The dream and the reality

  • 2011-11-30
  • Interview by Emi Pastor

Elina Mitina is a laureate lyric soprano singer with one of the biggest voices in the opera in the Baltic countries and Russia. Her professional trajectory started in adulthood, and right now she is on her way to becoming one of the important figures in the world of opera, especially in Latvia, Saint Petersburg and the Republic of Tatarstan. She received her training at different musical conservatories before her first concert in Riga in February 2003, only a few months before receiving her title as dramatic soprano. During the last ten years, Mitina has received the support of her public and has been awarded on the international scene for her talent. At present she performs concerts and operas, while in her free time she is training young people who want to start their own musical careers.

Elina Mitina in Russian, and her manager Aleksandra Chudnovska, as translator, in English met with The Baltic Times.

When did you start to sing?
Elina: I started to sing at the age of four. But from six I started studying professionally the piano. First I was to study here and in the Medins Music School here in Latvia. In the last year, when I was studying in this college, I took part in one choir, the Blagovest Choir, and the problem was that when I was singing there my voice sounded different and everybody heard me more than the other singers. It was not possible to hide my vioce and I didn’t have a voice that is necessary for a choir, because I had a little bit more voice. It was from 16 until 18 or 19 years old. After that I took a break and I got married and gave birth to my daughter. And when my daugther was two or three years old, I realized that it was very boring to stay at home; I started to think what could I do with my life. The situation is that most people, when they from childhood start to take lessons and start like professionals, when they get to twenty years old and are already professional, sometimes they understand that it is not their instrument. And maybe you start to understand that your important stuff is totally different. And I say this because I studied in this piano school and for me it was a very easy place, but I understood that I didn’t want to play piano. And I didn’t need to take special lessons because I am a very professional player. And then I started to think, what else can I do, and I thought: I sing well.

Something was changing at that time…
Elina: Yes, I started to read special magazines at home, like Cosmopolitan, because there are a lot of stories and information you need to grow up; you need to do something with your life… And I saw that when my daughter grew up, and if she asked me: ‘OK mamma, who you are ? What can I answer her?’ At that time I was twenty-six and I started studying vocals. I had some experience, like singing when I was nineteen, because I had taken lessons with one of the most famous teachers, Margarita Gruzdeva, who was the Latvian teacher of our famous singer Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor) and Kristine Opolais (soprano). And our famous pedagogue, who influenced me [saying] that I would have a very big future, was Louisa Andrusevich (soprano).

How did you continue with your vocal development?
Elina: At this time I went to work in our main choir, the Latvian Choir (State Choir Latvija ) with the chief conductor Maris Sirmais. It was not for lessons. In the third year I decided to start a more serious course to study and I prepared to apply to one serious conservatory. I chose St. Petersburg and a lot of people were saying to me that I was a little bit crazy, because I was from Latvia and it was the best conservatory there. In fact, I was almost thinking if I had to come back…To be a student from this conservatory you must apply five or six times; the best singers from Russia, they want to go there just to learn there. When I got there I was accepted from the first, a special group.

You mean that they realized the value of your voice? It was then when you dreamed of being a opera singer?
Elina: Yes, they thought ‘she has a very big potential voice…’

Aleksandra: The situation is that here in Latvia, as a country, you can think that your voice is very big, but when you go to St. Petersburg and you see that there are a lot of persons applying, you understand that you are not the best. And that your voice is very small compared with the others… It is like in the most famous universities in the world: you cannot compare because you think that you are clever here, but in other places you have a sense that you need to study, study, and study.

