Opera diva Sonya Yoncheva:
Music is a door to another dimension
It is the most magnificent manipulator of the human brain
17 March, 2017
Close-up: She is exceptionally talented, speaks five languages and has won the hearts of a particular Venezuelan conductor and opera fans on two continents. As a child, she and her family used to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Plovdiv and her mother would often economise on food to pay for her vocal and piano lessons. At the end of last year, Sonya Yoncheva, who graduated from the Conservatory of Geneva and conquered the Metropolitan Opera with the role of Mimi in La Boheme just months after giving birth, received her first ever Grammy nomination. In 2016 Yoncheva also got a nod from What’s On Stage magazine in the category of outstanding achievement in a leading role for her enthralling portrayal of Norma at the Royal Opera House in London. Following her successful debut Paris, Mon Amour, in February Sonya released her second studio album Handel.
- Sonya, your first album was dedicated to Paris, a city that shone a spotlight on your talent. But where does your love for Handel, whose masterpieces you perform in your second album, come from?
- I have always wanted to record an album with works by Handel. I and my producers from Sony Classical decided that now is the right time for this instead of five years down the line, when I will have moved on to a more dramatic repertoire and my voice will be more lyrical.
- In this album, your voice is spellbinding, while the music takes the audience on a journey. Have you ever viewed your art as a kind of therapeutic process for the audience?
- That was exactly my objective - to make an unorthodox, more lyrical interpretation of Handel with a more colourful voice. Normally, Handel’s music is better suited to artists with “whiter” voices, without much of a vibrato, closer to the church style of singing. But I decided to record this album with my authentic voice. One of the great conductors I have worked with once told me: “Sing what you feel.” And to me, this is the very meaning of music - being honest and authentic. Music is more than a profession to me; it is meditation, a door to another dimension. It overcomes deficiencies and psychological problems; it is the most magnificent manipulator of the human brain.
- Do you need to isolate yourself from the world whenever you are in the recording studio? Do you use techniques such as prolonged silence or yoga to concentrate?
- What I like most is being surrounded by all the musicians and feeling our energies directed towards the same goal - to perform the music piece in the most authentic way possible. The key phrase during the recording process for me is “team work”. Similarly, whenever I am on stage, I look for the support of and the emotional connection with the orchestra and the conductor.
- Congratulations on your Grammy Award nomination for Best Operatic Recording for Le Nozze di Figaro. Where were you when you got the news and did you attend the award ceremony in Los Angeles?
- I saw news reports about the record’s Grammy nomination and then all the artists involved in the project got official letters from the Recording Academy. I was unable to attend the ceremony as I had rehearsals in New York for La Traviata. I know that to be nominated is important to any artist in this business; winning is important too, but the fact that your work has been noticed and recognised with a nomination alone is enough of an encouragement.
- You are in New York. What are you working on? Is your schedule still hectic?
- It is a hectic pace of work. My days are a blur of photo shoots and interviews but it is the season, after all. A week ago, I did the second show of La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera and I have five more to go. I count the hours until I can get back to Europe to see my husband. We have been apart for a month and a half now.
- Speaking of, where is Domingo Hindoyan?
- In Norway, staging Rossini’s Turco in Italia, so he does not have even a day to spare. Besides, the US and Norway are not exactly neighbours. It is complicated, having a family makes you want to share all your problems and we communicate in whatsapp. We make do.
- Montserrat Caballe teaches her students to stack three books on their bellies to help them control their breathing. Did you employ such techniques in your student years?
- I have heard of these techniques, including some instructing you to move an entire piano using your upper-body movement as you breathe. It is too extreme for me; I have never resorted to such methods. But I have always tried to find my inner strength and focus, much like yoga and meditation practitioners. I am adept at listening to my body. This type of mental concentration is of greater value to me than the purely physical one.
- Starting in Plovdiv, your musical journey has taken you to a first prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition, the Conservatory of Geneva and most of the prestigious stages around the world. What was your hardest moment?
- I have never experienced a moment when I was on the verge of giving up. Our line of work is not easy - you are extremely exposed on stage, intensely aware of so many different energies from the audience. It is a powerful experience that leaves me feeling vulnerable and fragile, and afterwards I need to be with my close ones so I can get back the sense of my own world. Separating your personal space and the stage is a challenge. The two go hand in hand and for artists it is difficult to arrange their life in a way that neither aspect suffers. Fortunately, I have a stable family, my mother is still beside me, I have the support of my brother, my husband is wonderful and we take care of each other.
- The international media describes you as “the finest Violetta since Maria Callas”. Undoubtedly, such a great accomplishment is the result of hard work, talent and discipline. When you read such great reviews, do you sometimes say to yourself: “Not bad for a girl from Plovdiv”?
- I have a good dose of self-deprecating humour. Sometimes I say to myself: “How can my Violetta be so earnest and powerful?” As you know, we, the Bulgarian people, are a colourful mix, we have a lot of the Mediterranean in us and an extremely resilient spirit. I have always said that we are a tough bunch of survivors, despite the centuries of Ottoman oppression. This gives me the confidence of a woman who could handle so many things at once. And it comes across on stage - Violetta is a very intriguing, strong personage.