One of the most prominent voices in the opera world Asmik Grigorian is in search of a balance between total self-control and pure emotional expression on stage. A conversation about the preparation process of the soloist, biggest technical challenges performing Salome and the life and music lessons she received from her parents – opera soloists Irena Milkevičiūtė and Geham Grigorian.
You have mentioned that in your performance you are pre-planning every detail. What does it ad to the quality of the singing?
When I prepare, of course, I am working on every phrase, especially when I am singing in foreign language. Learning the pronunciation alone requires a lot of work. You have to think, not just about the phrase, but about the word or even the syllable. In terms of music, everything is the same – you not only have to learn the role, but also find how it fits best for your body. The vocal chords are the same muscles, and they have to do be trained in order to sing. This is quite a long process.
As for the need to prepare the phrase beforehand before singing it, I think that is the most important thing for the singer. You have to be a creator – he can’t follow music. You need to have both the musical phrase and the word you say in full control. Know what you are doing before you start singing. Even though it was all created and invented before you, you still have to reinvent yourself in the role.
How do you find the balance between control and emotion?
This is a very difficult thing to master in every performance. Sometimes control takes over, sometimes emotion. For example, I am very pleased with today’s performance by Salome, which was the ideal one where I was 100% completely in the role and 100% in control of the situation. It depends a lot on each other. If I am in control of both my vocals and my body, then my acting simply gets better. It is much easier with technical skill to find that balance. Because of this, I always emphasize technique. It gives you freedom, much like in sports. The more freely you do technical tricks, the less you need to think about them and the more you can focus on the artistic side of the role.
How do you prepare for the role?
The role comes to me naturally during my attempts to perform it in a very technical way. My preparation process is to study every word, sheet music, memorize not only my own but all the lines of the libretto. I try to stay aware of the dialogue, the situation and the role itself. I definitely don’t create anything extra. Later, when you meet with the whole team and the director, it may appear that the role you have created is the opposite of what the director wants you to do. Of course, I have my opinion and I bring it to rehearsals – it’s hard not to have any opinion when you see the dialogue and know what’s going on with your character. This is natural – one person means one thing when he or she speaks words, another person speaks the same dialogue and uses it to express all other information. One hundred thirty million stories can be told with the words “I love you”. Yes, I have my opinion, but I always try to stay flexible.
You mentioned that a lot of people are working with you to make a new show. What things are you preparing?
From a musical point of view, I work with a vocal coach, a language coach, a pianist and now I’ve noticed that each role requires me to have some different phisical preparation. So I always choose a different sport for each show. Then you have body coaches, therapists and so on.
R. Strauss is known as one of the few composers of XX century who has truly written for voice and worked hard to make his roles vocally expressive. What is your experience with his opera?
For my voice, R. Strauss is a very suitable composer, his music always fits me very well. Here’s the thing – Mozart is right for one voice, Strauss for the other … There’s no one composer that fits all. For example, the biggest cure for my voice is Verdi. Here my voice is resting. Also, I am very grateful to the Universe, Mom and Dad for having such a flexible voice with a wide range. With it I get many opportunities to perform different music – I can find myself singing Dvorak, Puchin, Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. I have a wide selection of repertoire in which I feel comfortable. Every time I make music of different style I imagine myself as a machine of another caliber. I have to find different colors, toggle between different buttons. I’m glad to have this opportunity – a wide range, different colors. But it takes a lot of work to make all the nuances sound different and all to sound in top quality.
Of course, when you’re working on an opera, there are people around you who tell you about style. It is always teamwork. And I don’t know the exact nuances of music styling, so I do a lot of intuitive singing. In different stylistics I try to change colors but not the technical base.
How often do you perform contemporary music?
I am currently experiencing a period where I am concentrating on vocal technique and as a result, I try to sing less of contemporary music repertoire. Because it’s usually not vocal. I would not advise young singers to perform contemporary music at the beginning of their career unless they want to show their acting abilities. Not everyone learns this style because it always takes a lot of effort, and it is quite difficult to show yourself in vocal terms while singing contemporary music. These are slightly different tasks.
You spoke about the voice acting school. Is that the secret of your versatility on stage?
I think voice acting should be the main thing in opera because this genre is neither a drama theater nor a concert opera. As a result, one must try to express the role in a vocal, musical sense. Again, only knowing how to do such things technically can give that freedom. If you have technical problems, you cannot get the colors of sound that you are capable of. I have always had a talent and a beautiful voice, but I have not always been able to use it – and now I am just pursuing and learning about these things. The technique is amazing in that it gives the freedom in sound coloring. Then you can pick whether you sing beautifully or ugly, right or wrong. Colors and what you want to say about them then become your personal preference, not a condition imposed by the limitations of the technique.
