The following interview took place in the Sir Vernon Ellis conference room of the London Coliseum. The facilitation of this interview by the English National Opera is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose; edited image, based on a J. Henry Fair photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
Wm: What kind of music first influenced you?
RD: I come from a family of musicians. My mother a professor of music and my father was a composer. At age six, I started lessons on the piano and for a long time had planned to become a professional pianist. I entered local piano competitions and even an international one. Classical music was my element.
Wm: What are your earliest memories of opera?
RD: My first opera was Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” at the Bucharest National opera. For a 12 year old, that was a tough experience. I remembered a woman with a spear. It didn’t discourage me.
My first significant positive opera encounter was listening to a Deutsche Grammophon LP recording of Verdi’s “La Traviata”, conducted by Carlos Kleiber and starring the Rumanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. At that time in Rumania, we did not have access to what was happening to the world outside, but this recording made its way to our home, because my father worked at an artists agency.
I was fascinated with Cotrubas’ artistry. I learned that opera is about the way you feel the music, using the emotion of the words to enhance the music. The singers were so full of emotion that I listened to them over and over. I really am unhappy to hear singers who do not convey that type of emotion to their performance.
Wm: When was it first determined that you had the talents to become an operatic singer?
RD: I was 17 and was a piano student, planning a career as a concert pianist. As part of my course requirements, I had to take some singing lessons to learn how to accompany singers.
At my very first singing lesson I met my first voice teacher. After my first vocalise she banged the piano, “I’m going to make a mezzo out of you”, she exclaimed. I was skinny and shy. “Me a mezzo?” I replied. But I was contaminated by her enthusiasm.
[Below: Ruxandra Donose as Donna Elvira in the Roland Schwab production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
I started to learn to sing with her. She asked me to sing with a choir recital only a couple of weeks in the future. Since I was playing difficult piano works like the Chopin Piano Concerto, or Prokofiev Sonatas, for me to learn a few songs was not a problem.
The school chorus was looking for a soloist for an upcoming concert, had not been satisfied with all of his auditions so far, and asked if there was anyone else who might be interested.
Although I had always been shy, I knew I could do it and that I wanted to do it. I raised my hand and asked whether I might try out for this. He listened to me and he made me the soloist.
Our school choir performed in this important concert hall in Bucharest. Afterwards, the teacher said something I always will remember. “There are a lot of very good pianists, but your special vocal talent not only belongs to you but to us as well. If you don’t cultivate your talent you are stealing from us.
It was a hard decision to choose vocal performance rather than piano as my course of study at the university. But it was the right one.
Wm: One of your colleagues, whose childhood was spent in a former Communist country, deeply resented the Communist authorities requiring him to take lessons and practice long hours on an instrument that he did not like. Did the Rumanian state authorities become interested in directing your musical education?
RD: No. Nobody forced me to pursue one course of study over the other.
However, every two months there was either a concert or a competition, so that you had to practice constantly, and to always be prepared. We went to international competitions in Italy. Because we were all so prepared, we all won prizes. I won a prize for piano. I’m not sure that an academic music program of that intensity exists any more.
Wm: Some of your earliest operatic successes took place at the Vienna Staatsoper. How did you come to the attention of the Staatsoper?
RD: I participated in the Vocal category of the prestigious ARD International Music Competition. I won second place. The prize winners participated in a gala concert conducted by Sir Colin Davis that was televised and shown all over Europe.
As a result. I received a call from the Vienna Staatsoper asking me if I would like to audition. I did and they offered me a contract with the company.
[Below: Count Octavian (Ruxandra Donose, front center) has arrived to present the silver rose; edited image, based on a Deutsche Oper Berlin photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
Because I was a Rumanian singer, it was not easy to travel. I had to have a visa every time I stepped out of the country. However, if I had stayed in Rumania, at that time it was so far away from everything that mattered in the world of opera.
Wm: Do you regard the Staatsoper as the key to establishing your international career?
RD: Yes, my first contract was with Vienna Staatsoper. I was living in an important cultural center, close to what was happening. I was given the chance to stand on stage next to amazing artists.
Some of my important role debuts were in Vienna, including my first Cherubino in Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” and Rosina in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. I sang my first Carmen in Rumania, and then later at the Vienna Volksoper, and in Germany, the Czech Republic and Cincinnati.
Wm: Whom are some of the artists you admire?
RD: I always admired the singing actors. I loved Maria Ewing and Tatiana Troyanos.
I adore Maria Callas because she is the embodiment of the modern opera singer. It was not only that her voice had personality in it, but that she always brought life to her characters. I think that’s what I’m looking for from artists in an opera performance. There has to be communication and emotion.
