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     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Olga Borodina

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for Preview Section, September 15, 2000

The Russians are coming; the Russians are coming! The old Cold War chills have escalated into a red hot invasion of Russian musicians into the Bay Area. While this column's opening phrase was the title of a Hollywood movie a few years back, it also fits what's happening on local stages this season.

While the well-nigh legendary Valery Gergiev led his musical minions from the Kirov Orchestra and compatriot pianist Alexander Toradze through an occupation of the Zellerbach Auditorium stage on the University of California campus in Berkeley last night, a whole pack of Russians -- Olga Borodina, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Anna Netrebko, Nikolai Gassiev, Irina Bogachova, Elena Bocharova, and Vladimir Ognovenko -- are in the process of transforming San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House stage into a bastion of Ivan the Terrible's Russia for a number of nights this month.

In addition, Maxim Vengerov, the critically acclaimed young Russian violinist, will leave his musical mark on the Davies Hall stage when he performs with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for the season's opening night Gala at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Only four days later, at 8 p.m. September 24, the reigning Czar of Concert Pianists, Evgeny Kissin, will stride alone onto Davies stage to conquer the crowds attending San Francisco Performances' opening night.

What is it about these vaunted Russians, anyway?

I had an opportunity to talk to one of them, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, last Thursday during a brief meeting in the press room of the San Francisco Opera house just before she was to rehearse her number for the following night's Lotfi Mansouri Gala. Borodina, a leading artist with the Kirov Opera, has a lovely face that could easily fit into a Romantic Gainsborough or George Romney portrait. Her speaking voice has a sultry timbre, which because of her heavy Russian accent, seems deepened to an even duskier hue. Not quite confident enough to go through with an interview in English, the thirty-something mezzo brought along a very affable translator, the Odessa-born (Russia) San Francisco Opera accompanist, Susanna Lemberskaya.

Although Borodina's initial seriousness permitted her only the most formal smile when we were introduced, she warmed when speaking about her family and her art. In fact, her smile became quite radiant when she told me about her two sons - a 14-year-old named Alexi who is in school in St. Petersburg and whom she considers to be quite musical, and little Maxim, her 28-month-old who travels with her everywhere she goes.

Borodina herself was born in St. Petersburg to parents who both worked in a factory building pianos. It was not until she was 12 that she began singing seriously, and this was in a children's chorus. "I never dreamed, never even hoped, to become an opera singer," she said. After completing the equivalent of high school, she attended college. However, after only two years there, with the encouragement of teachers, she moved on to St. Petersburg's main music conservatory for what was to be a five-year-program of study.

"But in only my third year," she said, "Valery Gergiev took me out of the Conservatory to sing the role of Siebel in the Kirov Opera production of Gounod's Faust." Her career as an opera star was launched.

After her Kirov debut, she went on to win a first prize gold medal in the Rosa Ponselle International Vocal Competition, as well as the 1989 Barcelona Competition, both of which brought her critical raves throughout Europe and the United States. By 1992, after making her debut at London's Royal Opera as Dalila to Placido Domingo's Samson, her talents took her into the operatic stratosphere. She was immediately invited to sing the title role in La Cenerentola as well as Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust.

Her big year in San Francisco came in 1995 when she made her local debut in La Cenerentola. She was asked to return the following year, which she did and then proceeded to dazzle both her audiences and the local critics with her flawless singing and sensuous interpretation of Carmen -- even though she was pregnant with Maxim at the time!

Since then she has gone on to sing at the Salzburg Festival and the Metropolitan Opera and has triumphed in the principal mezzo roles in Boris Godunov; The Queen of Spades; Aida; Don Carlo; Adriana Lecouvreur (at La Scala); and Carmen at the Bastille in Paris.

In addition to all of the above, she has made a name as a recitalist, having performed in London, Milan, Vienna, Geneva, Hamburg, Barcelona, Madrid, Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, New York, and here in San Francisco. She has also made a number of critically acclaimed recordings and videos, including a CD of arias and duets opposite her long-standing colleague, Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

The role of Dalila in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila is her favorite (she sang the opera's meltingly seductive "Mon coeuer s'ouvre a ta voix" at the Lotfi Mansouri Gala last Friday eve). She emphasized to me that she loves working with Maestro Mansouri, who besides directing her in Tsar's Bride directed her in her first Carmen.

Similarly, she is indebted to Gergiev, whom she described as "My father." Then, after a flurry of words with her interpreter, she modified her comment with the words, "He is like my Godfather."

She loves working in the United States, and most particularly San Francisco. "It is much more relaxed working in the United States than in Russia," she says. "And San Francisco...I love. It is so wide, so fresh, so very nice...and I have many friends here."

Since she is noted for her dramatic ability as well as for her singing, I asked if her St. Petersburg training had emphasized acting. "No," she replied. "What I do on stage is simply what I feel about the character I am singing. I never feel particularly nervous or lonely on stage because I myself am never really there. Instead, it is Dalila, Carmen, or Amneris who is on stage. I really become the person I am portraying."

What does she do in her spare time? "Fishing," she quickly replied. After I made a few arm motions of casting a line into a stream like a fly fisherman, she interjected an enthusiastic "Yes! Like that."

When asked about a role she would like to sing in the future, she replied after a few second's thought, "Azucena (from Verdi's Il Trovatore). She is a REAL mother!"

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