The Bulgarian soprano Mariana Zvetkova talks to Gregor Tassie about her career
One of the most outstanding singers from the 2023 Ring cycle in Sofia was the distinguished soprano Mariana Zvetkova. She has enjoyed a major worldwide career over several decades and was cast in the first Sofia Ring cycle in 2013 and was Fricka in Das Rheingold in Plamen Kartaloff’s new cycle in July this year. As I wrote about her performance, ‘The Fricka of Marina Zvetkova was tenderly characterised both vocally and through her acting, and ‘Wotan, Gemahl, erwache!’ was sung with a bright soprano tones.’
Mariana Zvetkova graduated from the Pancho Vladigerov National Academy of Music in Sofia and launched her international career at La Scala Milan in 1999 as Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, followed by Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss in 2000, under the baton of Giuseppe Sinopoli. She has performed widely in Munich, Tokyo, Dresden, Rio de Janeiro, Lyon and many other cities.
She gained popularity with her repertoire of roles from operas by Verdi, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Beethoven and has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and Naxos Records.
From 2010 to 2018, she was a guest-professor at the Vocal Faculty of the Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea. During a break in her busy diary, I spoke with her about her career and those who influenced her most of all as a singer and teacher.
Gregor Tassie: I have been very impressed by the singers here in Bulgaria, and of course by your singing in the recent Ring cycle, why do you have so many good singers here?
Mariana Zvetkova: It is because Bulgarian people are gifted with impressive natural voices. Some of the most famous opera singers like Boris Christoff, Nikolai Ghiaurov, Nikola Ghiuselev, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Julia Viner, and Alexandrina Milcheva, have passed on their artistry to new generations of opera singers. For example, Boris Christoff created the Bulgarian Academy of Arts and Culture in Rome, Italy. I was among the last to study there with him between 1990 and 1991, so I was in his home for eight months and was able to work with him on my music twice a day and even on Sundays, it was absolutely amazing. I was one of only four students at that time. When I said once that I wanted to visit the Vatican Museum, he said: ‘Why go there? I can tell you about everything that is there!
He was a workaholic; he was fearless and powerful as a person – different from other theatre people that I have known and the teachers I had in my life. Different from Miss Martina Arroyo, my voice teacher at Indiana University. She would say after I sang an aria to her: ‘that’s lovely, darling’. But with an expression on her face that I didn’t understand – was it really lovely? She was polite, but strict in her own way. Christoff was either glad, or not glad, but never in between. I was there two years before he passed away. Someone told me that the costumes for his opera performances are kept at Covent Garden in London.
Thank you for your opinions about my Fricka. You know I used to sing Brünnhilde before I did Fricka. The role of Brünnhilde is different from everything else I sang. My repertoire has Turandot and other Puccini roles, a lot of Verdi, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, but Brünnhilde was very special to me – twenty minutes singing about love! I love Wagner! I have done Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, Elsa and Ortrud in Lohengrin, Brünnhilde in the whole Ring cycle, and Senta in the past, now Fricka.
Brünnhilde is easier for my voice, but in Die Walküre it is most difficult because it goes from a very high note to the very low register of the voice. Wagner does not have mezzo-soprano roles. There are sopranos and altos. I think everybody should try to sing Wagner roles with lyricism and beautiful sound, and not be pushed and exaggerated. And now I enjoy Fricka. I believe I should always say something special with the roles I perform. I got married later in life, and with my marriage it was much easier for me to understand Fricka as the Goddess and Guardian of Marriage. I know Kirsten Flagstad sang Fricka too. I heard her recording, so I thought: why not, Fricka is considered today a mezzo-soprano role, but I have a strong character and the size of voice that fits well to the role. So, I did it. You see, I am not a modest lady. Opera singers should never be modest.
GT: What made you become a singer?
