by Matthew Gurewitsch
Roughly a decade ago, when the pianist Larissa Gergieva first started showing up as the accompanist on recitals of singers associated with St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, audiences instantly suspected a family connection to Valery Gergiev, master of that self-rejuvenating house. Sure enough, Larissa and Valery are sister and brother, though the resemblance is by no means striking. Gergiev's style on the podium, however disheveled and demonic he may appear on occasion, conforms to the norms of international concert dress. Gergieva makes a domestic, motherly, proper but never showy impression, easier to reconcile with a professor at an old-world conservatory, where one's years command respect, than with a concert artist of the youth-oriented, image-conscious culture now so entrenched in the West. Her age, relative to her brother's, has been accordingly hard to gauge, and the source of some speculation. (For the record, Gergieva turned fifty in February, passing a milestone her brother will reach next year.)
Though by no means so visible a figure as her brother, Gergieva has quietly developed into a key player at the Mariinsky. As such, she exerts considerable influence on the international vocal scene. Her concert appearances are merely the public face of work that proceeds mostly in private, as coach and mentor to the whole new wave of singers from the former Soviet Union who, since the 1990s, on tour with the Mariinsky and as free agents, have been playing an ever more dominant part in the opera life of Europe, America and Japan. With the founding of the Mariinsky's Academy for Young Singers in 1998, under Gergieva's direction, the Slavic presence can only increase.
How has Gergieva reached this point, and what are the artistic values she stands for? As one might expect, she came to St. Petersburg at the behest of her brother. Earlier, she had been working in Vladikavkaz, in the Caucasus, where she, her brother and their sister Svetlana (who often travels with Valery now as his factotum) grew up, and then in the opera house of Perm. Gergiev is quick to admit he wanted to see more of his sister but also stresses that he hesitated to "impose" her on his Mariinsky colleagues. "But the singers liked to work with her," he recalls. "Olga Borodina, Sergei Aleksashkin, Mikhail Kit -- those were some of the artists who specifically asked to keep her with the company. So it was obvious that we could give her a certain responsibility. She had tremendous experience."
Gergiev immediately made the Academy a top priority. More than other young-artist programs, the Mariinsky's is integrated into the life and work of the company. As a matter of course, budding talents are taken on important world tours, sometimes in the supporting cast but not infrequently in showcase assignments. Among Academy members past and present are such names as Ildar Abdrazakov, Irina Djoeva, Vassily Gerello, Irina Mataeva, Sergei Murzaev, Anna Netrebko, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Olga Trifonova. Also the winning, almost scandalously young Daniil Shtoda [see Sound Bites, p. 10], whose recent Wigmore Hall recital debut put no less an expert than author J. B. Steane in mind of the young Giuseppe di Stefano.
According to reliable sources, a concert performance of Il Viaggio a Reims last December at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory was something special: it won the cast -- all of them members of the Academy -- a standing ovation. As Gergiev says, "The public comes for a good performance, not for a not-the-greatest Boris Godunov or Aida. At the Academy, we have the students prepare music they really can do at twenty. There's always time to move on to heavier repertoire. In Viaggio, for instance, Shtoda could really shine."
From St. Petersburg, via e-mail, Gergieva offered her perspective in the following Q-&-A.
OPERA NEWS: Your training was as a pianist, wasn't it? You were never a singer, were you?
LARISSA GERGIEVA: I graduated from the Rostov State Conservatory as a pianist. I also studied theory of music. From the age of fifteen, I worked in a vocal class as a pianist in the music college of Vladikavkaz and performed recitals with singers on the stage. We prepared songs and romances for concerts. Soon I was invited to work at the Vladikavkaz Opera Theatre as a coach and pianist. I worked there for several years, and we prepared productions of Madama Butterfly, Aida, Carmen and Otello with the young Valery Gergiev. That was his first Otello.
ON: How did the Mariinsky's Young Artists Program get started?
