Art Talk with Katerina Souvorova
Katerina Souvorova. Photo by Alexandre Souvorova
With a career that has spanned from the Bolshoi Opera to the Baltimore Opera, Katerina Souvorova has become something of a Jill-of-all-trades for the opera world. She is a performing pianist, coaches vocal students at Catholic University, and has founded two community opera companies: CPCC Opera Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the DC area's own Bel Cantanti, which she has headed since 2003. Although the native Belarusian claims to sleep “at the first available moment,” it would seem that those moments must be packed in pretty tightly between arias and cadenzas. As we prepare for this Thursday’s Opera Honors in Washington, DC, we caught up with Souvorova to hear about her passion for opera, her take on American operatic culture, and the importance of companies like Bel Cantanti.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
SOUVOROVA: In the 21st century, when life has become so much faster and intense, I seek to preserve some internal room to listen to myself. As an artist this is very important for me: finding the place where feelings are clear, truthful and intense, sounds are soft and meaningful, and colors magically transform. I work a lot with human voices, and I constantly get excited about unique vocal colors and the potential to develop them. Keeping this part of my life sacred means a lot to me.
NEA: Do you remember your first experience with opera? When did you decide that this was what you wanted to pursue professionally?
SOUVOROVA: Honestly, I don’t remember my first experience with opera. Born and raised in Belarus and Russia, I was exposed to opera from a very early age. However I cannot identify any one experience that led me to my career choice. In college I had two passions: piano performance and working with singers. After graduating from conservatory, I went to work at the State Opera Theatre of Belarus. That is when I would say that I got an "opera virus.” Opera takes you over, opens amazing horizons, answers most of life’s questions, and is very special. In different stages of my life, one or the other disciplines---the piano or opera---would take priority. In the last ten years, since my family moved to the Washington, DC area, opera has definitely taken priority in my life.
NEA: You originally began your career in Belarus. How does opera, both professionally and culturally, differ there from the United States?
SOUVOROVA: I cannot comment about opera in Belarus right now since I have not been back there for five years. However, when I lived in Belarus there were significant differences from the American opera world, as follows:
1. One’s education as a singer (or as anybody else actually) was free. The government paid us a stipend every month---not a lot, but anything helps when you are a student. As a result, a young singer could master his/her craft under the tutelage of voice teachers, most of whom would still be active performers, for free. Graduating from the conservatory without significant debt meant a lot.
2. In Belarus, there was and still is a very strong connection between the conservatory and the Opera Theatre. Even as students, many of the talented singers were already performing professionally onstage at the theater. After graduation, the best of them became either soloists or chorus members at the opera house, the Philharmonic Society, or other musical theaters.
What many young singers face here is quite different. If you are not lucky enough to get a well-connected teacher, win a competition, become enrolled in a young artist program at one of the opera companies, or get a manager in order to land a singing job, then your best choice might be to turn to teaching private lessons at a small music school, singing in a church choir, or even working as a waiter or waitress. This is discouraging and often unfair. This is where a small company like Bel Cantanti tries to fill the gap and give singers much-needed experience.
NEA: You came to the United States without a work visa and speaking no English; six months later you were teaching and soon after founded CPCC Opera Theater. Can you tell me about that transition?
SOUVOROVA: This is very funny. My husband got a job at Carolinas Medical Center as a scientist---this is why we came here. During our first weeks in the U.S. I was afraid to even pick up the phone. All I would hear was “ Ms. Souvorova . . . ppopoi . . . pcvdghert . . . yrtyu . . . ryu . . . ”
After sitting at home for a few months, I realized that this just would not do. I went to study English as a second language at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC – a place which became my second home. I made many friends there, and after six months of a very intense ESL course I decided to visit the music department of CPCC. From this moment my life changed: I met amazing people, musicians, and friends such as Mary Lou Pascal, Rebecca Cook-Carter, Beverly Russell, and Kathryn Horn. Kathryn was teaching ballet classes at CPCC. She told me, “Okay, you do not need to talk to anybody, so don’t get scared. Just play the piano---we will teach you the rest.” Sure enough, very soon after this, I started speaking English. Then I began working with Rebecca Cook-Carter to found CPCC Opera Theater, and began coaching singers and learning roles with them. This accelerated my English language skills. The most important thing for me was finding people to whom I could talk, and not being afraid to make a mistake or not being understood. When this fear passed it became easy. And after all, all musicians can understand each other because music is the best language.
NEA: Both of the companies you helped found are rooted in the community. Why do you think the community needs opera? Why do you need opera?
SOUVOROVA: Why do people need opera? To feel that they are people, human. Opera, like no other art form, “talks, sings” to people using a language of noble emotions, without triviality, and teaches us important lessons without moralizing. The beauty of the music is intensified by acting, and the text touches the soul. I think this is very important, especially now, when we don’t have time left to reflect on everyday living.
NEA: Can you tell me a bit about Bel Cantanti, its mission and philosophy?
SOUVOROVA: As I mentioned earlier, coming from a different country, with a different cultural background and traditions, I realized that I could help a lot of young singers to find their way in the very complicated world of opera. There are two sides of the matter:
First, Bel Cantanti helps singers to find their way in the music world and get experience, which is so needed for young artists. The company allows singers a chance to perform a role in a gentle, intimate, and friendly environment. The company even helps singers find colleagues who are equally interested and committed to performing, and brings them together, coaching them, and giving them a chance to perform in a fully-staged production, in costume, with an orchestra. This means a lot to the singers.
Secondly, Bel Cantanti provides people in the local community with an affordable option to experience opera, to see a good show for a fraction of the cost of attending an opera presented by a larger company. They can see opera locally, close to home. Opera really comes to them, rather than the other way around. For us this is very important and part of our mission.
NEA: Professionally, what has been your proudest moment?
SOUVOROVA: I am not sure. There have been so many of them. During performances, I often feel so happy realizing that what I hear from a singer is really, really good. The fact that a singer can do it, and that he/she did it in my show makes me very proud. There are a lot of singers that Bel Cantanti has helped in one way or another: singers who have gone on to sing professionally on the best stages in the U.S. and abroad, or even those who have found a good job in the area by having mentioned that they performed with our company. In the last few years, Bel Cantanti Opera established its Summer Opera Festival, a two-week program focused on young singers that provides them with intensive classes, coaching, voice and diction lessons, and master classes. It makes me very proud and happy to see the amazing progress that singers make in two weeks. It is unbelievable. For the last two years, these festivals were held in collaboration with the Catholic University of America, at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music on the campus of CUA. This new initiative is growing very quickly, and has become very popular among young singers in the Washington, DC area, as well as in the greater United States.
NEA: What would you like to see more of in the opera world right now?
SOUVOROVA: Maybe because of my orientation, I would like to see more rising young singers on the big professional stage. I would like to see more wonderful discoveries and treasures from our own backyard. Yes, we want to see familiar, famous names, but how wonderful it would be to see more new voices there. Singing onstage is a privilege and a wonderful opportunity; I would like to see it being given to more and more young talented singers.
The NEA Opera Honors will take place on Thursday, October 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington, DC. For those unable to attend the event, we will be streaming a live webcast of the entire event. Please click here for more information about the ceremony, webcast, and this year's honorees.