Elina: The following year I started to study in two academies at the same time: in St. Petersburg and in the Latvian Conservatory, although after that I decided only in St.Petersburg. These years were very difficult for me because I had a little child who was alone at home… At the beginning of the third course, I started to change. Before, I always had heard that I had a small voice and nothing else. In spite of being the best in Riga, I was not the best in St. Petersburg. It was very difficult for me during the first years studying there to hear that my voice was for small performances, but in the third course, one day I understood and I changed: I started to sing at a totally different level, as it should be for an opera singer. Besides, I was a very good actress. And the problem is that not all opera singers are good actors, and not all actors have a very good voice for the big stage. And these few first years, my teacher had said to me ‘OK, your voice and your acting oportunity are enough for small performances, not for a big stage.’ But the third course was the moment when there were two paths: one was for small stages and the other was for orchestral voices, for the big stage and performances.

Aleksandra: The problem is for everybody and for all opera singers. Your voice can be a very beautiful voice, the best voice, but if you are singing and you are not heard because the orchestra is in front of you, in its place… I mean, your voice needs to cover this orchestra and not everybody can do it. On a big stage is when the singer can cover the space.

Elina: When I arrived at the third course I started to be at this high level. And it was a very big surprise for me, and one of the most important moments in my career. And after this I went to a competition in Kazan, one Russian city, and the people who were there, a lot of Tatarian people - liked Elina - they liked me and I started to get a lot of fans.

That happened in what year?
Elina: It was from 2002 or 2003 until 2006. And then I took part in many government parties, and competitions, festivals… I got a lot of performances and I started to travel around the world. And in 2007 I was a part of a delegation congress of Tatarstan, an international congress, and I went to Moscow to the World Wide Festival, to the Russian Songs, with 54 countries and ten singers from each country. In total there were about 500 singers, and only ten singers were at the closing gala.

Lets talk about more informal things… In how many languages can you sing? Which one is the most difficult?
Elina: I can sing in 15 languages and understand more or less some words. And when I sing in many languages it is easier to start to learn new languages. A lot of words are similar because of the language groups. And it is very important for a singer not to have a Russian accent. I try to learn the best of many languages and not to have this Russian accent. When I need to learn a language, for example Spanish, I start to listen to singers in the Spanish language, how they pronounce. The biggest problem for me is the German language, although it’s the language that I learned in school. With the Latin group of languages there is no problem.

What opera do you like most?
Elina: I think that I have my own style. Regardless, I feel that my voice sounds better when I like the opera and music… It is with Verdi and Puccini, because it means that it is similar to [my] own, and I feel both more close to me. Of course I don’t want to say only these, because I like a lot, but maybe these are the composers whose music I feel the best. I like also a lot of French music, and for a very big part of my life I have taken the part of Rachmaninov…

What is the life of an opera singer like? There are things that you can do, and can’t…
Elina: Yes, there is a lot that I cannot do. I think it is easier to say what I cannot do. A very difficult regime. And it is not so easy to say for everybody, because the voice likes to sleep, to have a rest. And the problem is that most activity for every singer is in evening time; it means that in the mornings I like to sleep. The problem is when I do not have enough rest in the morning, the voice is not as good as it should be. I have a lot of things that are not allowed, and sometimes, like after a concert when I am on the way by car, I want everything that is not allowed, like ice-cream, chocolate,… I like Coca Cola but it is not allowed. Also, if I have a concert is better not to eat beforehand. For me it is better  not to eat cheese, which I like very much.

Really? What happens with cheese?
Elina: With cheese, one of its components is the same as in grapes and lemons; it is acid, and for the voice it makes it not so clear. But this it is not for everybody, it is just for me. Every singer has a list. And  a lot of singers, in an opera performance, just drink a glass of a very cold water.

What happens with the weather and flying?
Elina: In winter I get like this with the scarf  (she makes a gesture with her hands covering her face, just allowing her eyes to show through). Because with this I keep my throat and mouth covered. A big problem for a lot of singers are the flights. There are not good conditions on a plane and sometimes, for a lot of opera singers, when you come to a country you arrive without a voice. The conditions are not good for your health. You can go to New York and after seven hours you cannot sing, you need to take a few days to restart yourself. And because of this a lot of singers, when they have performances abroad they think that it is better to come a few days beforehand to have time for a rest. Or maybe it is better to travel by train, by bus or by car every time.

