Gregor Tassie talks to Sofia Opera’s Daniel Ostretsov about his career and opera in Bulgaria
My first acquaintance with the singers of the Sofia Opera was watching films of the first Ring cycle from 10 years ago, and apart from the innovative and often sensational staging by Plamen Kartaloff, one of the singers that I noticed was in Das Rheingold. ‘Daniel Ostretsov’s Loge is brilliant in voice and acting with a suitably apt costume.’ I was recently fortunate to meet up with Daniel between his Ring performances and The Flying Dutchman, the concluding opera of the 2023 Sofia Wagner Festival.
As a student at the Pancho Vladigerov National Academy of Music, Daniel studied with Nikola Nikolov and Kaludi Kaludov, and later with Professor Lilyana Zhablenska. He continued studying in 2008 with Mirella Parutto and Antonio Boyer at the ‘Boris Christoff’ Academy in Rome.
By this time, he had made his US debut in 2007 as Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and revived this role, and that of Don Basilio from Le nozze di Figaro on European opera stages.
He performs a repertoire with Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Alfredo in La traviata and others. He has given many concert appearances in Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United States.
His career has taken off in recent seasons, yet it began not as a singer but as a clarinettist playing in one of Sofia’s symphony orchestras, as he told me, his path to the opera stage was not planned. ‘My father plays the accordion, and I studied the clarinet at the conservatoire in Sofia and I was always listening to singers such as Pavarotti and other tenors and was motivated by singers when I was playing in the orchestra in Sofia.’ Ostretsov himself was surprised when one friend suggested he had a good tenor voice, ‘It started almost as a joke among friends, but I was told I was as good as a professional and one day I woke up and decided to take part in a competition and the jury was surprised by my singing, and they told me to train for the opera. But I didn’t study, I just applied at the opera theatre in Ruse and sang there in operas by Rossini, and Mozart, and in Nabucco and La traviata and then sang at the Burgas Opera developing step by step.’
The lack of any real training did not hinder him being engaged by the music director of the Sofia Opera. ‘Maestro Kartaloff heard me there singing in Turandot in the roles of Ping and Pong. He phoned me to say he needed me for this opera, and I said it was no problem and after this Maestro Kartaloff said that I am a professional and asked me what I wanted to sing, I answered Don Giovanni, and I started working at the Sofia Opera and have been there for almost 15 years.’
Daniel Ostretsov’s initial repertoire at Sofia was in the Italian repertoire yet it was a major step for Kartaloff to ask him to take the role of Loge in the first Ring cycle planned in Bulgaria.
‘Yes, it is almost ten years ago, it’s no problem for me to sing Loge but my voice was changing a little spinto I think – a little darker. It is very hard to perform Das Rheingold in a very long evening of two and a half hours, I think you are onstage non-stop. I was absolutely exhausted at the end. Maestro Kartaloff gave me the freedom to choose my parts, and this was a great opportunity for me and [apart from Wagner] I have had a chance to sing (Uberto di Snowdon) in La donna del Lago and it was the hardest role for a tenor singing in the open air. It was very interesting and a great experience for me. It’s most difficult taking my voice to the very limits.’ However, I was intrigued by his preparing for Wagner. ‘I tried to do it differently, but Maestro Kartaloff gave me a basic guideline and allowed me the freedom to develop it, the text shows me everything to do on the stage, and I started to develop the role. I tried to be great, I was seeking after perfection and to do it better.’ Certainly on this opening evening of the cycle, Ostretsov gave of his best, as I wrote of his performance in July: ‘The Loge of Daniel Ostretsov was one of the high spots of the evening with his stunning tenor which had a strident edge to it, and his acting, expressly in his “Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn!”’
The Sofia Ring cycles are unique in that they reject Konzept stagings that are prevalent at many European theatres, and I questioned his opinion of Plamen Kartaloff is as a director, and how does he bring the best out of his singers?
‘Maestro Kartaloff is a great organiser and a great inspiration to every singer and gives them a specific role. He is a great manager, and guided by his heart, and how you feel, what do you think, he phones me after 10 at night, and asks me how I feel, he is a great manager.’
Daniel expanded on the Sofia Opera’s work on new productions, and the support from both government and sponsors. ‘Opera is expensive, and the government supports great art, opera employs many people, one hundred in the orchestra and we needed more help in the last five years, maybe we will need next year more than we did 10 or 12 years ago.’
He suggested that the success of the Wagner operas had widened the company’s influence as a leading European company. ‘I did Das Rheingold for the first time in Sofia when it was an anniversary for Wagner and our production was taking place at the same time as La Scala’s Ring production and the magazine Opera Welt compared each of the singers, and they said that I was very good both in the dramatic characterisation and in the singing, so that is good in this opera for the audience.’
It was clear from such positive reviews that more support could be achieved in Sofia. ‘The politicians understand this when they see a full house and they want to be part of this success. For many years, the talk about supporting the arts hardly got to parliament and Maestro Kartaloff always talks that the funding of the orchestra, costumes and scenery don’t rely on the state, he says he plans for a zero option, but the music must be 100%. If you get sponsors, then sponsors are not sentimental but know the value of money, if the audience is there, they will support it. Maestro Kartaloff has great strength and power.’
Bulgaria, for many years has been the source for some of Europe’s finest singers, yet most of them leave the country and make their careers elsewhere in Europe or America. Certainly, this was reflected when I asked him about his favourite singers. ‘Yes. Of course, [my favourites are] Nikola Nikolov, Dimitar Uzunov, Kaludi Kaludov, Kamen Chanev, Ghena Dimitrova, Vladimir Stoyanov, Nicola Ghiuselev and Nicolai Ghiaurov are all Bulgarian singers. In conclusion, I was interested what his immediate plans were in Sofia. ‘I am looking forward to rehearsing Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and also a role in Medea by Cherubini. I will feel better in these dramatic parts.’ Certainly, the future looks very good for Ostretsov as more of his singing/acting wins plaudits both in Bulgaria and throughout Europe.