How do you adapt acoustically to different halls?
Every singer must master this. One of the most important things is to learn to control your voice from the inside out. To see, hear yourself from the side and control yourself accordingly. We are accustomed to hearing ourselves from within and hearing ourselves in a completely different way than we actually sound to our listeners. A singer needs to develop the ability to hear not the sound he is making, but the one that comes out and comes back to his ear. This is a big, complicated technical school and I am still learning these things myself. Because I don’t play roles, it is even harder for me to control the sound. When you play something, it’s easier to have a more accurate sense of how your singing sounds. But since I do every role as an introverted person, during intimate moments on stage I go into myself, my own inner experiences. Then the self-hearing is also directed inward, which is not right. Therefore, I always try to control my singing. I realize that there is no monologue on stage, I never sing to myself. If it is a monologue, then I can imagine myself conducting a dialogue with a mirror. I have to decide where to place that mirror – it depends on the acoustics in the hall. You must learn to hear yourself from the sidelines in every room. You can place your dialog object near, or further away, at the end of the hall. From this, your sound changes and I apply principles to different halls and acoustics in them.
What is your relationship to the audience – do you feel them during the show?
It differs, depending on where the balance goes. If you are in a lot of control, the audience will feel you a lot more. Relationship with the audience is the main difference between opera and concert because when you see faces in a concert, you talk to them with the help of music. There is no direct relationship or dialogue with the audience at the opera. You have to connect your listeners through a common hearing, which is their participation in the performance.
You mention that you are trying to control yourself and your surroundings when singing. Are there situations where you lose control of the scene?
This happens very often. The balance is lost on the one side, or on the other. When you’re tired, technically ill-prepared, sometimes the emotional side carries you so far that you can’t control your body. I’ve been tormented all my life with crazy anxiety on stage, so if the technical control on the scene slips away for a moment, I’m already in a panic. Conversely, when you are in an excessive state of control, you can no longer control that letting go of tension. I often have this problem. Anyway, I’m a human with many oddities and problems, all of which are part of me. Learning to control yourself is a lifetime job. And here singing on stage is no different from normal life.
What was the biggest challenge for you in Salome?
The score of Salome fits my voice quite well. It’s comfortable for me, but, oh God, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The biggest challenge was that I wanted to sing using a lot of different colors, and from a technical point of view, it required a lot of, let’s say, different buttons. If you want to use all the colors in your performance, you have to learn how to switch those buttons very quickly. Failure to switch the button at the right time can result in a very poor situation. Another challenge was the German language, which is phonetically remarkably different from Lithuanian. It required a great deal of diligent work with the right people to avoiding adding extra trouble with tongue tension and things like that.
This year, Salome was restaged within a week. What was your rehearsal process like?
Clearly, the process was incomparable to what happened last year. I was short of rehearsals because I set myself the task of making another play and raising the role to an even higher level. So I wanted a bit longer rehearsing process. Today was the third performance, and only now I felt that my performance was what I really expected of myself this year.
Salome was also recorded on DVD. How did the filming process go? What challenges did you encounter while filming the opera?
This was the first recording of my DVD opera that I was specifically preparing for. While recording Salome, I was even consulting with the director R. Castellucci about how I should behave on stage – should I sing for the camera or for the audience? These are different things, as the camera wants much greater peace of expression in both body and face. Especially the face, because when the camera pulls up, the soloist’s expression is too vivid for it. On the other hand, if you play only for the camera, a little of your voice projection is not enough for the last row of the audience. It was kind of a double play that I found it difficult to manage. When I was singing vocally important moments, I forgot the camera and sang to the audience, and in the more intimate scenes, I concentrated on the camera.
You were mostly learning singing with your parents. What are your main values as a singer that you took from your main teachers?
The fact that I come from an opera family is a very big gift to me and a very big curse at the same time. Obviously, I had that knowledge of opera before I was even born. It is always with me. I would say it is easier to learn with your family members, but you want to argue with them about everything. When I study with a stranger I save time because I do what I am told without questioning it.
Both of my parents have very different values as musicians. My mother is an intuitive person, she is mostly listening. Of course, intuition can hardly be learned, it can only be inherited. I think I inherited it from my mom. And my dad always knew exactly what to do technically. It is extremely important to accommodate both of these poles.
