At top of opera, Yoncheva worries about classical music

NEW YORK — Sonya Yoncheva, a soprano at the top of her profession, worries about classical music.

“My son, if I ask him, he always says, ‘I want to be like Ronaldo.’ And later, if I ask my girl, she will say, ‘I want to be Lady Gaga and Beyoncé,’” the Bulgarian singer explained ahead of Saturday’s new production premiere of Giordano’s “Fedora” at the Metropolitan Opera. “They really don’t associate with the classical music artists. Times are changing.”

In a bid to shape projects and bolster opera’s audience, Yoncheva is launching her own record label.

A Sony Classical artist since 2013, Yoncheva is releasing “The Courtesan” on her own SY11 Productions label, recorded with conductor Marco Armiliato, tenor Charles Castronovo and Italy’s Orchestra dell’Opera Carlo Felice Genova. It will launch on Amazon on Feb. 9.

In a time of dwindling classical sales and releases, she was able to choose the selections and even the cover photo, matters subject to a collaboration on Sony recordings.

“I never really had the chance to guide my project from first step to the last step,” she said. “They were always a very good team with me, but I never felt free.”

In the first close-to-normal season since the pandemic’s onset, Yoncheva sings a revival of Bellini’s “Norma” at the Met starting Feb. 28, then has role debuts as Maddalena di Coigny in Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on May 3 and Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Vienna State Opera on June 23.

“She is one of our most important artists,” Met general manager Peter Gelb said. “She’s a wonderful actress and a great singer. She is the kind of the artist that the Met needs more than ever these days as we try to make opera more appealing to a broader audience. It’s extremely challenging because the core opera audience is much smaller than it once was.”

Born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, on Christmas Day 1981, Yoncheva attended William Christie’s “Jardin des Voix” in 2007 and moved to Switzerland to enroll at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève.

“I wanted to come to the States, but I never managed to have a scholarship,” she said. “At the time, a salary of a normal Bulgarian person was $60 per month, so when you compare this to what has to be paid in a university in the States, it’s just insanely expensive, so for this reason I had to chose Europe. Someone gave me a little envelope with the name of the high school in Geneva, and this person told me ‘You should go there,’ and I said OK.”

In 2010, she became the first woman to win Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition, and she went on to debuts at the Met and Royal Opera (2013), Vienna State Opera (2014), Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Paris (2017).

Yoncheva starred in Claus Guth’s 2017 Paris production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” infamously relocated to a space shuttle.

“This was such a nightmare,” she said, laughing, “but many people are still talking about it.”

She has become more discerning with directors.

“Maybe they will have a concept, OK, but I want them to believe in that and to be honest with it and to explain to me why,” she said. “I must believe in it, and sometimes what is happening is that themselves, they don’t believe it and then they do it to provoke.”

David McVicar is directing “Fedora” in his 13th Met production — a future staging of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” is planned — in a fairly traditional mounting. Yoncheva made her role debut at La Scala on Oct. 15 in a modern-dress production directed by Mario Martone, and she worried about being heard.

“The stage director decided to leave the whole stage empty. Me and Roberto Alagna, we were struggling the whole night to find the Punto Callas, Punto Caballé, Punto Tebaldi, Punto I don’t know whom,” Yoncheva said, referring to the so-called preferred stage spots of Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé and Renata Tebaldi decades earlier.

“I finished the production and I said ‘Oh, my God! What am I going to do at the Met?’ because the Met is maybe three times bigger than La Scala,” Yoncheva said. “I immediately called David, I said, ‘Please tell me there are some walls.’ And he said yes. He showed me pictures, and I was reassured.”

Her male lead at the Met is tenor Piotr Beczala. They have worked together for a decade.

“Our voices our pretty similar,” Beczala said. “I am coming from the lyric corner and she’s coming from the lyric corner, arriving now for a little more spinto repertory.”

While the Met dropped plans to present Yoncheva in John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” and “Madama Butterfly,” she has committed to a new production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)” and revivals of Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)” and Cherubini’s “Medea” in Italian.

She lives outside Geneva with her husband, conductor Domingo Hindoyan, whom she met in school. They are kept busy by 8-year-old son Mateo and 3-year-old daughter Sofia, with the entire family traveling to New York for her extended stay.

Yoncheva’s daughter looks at her career somewhat differently than the opera audience.

“I ask her what daddy does and she starts to conduct,” Yoncheva said. “And then I ask her what mommy does, and she says, ‘Oh, mommy, she’s Elsa from ‘Frozen’’ — because I’m dressed like a princess and I sing.”