LG: In 1998, we selected twenty young singers through auditions. Our first productions were Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, then Prokofiev's Maddalena, then Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden). We have five voice professors: Nikolai Okhotnikov, Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Yevgenia Gorokhovskaya, Georgy Zastavny and Grair Khanedanian. [More family ties: Khanedanian, a tenor, is Gergieva's husband.] They work with young singers individually and conduct master classes. Mainly they emphasize vocal techniques -- how to sing, how to breathe, how to focus the voice, and so on. I work with chamber music, conduct master classes, as well as lecturing on the history of the Mariinsky Theatre, the international history of the vocal arts, with video and audio demonstrations. I never work on vocal technique. I don't think pianists should. My interest is in style, in interpretation, musicality and artistry.
ON: Does the Mariinsky Young Artists Program have a formal course of study, or is the training tailored to the needs and talents of each student?
LG: The Academy is an integral part of the Mariinsky Theatre. The course is generally five years. Sometimes singers mature faster, and they are invited to join the main company. Sometimes we think a person is not developing, unfortunately, and we let the person go rather than waste great efforts. Sometimes we feel that after five years a singer is too young and vulnerable to start on a career but still deserves support. Each young artist takes individual vocal lessons with a professor and pianist. In addition, there are master classes in German, French, Italian and English phonetics, stage movement, acting and fencing. If necessary, individual lessons can be arranged.
The young artists are also very busy performing at the Mariinsky, sometimes in major parts. There are a lot of concerts, too, in St. Petersburg, all over Russia and abroad. We take part in festivals and competitions all over the world, which is another source of important experience.
ON: How do you choose the students? Where do they come from?
LG: They come from different parts of the former Soviet Union. We have singers from Moscow, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also from Sweden, Finland, Great Britain and Korea. But we don't support Westerners financially. At present we have seventy-five students. Twenty of these are at a preliminary level, under twenty years old -- they are preparing to enter the Academy. We have open auditions in May, but we can audition at any time if the applicant comes from far away.
ON: From what I have seen, your emphasis with the young artists at the Mariinsky is as much on the song literature (especially the Russian song literature) as on opera. Is that true?
LG: Yes, I think songs are very important. When you know how to present a literary text in a song, if you are able to show the intimate feelings of your character and create a whole story in the short time of a song -- all that helps tremendously on the stage. I try to develop singers' musicality and their emotional responses. We train them in different styles, not only Russian. They sing Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel, Schumann, Dvórak, Janácek and other composers.
ON: In the Soviet era, Western listeners associated Russian singers with the "Slavic wobble." We thought of Russian voices as big and rich but often poorly supported and lacking in agility. Also, it seemed that very few Russian singers had good languages. Now Russia is producing a steady stream of well-schooled, flexible voices, and the linguistic standards are much higher. How has this change come about? Where do the new teachers come from?
LG: I can speak about the professors of the Academy. Our teachers are great Russian singers of the Mariinsky Theatre. They have vast experience and have performed on all the major stages of the world. For the last fifteen years, I, too, have been traveling and working in many countries, developing a good idea and understanding of modern vocal aesthetics. So we combine happily, in my opinion, old traditions founded by the Italian school, from the imperial era, with the knowledge of the modern qualities wanted nowadays. I find it especially useful that our professors are still performing and working on technique themselves. All doors are open to our young people. Competing in international competitions and listening to great voices on the great stages of the world helps them broaden their horizons and use their own talents in the best way.
ON: The Mariinsky generally and the Young Artists program in particular have been paying a lot of attention to bel canto. This is not repertoire we associate with the Russian tradition in the second half of the twentieth century, though historically there was of course plenty of bel canto in St. Petersburg. Today, it seems to be a rediscovery for the Russians, much as it was in the West about forty or fifty years ago.
LG: I think that Glinka's operas are very much bel canto: melodious, very comfortable for the voice. Don't forget that Glinka lived in Italy for a significant time and knew well what was going on there. He sang himself and was a vocal coach. This influences the vocal style of his operas. Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka, a very popular opera throughout the history of the Russian theater, also follows bel canto traditions. (We can call it "Russian bel canto.") We understand how important it is for young voices to sing Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, and work with them constantly. We have performed Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale. We also did Il Viaggio a Reims, which was a brilliant experience. We worked on it for a year. It really helped us to develop the young singers' virtuoso quality and understanding of style.
ON: What, ultimately, is your goal for a young singer?
LG: To become a very good professional, so that your art makes people happy, so that what you do is needed everywhere -- but most of all in your own country.