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Russian soprano Vlada Borovko conquers the Royal Opera House

Russian soprano Vlada Borovko was a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme 2015–17, her roles including Frasquita (Carmen), Xenia (Boris Godunov), Anna (Nabucco), Violetta (La traviata), Clotilde (Norma), Ermione (Oreste), Mlle Jouvenot (Adriana Lecouvreur), Giannetta (L’elisir d’amore) and Aspasia (Mitridate, re di Ponto). She has since sung Musetta (La bohème) for The Royal Opera. In the 2019/20 Season she sings Violetta and Musetta. We met with Vlada when she stepped in to sing Aspasia in Mozart's Mithridate in summer 2017, and now we are sitting backstage at the Royal Opera House and having this relaxed and friendly talk about her singer's life, career and plans for the future.

Interview was conducted jointly by Alexander Smotrov and Yulia Savikovskaya

Vlada, was there a moment that led to singing becoming an important part of your life?

Since childhood I loved to sing and watched Disney cartoons where heroines often sing. I liked to sing along, especially with the Little Mermaid. At the age of 5 I got a dream to learn to sing as beautifully as she did.

Did you go to opera performances as a child?

I am from Naberezhnye Chelny in Republic of Tatarstan. As a child I studied in the choral class at a music school. My grandmother established a tradition of teaching children music. My relatives have good natural voices, but there are no professional musicians among them. Excerpts from operas were sometimes included in musical literature lessons, but opera made no impression on me at that time.

I got enrolled at the Department of English in University, and, in parallel with my studies, was engaged in singing pop as a hobby. Once I participated in a local competition, where I decided to try to perform a song from the movie The Fifth Element. At the beginning of the song there was an excerpt from the madness scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, and then long vocalization with very high notes. I was young and my natural range allowed me to experiment. After one competition I was advised to consider applying to the Conservatory - I was 18 years old. After graduating from the University I decided to take a chance and indeed go to Kazan for my degree in vocal singing.

It seems that your voice range very extended originally. Did you get voice training?

Yes, I had a big natural range. One didn’t specifically train a voice in the choir, we were only helped to develop a ‘round’ academic manner, with our intonation being monitored. In the children's choir I sang solo a couple of times, but I had no idea that I could someday become an opera soloist. This awareness came much later when I turned 21.

Did you have an internal conflict at the time of choosing a profession? What did your family think about the fact that you suddenly decided to become a musician?

Since I first received an education in letters, there was no fear of being left without nothing in the end. Parents supported my passion for music. Moreover, I was recommended to study opera singing by people who worked at the Bolshoi Theatre and the Kazan Conservatory. Their assessment influenced my decision greatly.

When did you start the Royal Opera House young artists program in London?

I was in the fifth year of the Conservatory. During four years I had been training my voice with my teacher Galina Lastovka in Kazan. She helped me develop the vocal base. In 2014 I began to participate in contests and by chance applied to the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at ROH. I was invited to a live audition in London, where, among others, I sang Leonora’s aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore and Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s opera La Boheme. I happened to have already performed both of them on the opera stage.

What was especially memorable during the auditions?

When I arrived for the audition, the Opera House held rehearsals for Verdi's Un ballo di maschera with Dmitry Khvorostovsky. When I saw him at the reception, it was a surprise. I took some courage and came up to him to take a photo together. We started a conversation, he congratulated me on reaching the semifinals and wished the best of luck in the audition.

Ermione in Oreste (Handel), Wilton Hall 2016. Photo credit: Clive Barda

How do you form your repertoire and prepare your roles?

I thought about the repertoire during the training. At its beginning it was already clear to me that my voice was quite dense. I do not like to classify my voice because it often limits the singer’s potential. For example, I sing Musette, which is traditionally sung by light voices, but at the same time, I sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, which is sung by lyric-dramatic sopranos. Or, for example, in 2017, I stepped in for the part of Aspasia in Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto, which is sung by lyric-coloratura sopranos. If the part is in the range of my possibilities, I accept it.

Do you have any restrictions on the choice of your roles at the moment?

At this stage, I avoid singing dramatic ones. I do not sing Tosca and Aida. I need to see how the voice will develop, what practical experience I will accumulate in order to consider such opportunities. At the same time, it’s not good for me to sing something very high, as this interferes with the development of the middle register. I try to avoid extremes.

Do you work independently or with a teacher?

