Fresh off the stunning performance of “Otello” in NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House and still emanating the vibes of the Shakespearean hero, Latvia’s star tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko met me for an interview near Lincoln Center, where he shared with The Baltic Times not only his thoughts on the role of Otello, but also the cultural differences and Latvia’s lag in building a state-of-the art concert hall in Riga.
You are having a brilliant career in all acclaimed opera houses of the world. Is there a special place for you?
One of the special places for me is Austria. My international career outside of Latvia and Estonia started in Austria. When I was leaving the Latvian National Theatre and Estonian Theatre after seven years of work there, and was going as a free artist, I went to Austria. Maybe if I had gone to another country first the feeling would be different. For me any job in Austria, now it is mostly Vienna and Salzburg, is very pleasant. I speak German fluently.
How many languages have you mastered?
In addition to my Latvian mother tongue, I am fluent in Russian and German; moreover I speak Ukrainian, Italian, English, and French, although spoken French and stage French are very different. The pronunciation is different. When I sing in “Rusalka” in Czech, I recognise a lot of Ukrainian, so when I read the text, I understand. But our job as singers is to execute, not to interpret too much. The tempo, the dynamics are already provided; one has to know how to read these marks and there is a lot to read and we have to operate within these parameters. It’s like a navigation map. If you can’t read it you will have a shipwreck.
Is Riga still “home” for you? Are you based there?
I am a free artist, but my home is in Riga.
Some major cities throughout Latvia have built superb new concert halls, a concert hall which Riga is lacking. Does Riga need a new concert hall in your opinion?
I have written a petition, an open letter to our government signed by many people, including Inessa Galante, Gideon Kramer, that our government should stop screwing around. We have the House of Congress where nothing is going on. It’s in the centre of town, parking, walking distance to all major sights, there is a ton of space there for the choir. All they need to do is improve the acoustics of the hall and that’s it. No need to spend additional money. For what? National idea, what’s that? National idea should be that all people live well. And with the instruments, what instruments can tolerate such humidity, or are we going to play on instruments made in China? If we didn’t have the House of Congress, that’d be a different story, but it already exists.
Have you gotten a response yet?
Not yet. It is an open letter to the Ministry of Culture with many signatures of well known artists, performers, Krisitine Opolais, Raimonds Pauls.
Do you have any thoughts on Wagner’s House?
Yes. Mariss Jansons’ project. I have a funny story about it. When I was in Moscow, on Maloi Nikitskoi, in one of the antique stores, I saw a superb bust of Wagner. And when I met Mariss Jansons, and I met him in the airport in Berlin, he told me that he created the Wagner Society and that they plan to restore the Wagner House, I was like, hold on for a minute, and I told him about the bust. It had to be bought. He had people go back and take a photo. It is done by a really good artist. Mariss had a great idea to restore the Wagner House, it used to be an opera theatre. He wants to restore it and make it a concert hall for chamber music, with great acoustics.
Is this Mariss’ personal project?
He organised Wagner Society. His wife will take care of the logistics.
What do you think the timeline is on renovating the Wagner House?
I have no idea. As usual it will depend on how much money he raises, whatever necessary licenses are obtained, etc. Sometimes it is such a headache in Riga. For example, Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, never makes any political statements, he just takes care of the logistics and housekeeping, and I would like our mayor to stick to housekeeping as well.
When and how did you decide to become an opera singer? Give me a bit of a story of the path you took to get where you are today.
When you will have 19 years on stage on Nov. 1, to remember how you got there is a bit challenging. The Chinese curse is to live in the time of change. And of course the 1990s were a major upheaval in Eastern Europe. I graduated from music school in 1992 and started music college, studying for the sake of studying. I joined the opera choir as I was a young man and needed to work somewhere. Shortly thereafter, I started getting soloist parts and then things got into gears.
What impact did the independence of Latvia have on your career?
I did not make much of a career in Latvia and there were certain issues, such as salary; miniscule. I received a lot of support from the Estonian National Opera Theatre, where I was invited regularly and they paid much better. Enough for a young man’s bread and butter. And of course, being on stage provides experience. I’ve been working ever since, gaining experience, knowledge. I even got an invitation from the University of Michigan to join their faculty. I was very flattered, but I told them, “you know, I still sing,” so there is no time for that now.
How do you find the audience in different opera houses? Do they differ in Europe, Latvia, and America?
There is nothing worse than the Latvian audience. Latvian mentality has no need to clap loudly. No need to say Bravo loudly, or more than once. That’s enough. It is very frustrating, because the artist puts out so much and the applause is the audience’s way of giving back. In some theatres it comes back with excess enough to recharge you. This never happens in Latvia. In Latvia the audience is very spoiled, too many good things, too many. “Where shall we go out tonight, Antonenko is singing, Galante is singing, Spivakov is playing Bach?” Really.
This leads nicely into the next question. How would you account for such a high percentage of musical talent coming out of Latvia?
For a small country, there is a high percentage of stars from Latvia in the world of music, opera, conducting, etc.
Celebration of the songs. It’s not for nothing that it is considered a world heritage. Most people in Latvia sing; it is part of the culture and it is proven that singing in the choir is a superb antidepressant. People are doing something together, singing, duet. It puts one into a certain state. Increases spirituality, and cultural levels, and you can’t take that away from Latvia. Who opened up Riga Conservatory — Jazeps Vitols, a student of Rimskii Korsakov. And after the death of Rimskii Korsakov, he led all of Rimskii Korsakov’s students, such as Alexander Glazunov, and other composers. Also the geography plays a role. Baltic States are close to Western Europe. Now we are building Rail Baltica, but we used to have Rail Baltica. You could have taken the overnight train from Riga and in the morning you would have been in Berlin.
What happened during the communist period?
The Soviets ripped up the tracks. Lots of technology was lost. A lot was lost and Latvia still has not recovered. No liquor factories, no paper factories, no sugar factories. Radiotechnology, at some point Latvia was a leader in the field, but not any more. We should be getting prizes for Meldonium, and not have scandals that Sharapova is using it. It’s not doping, it’s medicine for the heart. Latvia used to be at the forefront of technological innovation, medical discoveries. It’s sad to realise how many things have deteriorated compared to where they’ve been and to where they could be.
Peter Gelb is making a major push to bring new audiences to the Met, to get younger people interested in opera. Do you notice a decline in attendance in other opera houses, or is this solely a local trend?
Theatre has to sell seats. If the production is not interesting to people, they won’t buy tickets. For example, the London Covent Garden kept Elija Moschinski’s set. The Met changed it and put glass wardrobes by Es Devlin. Here they went ahead with the change. I was against it. I wrote a letter expressing my opinion, because the original set is just so beautiful, like going to Otto Schenk’s set; it is guaranteed to give pleasure.
Yes, but here they are much more willing to make changes to attract a younger audience. When you go to the Met performances you see that the large majority are people well into their later years.
Well, when I look into the audience, I see that the majority of the people are over 30. They are not young, but they are not old. Women don’t have babies at 18 anymore; they have them around 40. The world is changing; everyone is putting down modernisation, putting down the Internet, Wikipedia, like Vladimir Posner. But I find Wikipedia very useful. I read it and it stays in my head. Even to listen to the best performances of Cecilia Bartoli and Placido Domingo, Pavarotti, who died, you can’t go to hear them in person, but you can open YouTube and it is there. And you can enjoy the superb performances, and not only them, but Franco Corelli. Anna Moffo died, and today the only person who sings somewhat resembling her is Diana Damrau, but there is only one of her, and there are a lot of opera houses out there; in Germany there are only 96. She can’t satisfy them all.