What about some secret, superstition or gesture before the performance?
Aleksandra: Yes, I’ll show you. ‘With God’ (both women put together and cross their pinkies of the left hand). We always say ‘With God.’ It means: God will be with you.

As in any profession, there are things that maybe you don’t like and would prefer to change…
Elina: Yes, it is about pyschology. Every singer, actually good singer, must be the best; it sounds like egotism because it is the best of the best. And I need, in general, to think that the world is around me all the time. And if you don’t have this position, you don’t make a career. For this profession, for an opera singer, you should do it especially. But, during that time, you should stay a simple person in your life; I mean, don’t think all the time that you are on the top of other people. This is the problem in life, because you need to bring more in your career to grow up, that you are the best of the best, and you are thinking about this, (and this is like in the story when) you look in the mirror and you say ‘I am the most beautiful, the most beautiful’… All is right but, in life, it is quite difficult because you need to connect to people, and you should try to stay human. For me this is the most difficult paradox. It means, as an artist, I need to be not a little bit selfish, but very selfish to bring  (more success), and it is not only for me, it’s most of the best singers… In the last word in your work, you should stay human, I mean, you should stay  the person you are. Because everybody who comes to your concerts comes for some piece of your soul. And if they don’t take it in the first half hour, they just stand up and go.
Maybe the world of Opera now is changing and is more modern and ‘democratic’?

Aleksandra: Yes, we see this change, times are changing now. We try to connect to people more, not to think that they are like a monument on the stage who just sing… In that case, this is like the small concerts, like the musical salons or some small festivals where it is possible to connect more.

Elina: There is another very big problem in our famous opera that I don’t like at all, and that I would like to change. Now it is really a crazy time. The resources, when you want to do a very creative new style... It is OK, but, it is not OK for opera. For example, an opera singer, almost in a bikini, on the stage, or just naked. Then I say, ‘OK, we just close,’ or ‘what is it next that we have to do to get the interest of the public?’ It is a very cheap way. Opera is one of the most difficult genres of art, that brings a lot of different (arts), opera brings the best of the best.

Aleksandra: Yes, just in my mind it is the same because I have been in such performances. It’s terrifying when, now in our times, some people do this. I don’t want to speak specifics, but in general the situation today is like this: tendencies are created and [performers] want to be original. But if they want to do this, they can go elsewhere… In opera, on the stage I want to see artists, I do not want to see bikinis, not naked people…

Elina: Now a lot of tendencies are coming with a lot of mess, rubbish in the opera scene. And especially young people, who see such performances, they start to say ‘I am sorry, but no more opera.’ My daughter is seventeen years old; she looks and asks  me: ‘Mum, is that an opera classical performance, or just something new?’ And then she chooses.

After checking out the prices for the opera, we can say that here, there are a very good prices, while in other countries it is very expensive. How is this possible?
Aleksandra: Riga is a very small city, and many famous artists come to Riga all the time. In that way, to the art public, Riga offers so many choices everyday... It means that there is a big offer in a very small Riga. And it means that the ticket prices start to go down. But it is not because of the level of the performances and so on. And when some stars come here, the tickets are about one hundred, or one hundred and fifty lats. There is the situation about the prices, because Europe uses euros, and the level of the economic situation is a little bit different. Our situation here is not the best. If I want to put the tickets at around two hundred lats, nobody will come.

Apart from this, it is supposed that the cost to assemble an opera, like the orchestra, lights, singers, is expensive. How much can this cost?
Elina: I don’t know. It is not possible to say, because it depends on the soloist, how many people perform.

But the budget is very big…
Elina: Yes, very big, of course. And it is better to start with the question: ‘How much do we have?’ and then make it.

Aleksandra: Some small concerts go from 2,000 lats and up. And in a big opera, it is 10,000; but, I don’t know. In a big opera I don’t know.