As I mentioned, I have a teacher in Kazan, Galina Lastovka. I come to her to develop my voice. She always helps me with invaluable advice. In London, I practice interpretation with coaches. If I need to learn a part in French, I always consult with a teacher who speaks French. If this is Mozart, then I take lessons from people who are familiar with this repertoire. It is impossible to go blindly in the profession, you should always ask for the advice. Moreover, the requirements in the opera are now very high.

What was the most difficult of the parts that you sang? Is there something you are working on, but still not completely sure how to do it?

It is difficult to tell. If you prepare seriously, the minimum programme can always be completed. Of course, there is always something to improve. For example, Verdi's repertoire requires many skills from singers. I already sing it, but I believe that with age and experience I will sing it better. In the summer of 2019, I made my debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore. In autumn I sang Verdi's Requiem in Cardiff. Both of these parts are quite complex. But now I need to try them, albeit not at the largest venues, in order to develop in the direction of Italian music.

How do you evaluate your work after performances?

Nothing is perfect. As Salvador Dali said: «Do not be afraid of perfection, you cannot achieve it». If I can realize 50 percent of what I did in the classroom when I go on stage, it is already a success. If 60, then it is really great. If something did not work out, but there is an emotional response from the public, then this is the most important thing.

Were there instances when you were not happy but the audience squealed with delight or vice versa?

There wasn’t ever a situation when I really liked my singing while public did not. Usually if you get well into the part, the public receives it well. I was especially warmly received in 2016, six months after the start of the programme in London. Then I urgently had to step into the part of Violetta in La Traviata. No one expected that a girl who had not sung a single large part could so emotionally interpret the complex part of Violetta without a single stage rehearsal. I was very pleased when people wrote to me on social networks and congratulated with a successful debut. It was a very important event in my life.

How do you feel when you go on stage of the Royal Opera House?

I think this is a special place, almost a sacred one. Many great singers have sung here! When I sang the final round of the audition of the Young Artists Programme, I was happy that I was standing on this stage. When I was accepted, it was great happiness. Each appearance on this stage, regardless of the length of the part, is always special. The atmosphere in the opera house is warm, partners are always welcoming, everyone supports each other. Despite the fact that the internship for the young artists was quite difficult for me, the support from my colleagues helped a lot. The finale of the program, when I replaced Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia was a complete surprise. Of course, I will always remember that.

Tell us briefly about the structure of the Jette Parker programme.

The opera house has a plan for every young singer. Everyone has parts that they play on main stage, there is also a project for a youth opera studio. Each season, the young programme puts the opera on its own off the main stage. In my case, it was Handel’s opera-pasticcio Oreste where I performed Ermione, one of the leading parts. It was the first appearance in a baroque opera for me and a certain challenge. But the programme gives us many lessons, and artists have opportunities for improvement. Auditions are also held at other theatres during the internship. When young artists sing the parts on the main stage, they can be seen by agents, potential employers, critics. In addition young singers serve as understudies for various parts. In the first year of my internship I was an understudy cover for Violetta in La Traviata and Leonora in Il Trovatore. These parts are very complex, and I had to work hard to prove that I can master them. I sang Violetta in Covent Garden six months after graduating from the Conservatory. This is unthinkable! I got a notification of a replacement one hour before the curtain opened, never rehearsed a part with an orchestra and made my debut in that part nevertheless, with my partner, a tenor, also receiving a change notification an hour before the start. This was probably the first time in the history of the Royal Opera House. Doubles have rehearsals, but they are not held on the stage of the theatre and are done without an orchestra. Replacing somebody is always very difficult, especially if the part is new to you.

Aspasia in Mozart's Mithridate (ROH, 2017)

Tell us about the most difficult moments in the part of Aspasia in Mitridate.

The very fact that you are filling in for someone an hour before the curtain opens and even without the original costume is a shock. Understudies must be always in touch and close to the theatre in case of unexpected illness of the main singer. For me it was important to be in synchrony with the orchestra. Since I began to prepare for this part six months before, I had been singing it for a long time, especially the first aria with its very complex coloraturas. The whole part of Aspasia is complex and full of contrasts. The first aria has high coloratura, the second – low, the third combines cantilena and coloratura, the fourth is long and written in the middle register. It was necessary to try to find a key to each of them. I tried to do everything that was in my power at that time.

Do vocalists have a special diet and daily routine for voice?

The sleep routine is important. The vocalist should get enough sleep. If I have a stable emotional state on the day of the performance and get enough sleep, then the performance usually always goes well. I try to eat an hour and a half before the performance. At this time I drink a lot, I like to eat fruits and protein foods, especially eggs ...

Are eggs raw? Or is it a myth that they help the voice sound better?

