Bogdan Volkov: Salzburg itself inspires to play Mozart

This year in the jubilee of Salzburg festival an unexpected staging of W. A. Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte stars Bogdan Volkov – a Russian tenor, who after studies in Ukraine at the Glier Kiev Institute of Music and Tchaikovsky Kiev National Academy of Music, worked in Moscow Bolshoi Theater. Since 2013 he was a member of the Young Artists Program and later, since January 2016 until 2018, he has been a principal soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre. Bogdan Volkov has toured with the theater to Austria, Switzerland, France, Hong Kong Arts Festival, and Lincoln Centre Festival. In the interview, tenor elaborates on his unexpected debut in Salzburg festival, the lifestyle of an opera singer, and the spirituality he finds on stage.

There was a long period of ambiguity whether the Salzburg festival will happen this year. Your opera Boris Godunov was cancelled, but now you still are performing in Salzburg this year.

Yes, we are already rehearsing Cosi Fan Tutte – I just had a first rehearsal. I was supposed to sing my debut in the festival as Simpleton in Boris Godunov, but unfortunately it was canceled this year. Surprisingly, instead of other operas, a new creative decision was made and the director Christof Loy was invited to stage W. A. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I was happy to be asked to still perform in the festival again even with another role. On the other hand I feel responsibility for my first time in Salzburg to be singing Mozart. Even though I have performed this role many times and I have also previously worked with Christof Loy, the pressure is really high. The time and occasion is also very special in different ways. This is one of the only teams staging opera during pandemic and also this is one hundredth anniversary of the festival… I feel that I don’t even realize completely what I am experiencing at this moment, but hopefully it will come later.

Was it unexpected to be offered the role?

Yes, it was. I had many cancelations this year – The Love for Three Oranges, Falstaff, and Boris Godunov. Just recently my agent broke the news to me about the cancelation of the Salzburg festival opera, and the new performance in Cosi Fan Tutte. Of course, I felt confused, but very excited too. It was difficult to leave Moscow in quarantine – I had a few flight cancelations. The journey was very stressful. Fortunately administration of Salzburg’s festival helped me and even though two days later than planned, I came here!

You mentioned that you already started rehearsing. Are there any differences in rehearsals doe to the COVID-19 restrictions?

We work as before, but we are very disciplined in between the rehearsals. People are separated in few groups – singers and musicians work in the most dangerous conditions, rehears with no masks and no distance between each other. That‘s why we are being tested every week. Of course afterwards we wear masks and have special badges that note our group. Also we have to note all of our contacts outside the festival. This city in the summer is crowded with tourists in streets, cafes, restaurants – so it takes discipline to reduce contacts and avoid crowded places. Even though it could be called an experiment, this is a very detailed and responsible system. That’s why, despite all of it, I am happy to be a part of one of the few opera teams in the world that can work and rehearse now.

Would you say that all this have changed the rehearsal process – creative decisions or the energy in the room?

In fact, everything is the same as before. Just before going on stage to rehearse we practice social distancing. During the rehearsal we are the same alive people working together as we did before the quarantine. Now I have realized how much I have missed it during the past few months.

Did you do any projects during the quarantine as an opera singer?

The situation was sad and scary, and it was really difficult to deal with all the uncertainty about the future. Actually I was preparing for the worst – that I will have no work projects for the entire year. But of course it is impossible for people to go for a year without any music. Throughout the history music always helped people to go through difficult circumstances – even war. During the quarantine I made a decision not to sing – relax and take every day as it is. It was a great experienced and my voice could rest, the muscles relaxed – now when singing I feel fresh. And even if there wouldn’t be any opera performances until the end of the year, there will be recitals and chamber music. One way or the other music will find its way to the listener.

How your future looks like in these uncertain times?

I have a work schedule filled for five years now, but the rest of this year and even next year plans will probably change. But sooner or later things will come back to normal. I am happy to now be working in Salzburg and then try to go stage Eugene Onegin in Vienna State opera and the new Onegin will be Andre Schuen, who is Guglielmo in Salzburg’s Cosi Fan Tutte. So it’s nice that we have an opportunity to meet now and then continue working together. And my last project was also Eugene Onegin in Oslo, staged by Christof Loy himself. So this happened to be a beautiful chain of connections this year. Also it is great to have work projects in Austria, where the virus treat is smaller than in other countries. So of course I have many professional plans of my own, but this year nobody really knows what is going to happen tomorrow.

