Gregor Tassie in conversation with soprano Ayla Dobreva

Sofia Opera’s Woodbird Ayla Dobreva talks to Gregor Tassie

Ayla Dobreva

Apart from the stupendous production standards, a great deal of the acclaim for the 2023 Plamen Kartaloff Ring cycle was for the singers in the roles of Wotan, Brünnhilde and Hagen, but the coloratura soprano Ayla Dobreva as the Woodbird provided one of the most striking performances in Siegfried. Dobreva performed in all four operas of the cycle; firstly, as Woglinde in the opening scene of Das Rheingold singing when soaring on a trampoline, in Die Walküre, she was Helmwige mounted on one of eight red horses of the Valkyries, and finally challenging Alberich in the closing scene in Götterdämmerung. She was also one of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal, but it was her spectacular entry on a trapeze that made the biggest impression of all. In a break from the rehearsals for Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, the multi-talented Russian-born singer spoke to me about her career in Moscow and Sofia.

Gregor Tassie: How did you become a singer?

Ayla Dobreva:  In Moscow, my mother took me to music school when I was four and a half years old; I studied the piano at first, and then they said that I had a good voice, so I went to the vocal school, and then we wondered what to do, but, I continued studying, I also studied economics as well as acting at the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts and learnt two roles in The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. Then I got married to a Bulgarian and moved here over ten years ago, and I have been here at the Sofia Opera for five years. My first role was in Parsifal as one of the Flower Maidens, and then in other Wagner operas, and in Das Rheingold as one of the Rhinemaidens. I didn’t think I could do it, but I had good training, everything went well, and I had the desire. I like Maestro Kartaloff for his ideas as he the Woodbird flying – I was happy to do it – it was interesting.

GT: How did you adapt to the quite different conditions in Bulgaria? 

AD: I am comfortable here – in actual fact, there are more cultural developments and opportunities [than in Russia]. Many of the opera theatres are on a high level in Russia, but here in Sofia I can find my place. In Russia, it is more difficult because many singers have difficulty to get a permanent position. Here, one can get a permanent position and sing and develop their career. I love to sing, and I love the stage. There is nothing better than to go on stage and live your part. I like Bulgaria and am very satisfied that I live and work here.

GT: Both in the UK and in Russia, we have many problems economically and culturally but here you seem you have a more settled and less stressful life in Bulgaria. 

AD: Yes, yes, my feelings are that when I was in Russia, we were not able to live [fully], the pace of life was too fast moving. Here in Bulgaria life is calmer and you can enjoy it, you have time for everything.

GT: Moscow is a huge city with twenty million living there, and there is a lot of stress whenever I have been there. 

AD: I agree, lots of stress, I was always stressed there and when I came here, everything is on a different level, you have more time to study, more time to develop new roles. There are other theatres here, Sofia is a great theatre, Maestro Kartaloff is a great director, but Varna is also a good theatre.

GT: How do you find the working relationship and system here? 

AD: Here we have a contract system where you work all your life and get a pension as well, we have good salary here and we get bonuses. I think it is a better system here as I have friends around the world who don’t know what they are doing six months in advance. Here, we know, a year in advance, what we are to sing, and it is secure. We always have work, and Maestro Kartaloff plans well in advance, a year ahead, and we all know what we are doing. Of course, there is also force majeure when you must replace someone and quickly learn a role. For the role of the Woodbird – I learnt it in three days! Maestro Kartaloff asked me if I was scared of jumping – I said no – well, you jump – I said yes, and it was all done in three days, so I had the role. He said that I would sing in all four Wagner operas of the Ring cycle and told me that he was worried about my voice, but I said that I could do it. I don’t know, I sang every day and enjoyed it very much.

Ayla Dobreva on high as the Woodbird in Sofia Opera’s Siegfried

GT: What other roles do you have here?            

AD: I will sing in The Barber of Seville by Rossini and also in Elektra. In October we will be in South Korea with Elektra – it is a very dramatic and colourful production by Maestro Kartaloff. We take Die Walküre to Germany, and later, I sing Masha in The Queen of Spades and Clorinda in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Next year, I will sing as Pamina and Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. I started off with the smaller parts, but gradually, I have got the bigger roles, and am very happy because I never thought I could sing Wagner. I also sang two other roles in Richard Strauss’s operas.

GT: Have you had opportunities to sing in European opera companies? 

AD: Yes, there were several opportunities, and I was invited for auditions but now I have a lot of work here and I want to concentrate on my development at the Sofia Opera.

GT: Do you have any models, or favourite singers? 

AD: I have always liked Anna Netrebko especially when she was younger, she is a great singer and actress. Another is Olga Pereyatko who is a very good singer. We have a lot of good singers, I like to listen to French singer Sabine Devielhe, another coloratura soprano, I enjoy her performances.

GT: What about Bulgarian singers that you have heard here? 

AD: Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with Bulgarian singers – only with Anna Tomowa-Sintow – with whom I was lucky to work on two parts, and with Raina Kabaivanska. I also took lessons from Maria Stoyanova, who has an incredible technique, and I learned a lot from her. I like baroque singers, especially Cecilia Bartoli – she has superb technique and sings in those rarely heard operas and music. I think that I can sing in the baroque style, but I didn’t get the opportunity here until they asked me to sing the Queen of the Night – Mozart is very special and difficult in technique. I would like to sing Handel’s Cleopatra – I love baroque music a lot.

GT: Best wishes for Parsifal tomorrow.  

AD: Thanks a lot. I should mention that Constantin Trinks helped us a lot in Wagner, and he is a very good conductor – additionally, our coach Richard Trimborn also helped us in learning German and tackling Wagner, and his wife helped too when she came. 

Gregor Tassie

Reviews of Ayla Dobreva’s performances in the Sofia Wagner Festival are here – Das Rheingold (review here), Die Walküre (review here), Siegfried (review here), Götterdämmerung (review here) and  Parsifal (review here).

For an interview with Constantin Trinks click here.

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