I'm not sure this is a myth. Protein food gives strength. On the day of the performance, I avoid spicy food, nuts, seeds. I don’t eat ice cream during the season because there is a risk of catching a cold. During the period of infections I rinse my nose and throat. In the summer I try to strengthen the body, stay in a sanatorium or go to the seaside. It is very important for a singer to have strong immune system.

How did your career develop after the end of the programme? What plans do you have for the future?

Immediately after the young artists programme, I went to cover and sing the part of Violetta in La Traviata at the Cologne Opera. At the same time I was asked to urgently replace the sick soloist of La Traviata in Karlsruhe. This was my debut on the German stage. I sang in Kazan at the gala concert of the Chaliapin Festival. I went to a competition in the Czech Republic and met wonderful coaches in Prague. In the summer of 2018, I made my debut in the Musetta part in La Boheme on the stage of the Royal Opera. I had great memories from this performance and I developed a warm relationship with people of my cast. It is a great honour for me to return to Covent Garden as a guest soloist again in February 2019.

Often people think of a career in opera as a glamorous life. Constant banquets, receptions, armfuls of flowers and a sea of champagne, adoration on social networks ...

An Instagram picture is only a picture. For some opera singers such attributes are indeed important. Instead of such manifestations of success as diamonds and furs that traditionally accompany a diva, I would prefer vocal and artistic achievements. Of course, after premiere performances there are receptions to which soloists are invited. You can choose not to drink alcohol there, you can just talk with colleagues and spectators. This is a form of etiquette. The glamorous life with limousines, as I see it, is no longer a trend and is a thing of the past. Now every singer is simply trying to do their job and show high quality, so that theatres continue to invite them. No matter what people might say, in opera you must first and foremost sing well. The public should want to return to an opera house. As for diamonds, feathers and everything else, this is not what the opera does.

Do receptions after performances contribute to professional networking?

Of course, it is important for a young artist to build a network of contacts. Many singers have agents, but it’s also important for singers to build relationships with conductors and directors. After a premiere you can sometimes meet interesting people who could potentially help with your career.

Is it important for a singer to promote herself on the Internet? How sensitive are artists to online comments and comments in press?

Yes, promotion on the Internet plays a key part today. I did not start Instagram for a very long time, but now all singers have to be visible. The audience is interested in reading the news, watching photos of their favourite artists. Comments need to be taken lightly. Opinions on the same issue may be different, even if we talk about recognized masterpieces. I have a circle of people whose opinion is very important to me. Criticism could be biased or objective. I usually know myself what I need to work on. With age, artists develop thick skin and are more relaxed about criticism.

Is there a difference between a performance on a big stage and a chamber concert? Is there a difference in preparation for different venues?

I always sing the same regardless of the size of the audience. If it is a very small room, I will try to choose a programme that is more appropriate for the chamber audience. I do not make a preference between an opera audience and an audience that attends concerts. All viewers are important to me. No matter where I perform, I always try to perform equally well. Striving for good sound and self-improvement is important in all circumstances.

Do you have any role models in opera s?

I listen to a lot of singers. I really like Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Rosanna Carterie, Elizabeth Grümmer, Oda Slobodskaya ... I recently discovered stunning Mexican singer Gilda Cruz Romo. In different repertoire there are different standards. I do not copy any of them. It is important for me to develop my own personality. Even the greatest singers had flaws, so perfectionism is good to a certain extent.

Do relatives support you? How important is moral support to the artist?

Emotional support from close ones is very important. A singer gives out energy to the public during performances and needs support at home. Fortunately my loved ones understand the complexity of the profession of an opera singer and try to support me in everything.

Is there any place for depression in the opera world?

Life consists of ups and downs. But one can’t have good moments all the time. Nobody will talk about this on Instagram where everything is always beautiful and safe. Anything can happen during one’s career. Artists are tempered if they overcome difficulties. To become a real artist, a singer must go through tests.

Violetta in La Traviata (ROH, 2016). Photo credit: Neil Gillespie

How busy is your next season?

I really hope that I will debut with a new part in the Royal Opera House – the place that gave me an unforgettable experience last season. Perhaps debuts in the French repertoire will take place soon. I look forward to returning to the part of Violetta, learning a new concert programme. But I do not like to plan too far ahead. Man assumes, but God disposes. Even if the schedule is planned for 5 years in advance, you never know what will happen tomorrow.

Do Russian singers have problems with visas?

I always try to deal with visa issues in advance. Different types of visas are required in different countries, and sometimes bureaucratic issues have to be addressed urgently. This season I had to cover a part in Germany and I was worried whether I would get a visa on time or not. Fortunately, the consulate understood the situation and quickly issued all necessary documents.