You were taught by the so-called old vocal school. Perhaps you could name the main goals of opera singing?
Of course, the technique is one. Right singing is right singing, but there are different ways to access it. The Singing School is designed to help you learn to sing without compromising your voice. Roughly speaking, operatic singing is a scream lasting for several hours. We have to, I would say not learn but remember – because babies and children do it very well – to scream in such a way that we do not hurt our vocal cords. Because otherwise, we may have issues. There are millions of rules to nourish your voice while singing so you don’t get tired.
The second thing is to learn how to use your voice so that you have a hundred million different colors instead of a single operatic color. On stage, I want to hear a natural human voice, not an opera timbre. Another factor is that we do not have microphones on the opera stage. Therefore, in order for us to be heard from the last few rows, we need to do some tricks that replace the voice amplifier. And yet, in my opinion, these tricks should not replace our natural voice. Opera singing is the ability to sing any music in a natural voice without the need for a microphone. Then you can really use your voice, look for different expressions, colors. So the vocal school teaches simple things, but at the same time, they are very complex, just like everything in life.
You talked about the fact that young people often get burned out too early in their career – what do you think about this phenomenon?
Now everything in the world is going much faster, we want everything to happen here and now. There is a cult of young people on stage, also deeply felt pressure from the media to become a star and not necessarily a good singer. Undoubtedly, young people burn out when they are under such pressure. Some heavy-duty opera roles take time not only to learn how to perform them correctly, but also that your body would be ready to do them. However, it is not so much a problem for singers, but rather for society as a whole.
Did you experience something similar in your youth?
When I started to study at the music academy, I had no real motivation or self-confidence. So I did not learn too much and I started working very young. My roles have always been extremely complex and I have always had a lot of responsibility. There was no time to even think – whether I was doing it right or wrong. I just went onto the stage and sang. I became a mom when I was very young, which means I always worked too much. You find yourself in such a vicious circle. You have to sing better to earn more. You can’t sing better because you are always tired of constant working. And you work too much because you don’t have enough money. And you keep turning in that circle. Obviously, it all ended very badly when I lost my voice. On the other hand, I am glad that this happened quite early when I was 31-32 years old. I had voice string surgery and a month and a half of silence. But it doesn’t help if you don’t make the findings yourself. If I hadn’t changed anything, I’d be in the same situation again in a couple of years. Then I realized it was time to start all over again. I needed to finally start to learn singing and I really wanted to do it. I have come to conclusions quite successfully, and now I am very pleased with that. I have been working really hard since then and the results are very good.
What changed after the breakthrough moment?
I do some more strategic thinking now, which is a huge gift. It is the ability to give up and say no and don‘t try to do everything. You paying to invest in yourself and choose not to eat for a moment, but to give you the final cash for a singing lesson that will pay you four times in the future. Maybe it’s the strategy, the ability to see a few steps ahead, or maybe it’s simply the courage to take risks and give your all.
How do you navigate the classical music business of today?
I think I’m moving slowly enough. I have been on the stage for fourteen years and my success did not come to me in one day. Also, I was born into a family of famous singers and understood the whole kitchen of opera singing from an early age. This makes the preparation easier. I never had the ambition to be a star. It has always been a lot more important for me to be a good professional, to learn as much as I can, to improve. Of course, being a star is a beautiful and wonderful game, accepting interviews and photo sessions is a part of it. However, it is very healthy not to take these things too seriously. When turning into the illusion of popularity, you can lose your professionalism and quality of singing. Everything in life is a game, the most important thing is to stay honest with yourself.
You‘ve mentioned that Salzburg Festival is a great place to get to the top of the league, you knew beforehand that Salome would be an important role in your career. Could you have predicted your success?
The Salzburg Festival, at least for today, is the main venue that opens up the opportunity to make the big leaps professionally, as I have succeeded with Salome. They [festival organizers] provide great spaces for work, meetings with amazing people and great work teams, so you can make important contacts here. Also, everyone’s eyes are on the Salzburg Festival, which offers both responsibility and great career opportunities at the same time. If you do something good here, you will not stand a chance of being overlooked. Of course, the same will also happen if you do something poor.
I knew for sure that no matter how I appeared, Opera Salomé wouldn‘t go unnoticed. The only question is whether the audience will notice it from the good side or the bad side. I’m in the lead role, opera is about one person, I’m on stage all the time. I did my best to be noticed for the better.
Thank you for the interview!