This is your first time in Salzburg – maybe something had surprised you in the city and in the festival?

I didn’t have a lot of time to get to know the city well, but I remember that at the first time in Salzburg I went to the birth house of Mozart. It was very inspiring! And I am happy to be singing Mozart in the place that he was born. Also when I look through the window in my apartment, I see the monument of Mozart, glaring right at me. So it is a great place to sing Mozart, because the inspiration is all around you. I think the organizers have chosen the right program for the festival, because the most important composers are Strauss and Mozart.

What do you expect from the performances with all the restrictions?

The auditorium is very huge and impressive, I am happy to work there. But I don’t know what to expect from the performance with less audience. Of course, many times I had dress rehearsals, when you sing for less people, but never for a half empty house. On the other hand, I believe that the audience this year will be very special. People will be intelligent for their devotion to music and brave for taking a risk and going to see the performance. I hope that the connection to the listener will be even more powerful in such conditions.

Can less audience affect acoustics in a way?

Usually, when it is full house, the sound is a little bit drier. The Mozart’s opera is all very soft and concentrated in details. Everybody says that the acoustic in the hall is amazing, so I think the less audience will not make a big difference.

How much creative power do you have in the decision making of interpretation?

Before starting to stage a scene, we are just singing it. Then the discussions with the conductor and stage director take place. Christof Loy tells his idea for the scene and we phrase music according to the intention and meaning he provides. Afterwards we try to find style, taste, and intonation in our performance. When staging we add body language and with it new colors in the voice appears. I am waiting forward to it.

I imagine there is a lot of pressure to sing Mozart in Salzburg. Did you notice that in Austria people approach the music of Mozart differently than in Ukraine or Russia?

We have big staff, which is always with us during rehearsals – stage director, music director, coach of Italian, music couch, etc. I feel huge support from all of them and then the pressure is not so hard to handle. I know that if I will sing something strange or wrong, I will be informed. When you are creating of something together with a team, you feel less pressure. For me the work process is about being professional and inventing something new together.
It is difficult to say what kind of tradition I am following. Yes, I was born and studied in Ukraine. Then I went to Moscow to study in one of the best young artist programs in the Bolshoi Theater. This was a very lucky period for me and I have received so much from this experience. In the end of first year working in the Bolshoi Theater, I was offered the main role in one of the most known Russian operas „The Tsar’s Bride“ by N. Rimsky Korsakov. Then we toured with the theater, going to Hong Kong and New York. For me all of this felt like a fairytale. Working there I had coaches from all around the world – Italy, France, etc. I gained experience performing in different styles and languages. So it is difficult to elaborate on the different approaches to music. I have received an international education. And also this is my first time in Austria, so it is really difficult to compare. Here an international team works on Cosi Fan Tutte, so all the traditions are holding hands with each other. It is great to know that music is a language everyone in the world can understand and love.

Can you choose the repertoire you perform?

I discuss my repertoire choices with my manager. I am most experienced in Russian repertoire and Mozart, but now I have many new roles and of course, I learn new material with pleasure and enthusiasm as well. When I learn a new role, usually I start to travel and stage it in different theaters. Every time with each production then you can find something new and different to the character and it deepens your interpretation.

Do you have a favorite role you would like to sing one day?

I prefer not to dream, nor expect, but to enjoy today and stay in the now. It never happens what we dream, we can’t predict and control the future, so the disappointment always follows. Still I would love to learn French romantic repertoire and German Lieder.
I had an incredible experience singing prince Guidon in “The tale of Tsar Saltan” by N. Rimsky-Korsakov (La Monnaie 2019), and working with Russian director Dmitry Tchernyakov. When I had a proposition to sing it, I only knew that it fits to my voice – I couldn’t tell what this role was really about. It is a simple role, but with the director Tchernyakov no one could tell what will happen. Now I know that it had become my dream role. But I enjoy every role I play at the moment and I hope in the future my approach to the work will not change.