What would you recommend to those who are not familiar with opera? How should they learn to love it?

If a person has an interest in beautiful things and wants to develop spiritually, one should go to the opera. I would advise to start with Carmen, La Boheme, La Traviata, possibly, L’elisir d’amore. I think that it’s best to start with classic, well-known productions. There is a prejudice that the opera is boring and intended only for selected few. In fact, this is a stereotype. When I was in the Jette Parker programme for the first year, I invited girls from my dormitory who had never been to the opera before, to see Boris Godunov. They were absolutely delighted despite the fact that it was quite a complicated opera. I think the genre of opera has no boundaries and I advise everyone to go to the opera at least once. Opera combines several types of arts and it is the greatest genre in terms of the scale of emotional influence. It can completely change the idea of how people see life. If after the performance the audience tells me that they were emotionally enriched, then for me this is to some extent a victory. After all these people have become a little better.

Is there a difference in the attitude of people towards opera in different countries? Is it necessary to popularize opera as a genre?

Opera is popularised everywhere. Popularisation is needed because there is a generational change and a new audience needs to be attracted. In order to popularise opera, it’s not necessary to flirt with the pop. It is important to keep up the level of performance of a high genre. It is necessary to rethink some things, invite talented directors. Upgrading is necessary, but it must be done in a responsible and reasonable way. When a person reaches a certain age, they go to the opera because they have a spiritual need for it.

However, there are opera fans who go to Salzburg and Bayreuth Festival and try not to miss a single interesting performance.

Yes, there is such an audience. Just like in figure skating that I adore, there are fans who follow all the news, go around the world to watch their favourites, debate on online forums and sign up for a large number of singers on Instagram. There are those who simply come to the theatre for a treat, those who come to meet friends or take beautiful selfies. The audiences are different and everyone needs a slightly different approach.

Do artists like to communicate with fans on social media?

I know artists who do not like social networks. There are those who do not spend time on social media at all or have other people doing it for them. Internet PR is now very popular, it is important for the artiststhat their internet accounts reflect their professional image and values.

Are there directors, conductors, singers with whom you would like to work in future?

I have many wishes in terms of repertoire. I am very interested in the belcanto operas and Mozart, especially Don Giovanni and Idomeneo. I really want to sing Martha in the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov. I have already performed Clotilde and Adalgiz in Norma. I would like to sing the main part in Bellini’s opera one day. I am interested in working with those directors who can teach me a lot about acting, with conductors who will help in interpreting the parts. I don’t want to name specific names. But I am a person who always wants to learn. When I graduated, fellow students laughed at me when I started studying again. After the Conservatory, I had an internship in the youth programme for two more years. I always want to learn, and I hope to meet people who will help me to develop.

How difficult is it to master the repertoire in different languages? What languages are easier for singing?

It is very important to learn languages, especially their phonetics. My main repertoire is now Italian and I try to work with coaches who are native speakers on pronunciation. Italian is considered the most convenient language for singing. It is very difficult to sing in French. I am now learning a part in French and working with a specialist. Czech is also difficult, but it is Slavic and somewhat easier for Russian-speaking singers. In Prague, I worked on the aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka with a Czech director, and in the youth programme in London there is also a Czech language specialist. I sing in different languages. Singers now have the opportunity to expand their language repertoire and this is very interesting. Each language has its own charm.

Do colleagues from different countries help each other in terms of pronunciation?

Of course. If I see someone learning Russian aria, I always help with pronunciation. And I can ask my colleagues for help if questions arise. Languages need to be developed nowadays in order to be competitive. There is a stereotype that Russian singers have chic voices but are good in languages. Unfortunately we often have few specialists who are involved in phonetics. At competitions jury pay attention at pronunciation, so vocalists need to invest in language education.

Adalgisa in Norma (Santiago, Chile, 2018). Photo credit: Marcela Gonzalez

Is your career developing as you would like it to?

If I see that a part that the company offers me is suitable at this stage of development, I take it. If a part can hurt me, I refuse it. I think how the repertoire will affect my voice. I hope there will be good luck, especially since luck was already on my side when I got into the Young Artists programme and performed wonderful parts here. The Santiago Theatre has already appeared in my biography, where I sang Alaljiza in Norma. I also went to Stuttgart ad to several other German opera houses. Debuts at Berlin Opera and the Bavarian Opera have already taken place. It is a good start and the repertoire is already quite diverse. I would like to sing in Asia, especially in Tokyo. I believe that there are a lot of interesting things ahead.

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