Wm: You made your United States debut with the San Francisco Opera as Nicklausse in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”, but in a season in which they had to move out of the opera house to a nearby venue while the War Memorial Opera House was being repaired from earthquake damage. What was that experience like?
[Below: Nicklausse (Ruxandra Donose, above) who is the Muse for the poet Hoffman (Jerry Hadley, below) in Christopher Alden’s production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”; edited image, based on a San Francisco Opera photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
RD: Some of my greatest memories are of that production. I had sung in European size halls. The San Francisco Civic Auditorium had over 4000 seats, and I found it overwhelming.
I remember being told that General Director Lotfi Mansouri was putting the bigger operas in the Civic Auditorium and the smaller operas in the more intimate venue of the Orpheum Theater with only 2000 seats. But 2000 seats is bigger than most European opera halIs, and as big as the Vienna State Opera.
I remember so fondly that I was on stage with Samuel Ramey and Jerry Hadley. The production designer-director Christopher Alden considered Nicklausse to be Hoffman’s muse, who accompanied him and guided his art, and that she must be the most important feminine role in the opera.
I loved being onstage for over four hours, without even singing much of the time. Jerry Hadley as Hoffman was a wonderful singing actor and we created a fantastic world.
The audience loved it. It was a big success. And I certainly became aware of how strong the reaction and how loud the applause can be when there are 4000 persons in the audience.
It was my first time in the United States and it was like I was in a bubble. I didn’t drive a car, and we were rehearsing nine hours a day, so I really don’t remember much about the trip other than creating and performing the opera production.
[Below: David Daniels as Nerone with Ruxandra Donose as Poppea in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea”; edited image, based on a San Francisco Opera photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
Wm: You have achieved acclaim as a specialist in baroque and classical era opera, notably in the title role of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” and works of Handel. Do you regard the baroque repertory as “early career” works that you might phase out for heavier repertory, or will you keep such works in your active performance repertory?
[Below: Ruxandra Donose (left) as Tamiri, with Max-Emanuel Cencic (right) as Farnace and Juan Sancho (background right) as Pompeo in the Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg production of Vivaldi’s “Farnace”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Ruxandra Donose.]
RD: I love baroque music and am happy every time I get to sing or see it. I don’t regard myself as a baroque specialist, although I have recently recorded Vivaldi’s opera “Farnace” that I had participated in at the Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, as well as concerts in Paris and Lausanne.
[Below: the recording of Vivaldi’s “Farnace”; resized image of a cover photograph for Virgin Classics.]
From the beginning I’ve never wanted to limit myself. I do have 50 major roles, that range from Monteverdi to Howard Shore’s “The Fly”. But even though my repertory has expanded a lot from what was at the beginning, I like to “go back” to the baroque, Mozart and Rossini roles, because it refreshes the voice, improves your agility, and helps maintain a pure line. Living in Vienna, I absolutely intend to keep Mozart in my repertory.
Wm: Speaking of Shore’s “The Fly”, which was a co-production between the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris and the Los Angeles Opera, you created the lead female role of Veronica Quaife. “The Fly”, which boasted a creative team that included the such important Hollywood personalities as Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore, Hollywood Director David Cronenberg and with a libretto by Broadway’s David Henry Hwang, yet it was not considered successful.
[Below: Rixamdra Donose is Veronica Quaife and Daniel Okulitch is Seth Brundel in Shore’s “The Fly”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Did you work with composer Shore in your part’s creation?
RD: I did work with Howard Shore. We met a couple of times to work on Veronica’s role.
Wm: Do you believe that – with revisions – that “The Fly” could be revived successfully?
RD: I don’t know if it’s possible, buf I hope so. It was a fantastic experience being part of creating an opera like this.
Wm: Also at Los Angeles Opera, you sang Dorabella in a revival of Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” conducted by James Conlon with an important cast of European singers. Did you find that assignment to be as fun as it looked?
[Below: from left to right, Dorabella (Ruxandra Donose), Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu), Fiordiligi (Aleksandra Kurzak) and Guglielmo (Ildebrando d’Arcangelo) try to sort out their relationships in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
RD: It was a great cast. It was fantastic working with Maestro James Conlon and great fun making music with him. We all got along so well. In fact, the Fiordiligi, Aleksandra Kurzak, was in the audience for my English National Opera debut as Carmen, and I will be attending her performance as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” next week.
Wm: Your debut at the English National Opera in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” was in a revision of Calixto Bieito’s controversial updated production for English National Opera. What is it like working with Bieito?