Classical Re-Imagined by the Anirudh Varma Collective

Episode 10 of India By The Bay features The Anirudh Varma Collective- a contemporary Indian classical ensemble from New Delhi, India, comprising over 150 musicians & artists from across India, America, and Canada. The collective aims to discover, re-discover, and present the traditions & diversity of Indian music in a contemporary yet rooted manner in order to reach and connect with the masses. To make the finale episode of the virtual edition of India By The Bay a remarkable success, the ensemble will release two spectacular songs from their production ‘Classical Re-Imagined: Indian Classical Music For Everyone’ on 30th December 2022, stay tuned!

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and participants and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, do not reflect the opinion, position or official policy of Asia Society Hong Kong, its members, or its committees. Asia Society Hong Kong does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for the content of the information presented.

Five of the most iconic uses of classical music in film

Music can really make or break a movie, especially classical music. It has the inherent ability to transport us to another realm, taking us on a journey and evoking an emotional response. Imagine watching the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey without the film score. It was Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan) that went on to live in our heads rent-free, defining the film forever.

Studies have even demonstrated the positive effect classical music can have on the brain, from boosting memory to enhancing relaxation, so it really is a no-brainer as to why so many people harness its power.

From Verdi’s La traviata in Pretty Woman, to Mozart in The Shawshank Redemption, here are some of our favourite scene-stealing scores.

The Shawshank Redemption

It’s the wonderful scene where The Shawshank Redemption and Mozart coalesce. In an act of rebellion, prison inmate Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) gains access to the prison warden’s office and his collection of LPs. Flicking through them, Andy proceeds to broadcast The Letter Duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to his fellow inmates over the prison’s PA system. Centuries after its first performance, The Marriage of Figaro continues to move us. Red (Morgan Freeman), a fellow inmate, provides a voice-over narration that sums it up nicely in the film:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Death in Venice

Based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, the film explores themes including art, beauty, repression, youth and travel, amply using Mahler’s wondrous hymn Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, in addition to sections of the Third. Its dramatic journey encompasses and unifies nature, man, and God, helping take us on a journey through Venice where composer Gustav von Aschenbach travels due to serious health concerns and becomes obsessed with the stunning beauty of an adolescent Polish boy named Tadzio. In a letter to the soprano, Anna von Mildenburg, Mahler wrote:

“Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe… My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard!…In it the whole of nature finds a voice.”

Mahler’s Third Symphony truly does embrace the world of nature in every possible way.

Pretty Woman

We all remember it: Julia Roberts (Vivan Ward) in that pretty red dress at the opera. But did you know it was Verdi’s La traviata that made her tear up? Richard Gere as Edward Lewis, a rich corporate raider from New York, flew Viven to go see La traviata at the San Francisco Opera. While he watches her reactions, she watches the story of the tragic love of the courtesan Violetta and the romantic Alfredo Germont. The tears illuminate the connection between these two characters. Verdi was known to see art as a source of comfort for the human spirit. Pretty Woman also felt like comfort for the human spirit. Although a myriad of criticisms followed the movie, what’s certain is Julia’s performance, and the music that came with it, put an unforgettable magic spell on us all.

The Big Lebowski

Although this Coen brothers’ neo-noir comedy has an array of different genres and artists like Bob Dylan, Yma Sumac and Gipsy Kings (just to name a few), we can’t forget the “What makes a man” scene which uses Mozart’s Requiem, a famous music piece of grief. It sets the tone perfectly, pairing with the tragic atmosphere, and contrasted with “The Dude” asking to roll a J in front of the fire. The film also uses composer Modest Mussorgsky’s second movement Gnomus from Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky translated ten of Viktor Gartman’s artworks into ten individual musical pieces. Each movement carries the same title as a painting


How could we forget the little farm pig (or sheepdog) that lifted all our spirits? The 1995 Oscar-winning classic had a spirit lifting soundtrack too. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3, well-known specifically for the fourth movement, creates an upbeat, joyful mood which weaves itself throughout the film. Its unorthodox structure, using an organ and two pianos, (often called the “Organ Symphony”), is described as original and innovative in nature for freeing itself from the constraints of classical form. There are other brilliant orchestral pieces featured in the film, from West Australian composer Nigel Westlake, Toreador Song from Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré.

Classical music and movies, when done right, truly are magical.

There is nothing quite like the energy of live performance, and there are many thrilling experiences to be had right here in WA. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra will be performing some of the greatest classical music of all time, including the Organ Symphony and Mahler’s Third Symphony in the next month. Enjoy a classic night out and the world-class acoustics of the iconic Perth Concert Hall (the finest in the southern hemisphere). For more information, visit the website.

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