that bring excitement to it. I am impressed by the work of John Pascoe, who directed you in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” in San Francisco.
[Below: Vitalij Kowaljow as Alfonso d’Este in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”‘; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
VK: I had a good time working with Director Pascoe. He took the time to say to me. Also, I liked working with Elijah Moshinsky in Los Angeles Opera’s current production of “Simon Boccanegra”. He would explain why I, as Fiesco, am moving towards Simon or Gabriele – what my purpose is for going over there.
Thinking about the character’s motivations in this way helps both him as a director and myself as a performer. By his taking the time to do this, he ends up with a person who understands the entirety of the role within the staging.
Wm: Some of your roles – such as Kaspar in “Freischutz” or Rene in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta – are in operas that are virtually never performed in the United States. Are there unfamiliar operas with roles you sing that you feel might become audience favorites if performed more?
VK: I’ve never sung either Kaspar or Rene onstage. I did sing Kaspar in a concert performance in New York City and will do a concert performance of King Rene in 2012.
Often, the role I’m performing becomes my favorite role. That happens with Tsar Boris in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”. The same with Procida and Zaccaria, and with Fiesco, a role I love very much. For those three Verdi basso parts I love the music and love the persons that I am playing.
But I don’t like the Wotan character in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”. The role of Wotan in “Walkuere” is one that is much closer to me. The Wanderer in Wagner’s “Siegfried” is a great role with wonderful music, but “Walkuere” is my favorite. I like Wotan very much in that opera.
Wm: There are some European artists that never perform in North America, yet you have spent many weeks a year in the United States over each of the last few years. Where is your home?
VK: Our home is in Switzerland.
Wm: Do your parents ever get to see you perform?
VK: They used to visit me in Switzerland, and ten years ago, they attended a performance when I sang at the Summer Festival in Bellinzona, but my father is 86 and my mother is 77. They don’t travel out of the Ukraine anymore. I did send them a copy of the DVD of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that I performed with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.
Wm: Thank you, Vitalij.
For my reviews of Vitalij Kowaljow’s performances, see: Legend Making at Los Angeles Opera – Placido Domingo, James Conlon Lead Star-Studded “Simon Boccanegra”, February 11, 2012, and also: