Without a doubt, my favorite singer in my voice part (and certainly in my top-2 all time of ANY fach) is Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I really started listening to him just after graduate school as I was hired to sing my first Verdi role, as I thought his Verdi interpretations were top notch. As I bought album after album of his, a wonderful side effect was getting exposed to Russian opera repertoire for the first time. Mr. Hvorostovsky was a fierce proponent of his native music, and I instantly fell in love. Mr. Hvorostovsky has in my opinion the greatest portrayal of Onegin ever, and his rendition of "ya vas lyublyu" from Pique Dame may be my favorite aria recording of all time. But even beyond the popular rep, just hearing him interpret the music of Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, and Mussorgsky was stunning. But of course, Tchaikovsky was my favorite.
I had only sang one piece in Russian before, and that was Lensky's aria during my three year flirtation with tenor-dom (more on that in a later post), but my diction "technique" basically just consisted of listening to Nicolai Gedda over and over again on a loop. Not what many would call a recipe for success. I, like many American singers, just didn't know what resource to turn to in order to learn the repertoire. What was even more frustrating was that musically I thought the Russian opera repertoire offered so many amazing opportunities for young baritones, but the language was so scary it seemed unapproachable.
Over the years I took some cracks at it. After hearing for the umpteenth time that Onegin's aria would fit great in my voice, my roommate Alex Longnecker mentioned that one of his colleagues from Tanglewood had a website they had created where you could buy Russian transliterations of specific arias- Russian Aria Resource, founded by Fotina Naumenko, DMA. This was an amazing first step that allowed me to start working on Onegin's Act 1 aria, but with my diction skills (which are not particularly strong), I needed more hands on deck to help. So I learned the notes and rhythms and then put it to the side.
Fast Forward to May, 2020. At this point, all my gigs are cancelled, and there seems to be very little hope for work on the horizon as the then current administration constantly mishandles the virus response. Luckily, I just happened to see an ad on Yaptracker for Russian Opera Workshop. Now, I'd heard nothing but great things about this program my whole career, but it had always been too expensive an endeavor to take the summer off from work to study in Philadelphia for an extended period of time. However, during the pandemic they were offered an ONLINE truncated role-study course on YEVGENY ONEGIN. I wasted no time in applying.
Turns out that was the best thing I could have done. After an initial email conversation and application process with Maestro Ghenady Meirson, I was assigned the role of Onegin (to my delight) and sent a transliterated score of the opera and online slides on his techniques of Russian singing. Additionally, the pdf score featured sound files of Maestro Meirson speaking EACH phrase of the opera. With these tools, I went to quick work learning the role.
I wasn't surprised at how much I got out of the process musically. I knew that this was Tchaikovsky's operatic masterpiece, and as I learned each tableau I was more and more in awe of the piece and its beauty. What I couldn't have guessed was how much of a positive effect learning the role had on me emotionally. Finally after all this craziness I had a project I could sink my teeth into and work on. As a type-3 Enneagram, having accomplishable small goals every day helps me regulate my life and mental health, so the process of "today I'm going to learn two pages of the duel scene", gave me the structure to function significantly better during those heavy pandemic months. I felt I had already gotten my money's worth just for the score and role assignment.
Then, a few months later the actual zoom coachings with Maestro Meirson began. They were phenomenal. We began by speaking through the entire score, bar by bar. Maestro is a native speaker, and he was able to give me crystal clear insight into any idiosyncratic things that could help me speak clearer and more accurately. What was really amazing, however, were the discussions we would have about character. Maestro would allow me to discuss my thoughts on who Yevgeny was in the opera, and then would bring up pieces of information from the original Pushkin novel-in-verse that would flesh out subtext of his character choices in Tchaikovsky's opera. Our sessions seemed to fly by because of how much I enjoyed them (Merry and Pippin both did as well, as they took time to introduce themselves in the zoom call most every session).
And then, of course, was the singing. For all the brilliant plotting and character work Tchaikovsky was able to lift from the Pushkin, his music elevates it to even greater heights. Onegin's Act I aria perfectly captures the devastating moment of unrequited love being abruptly turned down, from the perspective of the denier. The birthday party, for all it's various dances and fun, hides genuine drama as Onegin's trick on Lensky goes from mean-spirited joke to cruelty. Onegin's nihilistic recitative when he returns to society in Act III is a personal favorite of mine, leading into Prince Gremin's beautiful aria. And of course, the Act III duet, some of the most beautiful and devastating music in all of opera. Getting to sing through these moments with Maestro gave me a cathartic lift I hadn't had during the pandemic. I was able to sing with real emotion and passion again in a way I hadn't in months.
As is often the case, because of the process being so strong, the product because good as well. I left my coachings with Russian Opera Workshop with Onegin fully learned, and ready to perform it in full in the future. More important than that, even if I never get to sing the role of Onegin again, or never get hired to sing again, for a few months I got to be in that role. I had the pleasure of waking up every day and saying "today my job is to learn and speak and sing this beautiful work". My friends, I don't know about you, but I'd say that is worth whatever price you have to pay.
Singer friends specifically: If you don't have anything booked for Summer 2021, I can't encourage you enough to contact Russian Opera Workshop and see if they still have space. You will gain a new role in a language that odds are you haven't had much experience with, AND you will get better in every aspect of being a musician. I can't recommend it enough.
As for me, I've already bought my pdf of "ya vas lyublyu" from Russian Aria Resource, and as soon as I feel I can do it justice you better believe I'm going to get started on it. As a treat, I went ahead a posted Mr. Hvorostovsky's Singer of the World rendition of it below. Give it a listen, and go learn some Russian Rep!
DISCLAIMER: The recordings of Onegin on this website were made for auditions BEFORE I got to coach with Maestro Meirson, so if you hear any Russian errors they are most assuredly my fault and not Russian Opera Workshop's.