MZ: Well, I am from a family of economists – my father liked the theatre, and when I was born, he had to stop travelling with his amateur acting group. My parents were both very young at the time. At four years old, I began playing the accordion, then piano, and when I was fifteen, I started singing. My father was a diplomat in Cuba then, and I entered the music school in Havana with a piano major. When I returned to Bulgaria, I did not do well in the exam for the music school in my hometown at Rousse – close to the Romanian border. A year later, I tried to enter with voice major, and was first in the list after the auditions. At the same time, I studied mathematics and applied at the special school for science, but I was ninth. So, I said to myself: I studied hard one year for the exam and was ninth, but then I studied just two weeks for the voice exam and was first!! And then I decided to be an opera singer.
I simply love singing – if I were slender and had a different type of body, then I would have become a pop singer, but I am not. I love classical music too. I have my master’s degree at the Academy of Music in Sofia, both in Voice and Theory of music. All the time, I wondered if I was going to be a music teacher or an opera singer and tried to balance the two careers. But, you see, an opera singer doesn’t have to get up at eight in the morning and spend all day in an office or the classroom, so I made my choice. We never start rehearsals before 10am – we travel, and have free time to study our roles, to do research for the characters that we are supposed to create on stage, to listen to music, and to work with a mass of people in the arts. It is an adventure and gives me much more joy rather than being in an office with the same people every day, every year. I love challenges and adventures.
GT: Who were your models or mentors in your career?
MZ: When I was growing up, it was mostly Bulgarian singers I have mentioned before. Their recordings were the only ones that I listened to at home. But when I went to study in America, I heard the recordings of many more singers, and I learned of different styles and tastes. I thought Birgit Nilsson was not as good as Dimitrova in Turandot, but now I am one of Nilsson’s biggest fans – her voice is like a laser. I don’t like using the word – idol – but she is like my idol – a model for the roles I have done. Also, my teacher Martina Arroyo, the way she sang Verdi, with an amazing line, passion and still with so beautiful a voice. I like Mirella Freni, and Christa Ludwig. Two years ago, I could work with Anna Tomowa-Sintow in my role as the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos. She is such a wonderful performer, with great vocal technique and, beautiful and powerful voice. My god! How could she be so perfect!
GT: What about young singers here in Bulgaria? Are there young singers here who have a big future in your opinion?
MZ: In Bulgaria there are many very talented young singers. But in my opinion there are not enough good operatic young artist programmes where they could develop their skills.
GT: Are there no agencies or impresarios who work here?
MZ: No, absolutely not. Maybe in the last two years, some people have tried to create something like an agency, but it is not enough. So, singers from Bulgaria need to connect with impresarios from Europe or America. I know a soprano – Yoana Zhelezcheva who sings in opera theatres in Burgas, Varna, and Rousse. She has a most beautiful soprano voice, she is in her mid-thirties, and sings the roles of Aida, Cio-Cio-San, Abigaille, and Tosca. For me, she could really be a great singer in the West. We have many good singers, but they sing in the theatre here and don’t have the opportunity to go abroad. I have been lucky to enjoy some good years in my career, but I was the winner of some big international competitions, which gave me the real opportunity to see how well I was prepared for an operatic career.
Among which, I always remember the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels 1996, the Marian Anderson in Washington 1995, the Voice Competition in Toulouse 1998, the Puccini Competition in New York 1998, and the Unisa in Pretoria, South Africa 1994. For one of them, I had to present one hundred minutes of singing! But I was well prepared. For the Queen Elizabeth Competition – after studying with Martina Arroyo very seriously at IU, I got the fourth prize – the jury was tough. From the first round, there were radio broadcasts, and in the third – TV broadcasts. Members of the monarchy, and especially Belgium’s Queen Fabiola were in the hall every day where the completion was taking place. It lasted a month. It was a great opportunity to present and show yourself to the whole world – and I enjoyed that! I love to compete, and I love the excitement of it. I am a competitor, a fighter, by nature.
People of my generation in Bulgaria thought that you always had to be No.1. It brings a lot of stress. I remember how I felt when I went to my first competition in the USA in 1995. I was not going for the prize, but only to present myself and show how I sing and show what I say with my singing. The great experience made me feel really good at the end. People don’t want to fail and that is why some people don’t take part in competitions. But through the competitions you can meet managers and impresarios.