How would you describe work process with director Christof Loy?

I feel like on stage we are a great team and we do have a connection to each other. It is also important for me to gain as much experience from the production and director, as it is possible. And I feel that me and Christof Loy had established a connection already. I trust him completely and I understand what he wants. I would say he is very pleasant to work with! With such connection the performances become more intimate, fragile, and tender. For me it is important that the atmosphere and the relationships would be beautiful as well as powerful.

What was is the most expected from the singer in the rehearsing process?

The most important is to be open and honest, to trust the director and, of course, to love music. Through this love you will connect with people on stage and in the audience. Usually you don‘t know how will everything turn out, but you know that in the end you will stand on stage holding hands with other people. Then you have to rehearse with closed eyes, but open heart. And sometimes it‘s not the final result, which is the most important – the process is rewarding itself.

Did you have an image of what the singer’s career should be at the beginning? How does reality differ?

Reality is always different than a dream, that’s why I prefer to enjoy the reality. I could never dream and expect all the magical things that have happened for me. I would say that the profession of opera singer is full of stress. It takes a lot of energy and efforts. It is always a difficult process learning new repertoire, for example, 20th century music. Mozart is also challenging, because his music is filled with details. And I think I wasn’t thinking about these elements when I was dreaming about my career in opera. When starting the career I guess I just imagined myself standing on stage and singing. There were no fantasies about flights, tickets, language barriers. But in some way, I was not wrong since the main thing in this profession is singing and going deep in opera through the music and drama as art. I became opera artist, not because I wanted to have career, but because I love to sing music. It is my life and I can’t imagine living without music being a part of it.

What helps you to deal with other parts of everyday life, that are not so inspiring?

Nothing helps, I am always in stress and I don’t know how to deal with it. But always all things that makes me nervous end well. So for me it is important to have hope and believe in my possibilities. I am still taking the risks and going on adventures, even though I get nervous.
Also it is very important that opera companies and theaters would help the musicians during difficult times. Because I believe that without support from the government, I wouldn’t even be here. Art and culture is dependent on governments in many countries. And I am grateful for this situation – all the help and support that I have received. It’s not an accident to meet people you were meant to meet and to receive their help. There are people with noble heart everywhere.

Did you have any spiritual experiences on stage?

I do have my approach to understand experiences of the past. Being on stage in front of people really helps to concentrate and be in the moment. It is important to have a connection with people you are working with. Also music helps to put yourself out and embody the character.
I also really like performing chamber music, especially Tchaikovsky songs, because the inner world that is felt in every piece and that you go through cannot be described in words. I am happy to be able to experience such magical moments on stage and I am trying to find this inspiration in every performance – even you have performed this piece numerous times before. Somehow it still feels like the first time in my life. This is my approach to singing and performing. Usually I feel stressed in my everyday life, but on stage, with music and performing, I forget all that I was worried about and go to new places spiritually.

What is it to perform for other people? Would you say there is something that you would like them to experience?

It comes down to the listener itself. People that come to the theater usually love opera and so they are open to what is happening on stage. So a kind of energy conversation happens with everyone in the room all together. Especially you can feel such moments when you perform ensembles with other singers. I adore Mozart’s opera ensembles, they are so beautiful. At these moments time stops and everybody in the hall touches this energy. I think the most important quality of Mozart’s music is that centuries ago he wrote down his feelings and today all room feels as he did. This confirms the timelessness and genius of Mozart.

Do you have singers that you admire the most?

First of all it is Maria Callas is really ideal for me. And not even because of her voice, even though we can recognize her from first notes, but with that voice she could bring people somewhere to other dimensions. Same feeling I get when I am listening Nicolai Gedda singing chamber music. I think for singer it is important to be intelligent and have a message to who is ready to listen to you. Just expressing music and inviting the audience to be a part of these spiritual moments. I find that very inspiring.

What are your hopes for the future?

I am waiting for the next season hoping it will be as before. I hope the situation in Europe in Austria will stay calm and that Russia will recover and the theater will be open again. A lot of people in Moscow are waiting for going to the theaters and listening to music live. I am sure sooner or later everything will be fine, because one cannot imagine life without theater, music and people.

Thank you for the conversation.

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