This spring, the Royal Opera House staged a production of Verdi’s Nabucco, with the acclaimed Leo Nucci and living legend Placido Domingo taking turns in the lead role as baritones. This staging of Nabucco was especially important for Ukrainians because two Ukrainian singers performed alongside the renowned legends. Vitaliy Kovaliov who began his opera career abroad sang the bass role and Liudmyla Monastyrska sang the soprano. In recent years, she has been welcomed by several world-renowned stages, such as the Deutsche Oper, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera.
Yet she remains close to her native Ukraine. Liudmyla Monastyrska still sings Ukrainian folk songs in her dressing room. To her, they are the best warm-up, although Western singers do not share her passion and advise her to “be careful with her voice”.
On the stage, she switches to Italian. All seats are sold out. The British dress code for opera venues is casual and smart. After the concert, the audience thanks the artists with a generous round of applause and “bravos”— the emotional standing ovations that usually follow performances in Ukraine are a rarity in Britain.
Nabucco, co-produced by the Royal Opera House and La Scala, is minimalistic and timeless. In terms of vocal performance, the cast is perfect – from the statuesque and lively choirs to the masterful Nucci, able to speak volumes with a single gesture. Clad in a simple black coat, Monastyrska in the role of Abigaille is the embodiment of power. Her spinto floats easily over orchestra tuttis and vocal ensembles without muffling them. Anch'io dischiuso un giorno, an aria in the second act, performed in a tender piano reiterates all of Abigaille’s pain as she holds a torch and watches the clothes of the Hebrews executed upon her order burn on stage.
The next day, I meet with Liudmyla backstage at Covent Garden. “I always leave the stage happy when I have colleagues like these and such a welcoming audience”, she says. I recollect Leo Nucci giving her a warm sincere hug after the performance. “It is important to have a reliable partner on stage, especially in pieces as difficult as this one,” she shares. “Although he’s not young, Nucci is reliable. He’s a fantastic person: nice, polite and, like all Italians, he appreciates a good voice and talent. He never treated me like he was a grande persona and I was a young nobody. If he likes something or respects someone, he always says so. Unfortunately, things are often different with my compatriots.”
Still, Liudmyla is always happy to sing with Ukrainians abroad. She recently sang in Attila with Vitaliy Bilyi in Santiago and is now working with Vitaliy Kovaliov in Nabucco. “I feel very privileged to be able to promote Ukrainian culture,” she comments. “It inspires me. Moreover, my mother is a linguist so I’m interested in anything related to Ukrainian songs, poetry, traditions and roots, especially from Western Ukraine.”
“Mykola Lysenko’s Taras Bulba in Covent Garden – why not? Nothing is impossible. Especially now, with new ideas, a new contemporary vision, and a new generation of talented directors.” However, Western artists have shown little interest in Ukrainian classical music so far, Liudmyla notes. “I would eagerly promote Ukrainian classical music abroad if my Western colleagues were interested in it. Of course, if there were any opportunities at all, I would support any initiatives. More people should represent our country abroad and show its roots, culture and unique melodies.”
“I take all criticism seriously,” Liudmyla says. “Learning and improving should be a lifelong endeavour. No one can sing perfectly—not even the greatest masters”.
Liudmyla Monastyrska is known for singing the works of Verdi, but every singer strives to add versatility to his or her repertoire. Opera connoisseurs look forward to hearing Liudmyla’s powerful voice in Wagner’s operas, while she prefers to move to the bel canto of early Romanticism rather than the late Romantic era.
“I would rather sing Bellini, not Wagner or Richard Strauss,” she comments. “I have an offer to sing Norma. It’s another level for me and I would like to reach it. Overall, I love difficult roles – Lady Macbeth, Odabella, all of the early Verdi. As a professional, I find them interesting and challenging: can I master them or not? Actually, learning something new is not a problem. But given some technical issues, I would stick to Verdi for a little longer… Verdi, Verdi, and Verdi again! Apart from that, singing Wagner requires very good German. We have no right to cheat on that.”
American agents have offered Liudmyla mezzo-soprano roles. They should not be a problem for her surprisingly wide and even range and dark timbre. But she is not excited about the idea: “I’m not going to switch to mezzo-soprano as long as I have so many soprano roles I haven’t sung yet. I do, however, find mezzo-soprano roles extremely interesting. The role of Amneris in Aida is so dramatic that I think it’s more interesting than the role of Aida. And it would definitely be more interesting for me as a woman. Conservatories and auditions always use Amneris’ trial scene from Act 3 for mezzo-sopranos.”
“I LOVE TO SING THE ROLES OF POWERFUL WOMEN”
Liudmyla Monastyrska’s path to a brilliant career was not always smooth. Once, she had a hard time getting a role in Ukraine. “In early 2002, the National Opera House of Ukraine did not extend my contract although I had been singing solo there since 1998. Perhaps this was because I had young children and the opera house administration thought I wasn’t ready to go on stage and sing, especially difficult roles.” Today, Liudmyla continues to work with the National Opera House of Ukraine, so Ukrainians have a chance to see and hear her on a regular basis.
The Kyiv stage reveals her acting talent. “We work with directors, they give us tips; they see us better than we see ourselves, so they can somehow fit what they see to our singing and vocals. This requires an individual approach for each singer: everyone has his or her own psychophysics and self-perception. A lot depends on the singer’s life experience. Directors are not in control of everything. Performers process their roles through themselves, add their personal experiences, and improve with every new performance. A role can never be played the same way twice. Actually, it’s good for singers to listen to and watch recordings of their performances. This helps them improve their plastiques and work on their role. We can’t step back and look at ourselves from afar. I even watch my concerts on the Internet to see what I have to do differently and what I shouldn’t do at all. When you’re on the stage, carried away with emotions and music, you don’t notice gestures or movements that don’t fit”.
“Lately, I have been singing the roles of powerful women. But they all eventually go through repentance or a catharsis of sorts. They are not just criminals who do not deserve forgiveness. All these women – Lady Macbeth, Abigaille, Odabella – are strong, but there is still light at the end of the tunnel for them. The singer’s personality is extremely important in opera. A weak person would never make it in this business”.
Liudmyla’s schedule is full for the next two years with I due Foscari (The Two Foscari), Attila, Tosca, Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) and Aida in the UK, Italy, USA and Germany.
Винос: Performers process their roles through themselves, add their personal experiences, and improve with every new performance