Here in Bulgaria, we don’t have the opportunities of the singers who live in Austria or Germany, where you can have auditions for managers every day if you can make it that far. I believe this is a problem – I would like foreign managers to come to Bulgaria more often, but it takes a lot of organization. I have had different agents in the past; I know it is hard to say if the big or small agent was good for me. Even if you know what your voice is capable of, some agents can leave you stuck in a specific repertoire or have a different opinion of what you should sing.
I have been lucky with agents in the past. But I had the opportunity to meet some great people who influenced my career through the years. An example of this is my Wagner journey with Sofia Opera. I was invited to sing the role of Ortrud in a concert version of Lohengrin at Sofia Opera in 2009, after which the General Manager and Stage Director Plamen Kartaloff asked if I was willing to do the role of Fricka in Das Rheingold production in 2010, then Brünnhilde in the whole Ring from 2010-2013. I was freelance then and later became a member of the Sofia National Opera Voice Team, and I love my work here.
GT: I was impressed by the German conductor Constantin Trinks during the Wagner Festival in Sofia; how did you find it working with him here?
MZ: Conductors can make you a star, or they can make you feel miserable for a long time. I had the privilege to win a prize in the Toulouse Voice Competition in 1998, and a member of the jury, who was then the General Manager of La Scala in Milan, Paolo Arcà, invited me to audition for Giuseppe Sinopoli for the role of Ariadne in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. I was put through incredible tests and auditioned for Maestro Sinopoli for the role three times: at La Scala, then in Rome, and Bayreuth. He made me compete for the role.
Constantin Trinks reminds me of Sinopoli. I think he is prepared for every role better than the singers are. I believe that if something happens to one of us – he will be able to sing the vocal part perfectly from the orchestra pit! He doesn’t need to look at the score, he knows everything by heart! I am amazed by this man; he makes me work so hard! We, singers, sometimes think that we know everything and with long rehearsals, we get careless regarding detail. But Maestro Trinks – we could not fool. Before the performance, he was coming around and advising about something, even a very small remark. I like that – he made me feel part of a team with him and I enjoy that. What I love about the musician in Constantin Trinks is that he is faithful to the composer’s instructions, and he pursues perfection until the last rehearsal. I enjoy working with him.
GT: Teaching is another dimension, when did you start teaching in South Korea?
MZ: Well, at first, I was on a tour in the USA in 2007 with an opera company from Bulgaria with Turandot, and I met the director of vocal faculty from Daegu Catholic University, who sang the role of Calaf with me, the most wonderful tenor – Byung Sam Lee. Two years later, we sang in a production of Turandot at the Daegu Opera Festival in South Korea in 2009. During that time, he invited me to do a masterclass for the students in the vocal department. I was scared to death of teaching for three hours in a full auditorium. But I enjoyed it, and afterwards, was invited to come back as a visiting professor. I ended up spending eight years there giving masterclasses and individual lessons for the students at the Catholic University, both in Italian and in English. I think teaching vocal studies is very difficult.
GT: I understand that both China and Korea have spent a great deal on classical music in recent decades and there are more and more singers emerging from these countries.
MZ: At every school, there are both very talented and not-so-talented students. Just as in every other country. It is the responsibility of a teacher to give the best advice and show the true path. Some young people I worked with there are now soloists in the opera theatres in Korea or Italy, some are teaching at public schools, conducting or singing in choirs, teaching voice, or working as managers or administrators in the music business in the country. The position of a voice teacher in South Korea is respected – even more than an opera performer.
In Japan, they have a special understanding of women singers because of geishas. I remember hearing many years ago that a woman can’t marry if she is an opera performer. When I got my first Japanese visa I was listed as an entertainer and apparently an opera singer and geisha are in the same field of activities. I remember being pushed out of the way on the street back in 2000 in Tokyo because I am a woman and I might in some minds be a second-class human being. Women in Korea have a powerful role in life and are the most important person in the family. In South Korea and Japan, there are not many state opera theatres. Many foreign companies develop opera there.