RD: I enjoyed working with Bieito. He’s a very direct, intense, friendly, but demanding director who focuses on the human qualities of the characters in the opera. To him every opera is important to bring human portrayals that are not clichés that you’ve seen a million times.
[Below: Ruxandra Donose as Carmen (center) with Mercedes (Madeline Shaw, left) and Frasquita (Rhian Lois, right) in Calixto Bieito’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen”; edited image, based on an Alastair Muir photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]
Calixto is a wonderful director for this. For any of his operas, he has studied and prepared a lot before his first meetings with the artists. He is looking for the “real Spain”, not what you see in tourist leaflets.
He described to the artists what he saw and read and what he knows. He has learned about the life of gypsies and smugglers. He wants the real Spanish Carmen.
When stripped of all the extras, the essence of what is going on is fantastic. He wants all of us to go deep, and to fill our characters with expression, temperament and passion. I had already studied this role in depth, as part of the research I did to receive a Ph.D., so this has proved to be a wonderful experience for me.
Wm: What’s it like working with Adam Diegel, your Don Jose?
RD: He’s a tall, handsome tenor, who is very secure in his singing. I am very excited about our working together in this production.
The degree of collaboration between the Carmen and Don Jose may determine the rise or fall of the opera. The opera depends on timing. Everything that Carmen and Don Jose do requires a precise timing. We have to trust each other to be there with the right gesture that you must react to. If you have to wait for the other to move, it ruins the moment.
[Below: Adam Diegel as Don Jose with Ruxandra Donose as Carmen; edited image, based on a Alastair Muir photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]
With Adam I feel very fortunate. We are so precise in our timing that we are confident that we appear to be spontaneous, and, because we have that confidence, can, in fact, be more spontaneous in our performance.
Wm: What roles would you like to add to your performance repertory in future years?
RD: This year and next, I am singing Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in several productions. I will appear as Octavian in Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” in Cincinnati.
I’m looking at Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Giovanni” and Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal”.
As I have mentioned before, my opera repertoire includes about about 50 major roles. That covers most of what a lyrical mezzo would sing. I have added a concert piece by Berlioz, “La mort de Cleopatre”, which is a dramatic tour de force. I’m also going to be singing the Mezzo role in Verdi’s “Requiem”.
Wm: Since that first “Walkuere” as a 12 year old, will you be looking at the role of Fricka?
RD: Fricka is for sure an interesting part. But my next contact with “Walkuere” will be singing Sieglinde in a concert with the Philamonie in Bucharest.
Wm: And Dalila in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”?
RD: I had never thought of it, even though I sing all of Dalila’s arias separately, but I have been approached by an impresario with the idea that I take on this role. I may consider it.
Wm: Is there any advice that you would like to give singers who aspire to be opera performers?
RD: I would repeat the advice my father gave me early in my career. I was told, “Whether you are choosing a career in piano or in voice, you are not choosing a profession. You are choosing a way of life.”
“You need to feel that you can do this, because singing opera a very difficult profession. If you aren’t burning to do this, don’t do it. If there is anything else you can do, do that.
“But if you live for the joy of creating this music, and you need to be doing it, and you cannot think of not doing it, never lose faith or hope.”
Every long career has its ups and downs. It’s actually easier to have a brilliant short career than a long career. Opera companies like to cast young singers in big roles. It’s difficult for young people to resist accepting a role that they dreamed about, but that their voice is not ready for. But if that voice is to remain in shape for a 30-year career, they must know when to resist a “treacherous” opportunity.
Wm: Speaking of long careers, you’ve worked with Placido Domingo. What are your thoughts about his contributions to opera?
RD: I think he is an amazing artist, a gifted musical soul and a stage animal. He to me is the symbol of what I mean by having the passion for the art, of being unable not to be singing or conducting. Domingo is a remarkable talent, but it’s his calling, rather than just talent, that makes him such a remarkable artist.
Wm: As an artist who spends much of her time in Europe, do you have an impression of the artists who have trained in the Young Artists’ Programs associated with the American opera companies?
RD: I think that every single American-trained artist that I’ve worked with is extremely well prepared, both vocally and technically. I’m sure they want to be good actors, and to avoid the stereotypes that were associated with the old type of opera acting.
Perhaps not as many of the American productions are as theatrical or as avant-garde as many are in Europe. Of course, there are both very good and very bad productions of both the traditional and avant-garde types.
I love good traditional opera productions, as long as the characters can be portrayed with modern styles of acting, rather than the singer who moves only to get into the spotlight.
Wm: Thank you.
RD: Thank you.
For my reviews of performances in which Ruxandra Donose has appeared, see: Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bieito’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012, and also,