On entering the glass meeting room within the press office of the Royal Opera House, Ekaterina Gubanova is all smiles and greets me warmly. Our interview takes place at the end of a hectic week of rehearsals for Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride and she is clearly happy to have finished slightly early that day. Whilst we both get settled on the green sofas, I recall having heard Ekaterina in concert last a few years ago, during a whirlwind tour of five Basque cities, and was very favourably impressed.
Ekaterina was a Jette Parker Young Artist between 2002 and 2004. Since then, her career has taken her all around the world, so I wonder how she feels about being back at Covent Garden. This House, of course, stays very special because I was here back then. The first two weeks of rehearsals have been surreal, every day I have kept meeting people I know many, many times every day remembering people… when I came here at 23 I was really a puppy! It’s been absolutely extraordinary, more special than the opening of La Scala, for example, or my debut at the Met. I feel that people know and remember me from the chorus and the orchestra… They think Ah! It’s Gubanova, how is she doing? Is she any good? So, the responsibility is much bigger for me. I stand on the stage and think Wow!
Ekaterina enthusiastically agrees that a lot of what makes the experience so special for her is the production of The Tsar’s Bride, an opera about which she is clearly very passionate. She describes it as a Russian Don Carlo. It has nothing to do with that story of course but it has all the characters, the forbidden love, the power of the State… all of that.
The opera received its UK premiere at the Lyceum Theatre in 1931, but Ekaterina is quick to reinforce my suggestion that a production at The Royal Opera House is long overdue: It is! I never noticed this opera, not anywhere. Nobody does it, and I always wondered, Why is that? Because the story is fantastic, the music is wonderful…
Without prompting, she explores many of the possible reasons: Maybe because of the budget, you’ve got to have a great bass, a great baritone, mezzo and soprano, a wonderful tenor, but this is the opera house that does things in style. I also started to think maybe it applies only to the Russian soul because this music is so full of Russian folk references, but in fact now I see people who hear it for the first time and they say it’s beautiful. It is full of beautiful melodies and the overture is great, there are these arias and chorus scenes, it’s brilliant a perfect opera! You get each character type… a suffering soprano, a dramatic baritone…
How would she describe her own character, Lyubasha? She is a woman who falls beyond all depths to save her love. But love is a good enough excuse! At this Ekaterina smiles broadly, as she often does during our free-flowing conversation, and laughs. She clearly wants to give a great impression not only of herself but also the work as a whole with this production.
This role, for a Russian mezzo, is the core there is Marfa in Khovanshchina and Lyubasha in The Tsar’s Bride. It is the role to do, it has been my dream since I sang my first note. I sang the main scenes as a student at the Conservatory and the role a couple of times since at the Mariinsky [the White Nights Festival in 2008], and thank God I did! I didn’t sleep for four nights before that opening because I was just so excited, it was positive but I just couldn’t sleep, so this time I will sleep because this is not a premiere to mess up!
Alongside Ekaterina, the cast includes Marina Poplavskaya, Dmitry Popov and Paata Burchuladze. Ekaterina concedes she has not worked much with Marina Poplavskaya before, we did a Beethoven Ninth symphony in Buenos Aires, that’s about it. And whilst on the Jette Parker Programme our time did not overlap because she came a year after me.
Anyone hoping for on-stage interaction between the two singers however is likely to be disappointed. A relationship between our two characters does not exist. The story is important between the two of them, but we never interact at all. What is important though is the consequence of Lyubasha’s decisions for Marfa. This is one of those operas like Aida: it’s called Aida but the action figure the person who is making things happen is Amneris. Here, it’s exactly the same: as Paul (Curran) always says, If you don’t say this now, the curtain goes down and the opera is over!
Praise is given to the Danish baritone Johan Reuter, singing the role of Grigory, Lyubasha’s lover: Well, he’s one of these naturals on stage, it’s so easy, so real. He is this type of artist that nowadays is in demand with his cinematic style of acting, which really helps me a lot. Plus, I am so impressed with his Russian. When he arrived it was already quite good but now he is doing a great job. I am really happy to work with him. We’ve started to have an experience already, building in layers of character.
Two Englishmen play a crucial role in this production as well, conductor Sir Mark Elder and Paul Curran, who makes his directing debut with the Royal Opera.
Mark told me that he has been fascinated by this opera for a long time, that he knows it really well, that it was his dream to conduct it. He’s been listening to the recording with my all-time favourite Russian mezzo Irina Arkhipova, so as much as a foreigner can be there, he is there. I am surprised and happy about this… And Paul! He speaks Russian perfect Russian, he knows Russians, he knows Russia, so for him it’s a piece of cake. If I wanted to split hairs, there might be a couple of things, but overall it’s a complete understanding.
About Paul Curran’s production which updates the setting to draw parallels with the oligarchy of today’s Russia, Ekaterina’s views are clear: The way he’s turned the piece for a modern audience to understand is brilliant! Everything works, and some things work even better than the traditional version. You know, the appearance of Tzar it says in the score that he is passing in the background, the girls are saying that he is looking at them, but there is no person, so it is really difficult but the way Paul does it is completely genius. I saw it and said There it is! For me, everything is working. In Russia, you can put everything in traditional dress, make it beautiful and golden, but here that would seem so distant and it would not work, but we have this oligarchy and it fits perfectly. As Lyubasha, I know exactly who I am.
I ask about her reaction to modernised productions, indeed her artistic approach to them: You know, when a production gets heavily modernised I don’t go into denial because this will make me suffer even more. I try to live through things, digest it, try to make it mine, to justify it. But here, there is nothing that I need to do, apart from the real cinematic acting that Paul wants…. it’s not easy! More laughter follows as if to acknowledge the challenge that is faced. However, it sounds a challenge that Ekaterina is fully taking on, since she admits to looking forward to each and every rehearsal. For me all things have come together: I am back in the Royal Opera House, I am doing this magical, most amazing, wonderful role, I am living my dream! Ekaterina’s enthusiasm does indeed prove to be catching, and by now I am anticipating the opening night very keenly.
It is clear that this is confident and intelligent artist, established yet still possessing the youthful drive and energy to take on exciting projects. She is selective about what she commits to, with awareness that she is still too young for the huge stuff, but is taking it on very gradually.
It’s come to the point where it’s time to work and not be too scared about it. I do it my way, you know each instrument is different. I will not go on stage and try to make a sound like Olga Borodina, as much as I would love to make this luscious black velvet sound, I have my own and I will deal with this in my way.
During conversation, it becomes clear as well that in addition to The Tzar’s Bride, Ekaterina is currently heavily involved in a production of Die Walkre at the Staatsoper in Berlin, singing Fricka. The Tzar’s Bride opens on 14th, the next day a general rehearsal in Berlin, first performance on 17th, then 18th Tsar’s Bride in London again… three times back-to-back performances. It’s a little crazy! But an opportunity I could not pass up.
Future plans in include Alexander Nevsky, Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Amneris in Orange and Busetto the latter is seen as a huge, huge honour – and lots of Verdi Requiems. About the longer term future, Ekaterina is optimistic. I hopefully have another twenty years to sing. So I turn to asking about her plans. The first Eboli I sing in Europe, [The Netherlands Opera in 2012], but a long term dream maybe in fifteen years time would be to sing Isolde. I already did the Liebestod in concert. I love Wagner, the music, the language; but for that you have to have a really mature instrument. That would be the ultimate dream. Brangne is a well-established part of her repertoire already. This has set a few companies thinking and brought couple of offers to take on Isolde, but it’s still too early. I feel sure that Ekaterina Gubanova knows just what she is capable of, and that when the time is right she will face the each and every challenge her future holds.