The good thing is that many Japanese and Korean singers are now cast with guest singers from the USA and Europe. Opera is very popular in this part of the world, and many wonderful performers are going back to their home countries and becoming great teachers. But there is still a tendency for the parents to send their kids to study in the USA, Italy or Germany.
This autumn I toured with the Sofia National Opera to the same festival in Daegu, South Korea, where I sang in 2009. I was excited to go back. We presented Richard Strauss’s Elektra in a production by Plamen Kartaloff and with the conductor Evan-Alexis Christ.
GT: I remember that in the first Sofia Ring cycle, there was a Brünnhilde from Mongolia which greatly surprised me as I have never come across Mongolian performers in classical music, let alone in opera.
MZ: Yes, Bayasgalan Dashnyam. Unfortunately, she had a stroke after catching Covid two years ago, though she is recovering now. Actually, she came to Bulgaria to study at the Conservatoire when very young and later Ghena Dimitrova was her mentor and teacher. For many years, Bayasgalan has been a soloist here in Sofia opera, performing the most dramatic roles. She sang Turandot and Nabucco in Stuttgart, Helsinki, and Israel, among others. As Brünnhilde, she was my competitor during the first Bulgarian production of the Ring in Sofia – she is a real soldier and fighter – one of the best performers in the opera house with a quality of voice reminiscent of Dimitrova.
GT: What are your future plans?
MZ: Well, I try to enjoy my life now, today, tomorrow. I have been a vice president of the Martina Arroyo Foundation in New York for more than twenty years. Now I realise how many wonderful opportunities were created for future performers by the teachers who were invited by the staff of the foundation. I would be glad to do something for the young singers here, or in the USA, or elsewhere. The foundation has given me a lot of ideas, and I may succeed in making them real one day. I love working with young people and giving them advice.
I am not so fond of doing the same roles again and again. I know some singers who keep doing Nabucco or Macbeth hundreds of times and make a lot of money. These are terrible roles! I have been in two productions of Macbeth, one in Sofia and one in Rio de Janeiro, and I said – never again. (I think it is very important for every opera singer to know their limits, or the quality of voice they have. No matter what we think, we cannot do everything great.) I did my first musical here in Sofia Opera – I enjoyed it, wow! I love comedy, but there are not so many comic operas for my type of voice. I love doing recitals, and I have many programmes with songs from French, German, Italian, Russian and Bulgarian composers.
A few years ago, I experienced a state of burnout and lost my interest for a time in opera. The art of the recital put me back on track, and I loved doing it. I am at a time of my life in which I want to enjoy the new and unknown more in music. Many years ago, I met Frederica von Stade during a radio talk show in New York. I was full of ambition, flying in the skies and dreaming in pink. She gave me a chocolate rose – it was an unforgettable moment – and she said something that I will never forget. ‘When I was thirty, I wanted to do everything, big, so much and in a great way. Everything had to be perfect! Now [I am] in my fifties – I say to God – thank you! I am still singing, and I am on the stage. And I love it!’
What the future is going to be – I don’t know. I will always enjoy working with Plamen Kartaloff again in Sofia or on tour. I want to do The Makropoulos Case with the stage director Vera Nemirova because we have dreamed about it for a couple of years. I need to perform new pieces of music. When I was young, I did mostly a repertoire of Verdi and Puccini. Later, Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Once, I met Leontyne Price during an event in New York. ‘You were such a wonderful Aida,’ I said to her. ‘No matter what I do, I can never be as good as you!’ Do you know what she told me then? ‘You are the wrong colour, honey!’
What am I to follow these huge performers? I cannot be more perfect. It is not possible! So now, I want to challenge myself as a personality and actress on stage. I know so many singers who become rich and famous singing in a great way their four or five roles. But I am not one of them. I like the challenge to try new stuff, maybe not such grand roles, but to do them in a great way.