‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ and I: a singer’s fight for artistic justice
Florence Foster Jenkins is Mine, Soprano Says
By Norman Lebrecht
June 21, 2016
The soprano Julia Kogan has filed Defence and Counterclaim at the High Court in London, asserting her rights to be credited as a co-author of the Florence Foster Jenkins film, starring Meryl Streep. Her claim is strongly contested by her former boyfriend, Nicholas Martin, who is credited as the sole scriptwriter. Mr Martin’s defence team maintains that any contrary claim may be considered defamatory.
Meryl Streep is tipped for an Oscar for her portrayal of the title role.
We asked Ms Kogan for her side of the story, based on her court submissions.
Slipped Disc: Where did you come across Florence Foster Jenkins?
I came across FFJ in my sophomore year of university as a classical Vocal Performance and English Literature major in the US.
What was your reaction?
I laughed till I cried. I was just starting to learn the great coloratura arias myself and was finding them fiendishly difficult. FFJ became a permanent source of comfort and relief for me as I struggled to improve. “Inspiration” is definitely the wrong word.
Had you written a film script before?
I was obsessed with writing (and reading, I hasten to add) since I was a child. My mother tells me she and my father came into the living room one day when I was three and found me reading a newspaper. At university, it became increasingly obvious that I had to choose either music or literature as my focus, since both demanded an all-out commitment of time, energy and resources. I decided that I could and would write later when I had more to say. I wrote three children’s books when my own sons were young, which are hopefully about to be published by Parragon, and I managed to combine my literary tendencies with my singing work. My second recording, “Troika: Russia’s westerly poetry in three orchestral song cycles”, is almost a cross-over album in an untypical sense of the word. It combines music and literature and examines them as reflectors of cultural identity. I then adapted and translated a work by Marina Tsvetaeva to create “The Lad”, an opera-ballet that was to premier at English National Ballet (before the then director Wayne Eagling left) and had started researching “The Lost Songs of Hollywood”, a fascinating story that I wrote up and presented as a documentary on BBC Radio 4 (with Nicholas Martin’s input at the early development phase and Chris Elcombe and Dave King’s wonderful work as producers). In other words, writing and the creation of literary content, in both documentary and fiction, was very much part of my life. Then, things took an unexpected, and possibly even cinematic, turn.
Within four days of meeting Nicholas Martin in September of 2011, I was nearly killed in a car crash while on my way to record another CD at Champs Hill with my pianist friend Marc Verter. Nicholas, who had recently lost his job writing for Midsomer Murders, began talking to me about his work, which I found both riveting and entirely up my street. The development of screenplays quickly became our relationship, or vice versa, as I tried to recover from my injuries.
I started out by giving Nicholas feedback on his previous projects, then by pitching in to help with new ideas he was developing, and finally by suggesting new projects to him and collaborating on every aspect of the writing and development of our creations for film and television. The lines between our private and professional lives were completely blurred. We wound up working on many projects together, four of which I consider to be “co-creations” because they didn’t and couldn’t have existed without me. I’ve continued to write and am now working on three new screenplays.
What was your response when Mr Martin told you he had sold the script?
Well, I was thrilled. I had asked to be considered his official co-author from the start, but Nicholas refused, citing the potential for conflict and his history as a screenwriter as reasons to be the only publicly credited writer. I accepted his reasoning largely because he was so openly acknowledging of my work in private – I have letters and chats where he gushes about how much he loves working with me. I also accepted it because I was in the most vulnerable state of my life at the time. Lost story short, I continued to work with him while he put his name alone on the scripts. Contracts were the last thing on my mind, as was the possibility that he would rewrite history in its entirety and take all credit and money. Why do women (mostly) get themselves into these sorts of situations? The explanation would be long, personal and ridden with psycho-babble.
Did you meet the production team?
I met Michael Kuhn when he came to an Ariadne auf Naxos performance in which I sang Zerbinetta in May of 2014 and Stephen Frears in October of 2014. Stephen opened the conversation by saying “And I suppose that this all came from you?”, before I launched into my background with FFJ’s story with Nicholas sitting next to me. I worked with the production team on various musical issues in the script, for which I was also never paid or credited. After my relationship with Nick ended, no one thought to invite me to a single day’s filming, the premier, or anything else. They had no further use for me.
A great deal of effort is now being expended on calling me a singer and singing teacher, lest anyone should think I might have other marketable skills. Apologies for the sarcasm. But actually, and factually, being a writer is neither a diploma nor a paycheck. It is a skill, one that enables a person to voice thoughts and emotions in a way that touches others. The proof is in the pudding (or rather the virtual ink) with writers, and I don’t think anyone can take my love of writing or my ability to do it away from me.
A word about why we are talking about this now: I’ve kept quiet about this conflict for years because I didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone. I had hoped we could come to some sort of agreement privately. When Nicholas Martin issued legal proceedings against me in April, it brought his Particulars of Claim into the public domain and the whole case into the public eye. I now feel obliged to try and correct some of the inaccuracies that were reported in the press. People love a good, simple story about a dagger-wielding opera singer taking her revenge on her ex-partner (The Times, in true tabloid fashion, published a photo of one of my “Queen of the Night” performances to ensure I looked appropriately furious). That simply isn’t the reality of it.
Was this a factor in your breakup?
We argued increasingly about the film once the project began taking off. It started with his rewriting of the narrative surrounding the idea – something Nicholas had always readily credited me with. In fact, I had spoken to a friend about the possibility of working on a French adaptation of a play about FFJ, which is why FFJ’s story was on my mind at that time. I knew we had to hurry if we were to beat everyone else to the punch. It is the most colourful story in all of classical singing, in my opinion. But in Nicholas’ new narrative, the idea suddenly became his and something he stumbled across accidentally. I objected vehemently to this.
The week Meryl Streep joined the project, Nicholas became visibly miserable at my presence in our home. When I questioned him, he told me that he felt like no part of his life belonged to him anymore. I moved out that day, though the relationship continued on and off until October 2014, while our friendship and much-reduced collaboration continued until he broke off all contact with me in March of 2015. I had asked about my share of the film money – a share which he himself had suggested. By then, he was denying that I should be paid or credited for anything at all.
Have you seen the finished film?
I saw the film several days ago. It was surreal for me to be sitting there in the audience watching it. I amused my fiancé by speaking the lines along with the characters.
2010 INTERVIEW for ART SUPPLY release of "ROMANCES AND LIEDER" CD with Christopher Glynn, piano
– As we deal with students since their early stage of musical education, can you tell us how you’ve learned music and how you had your first contact with music in general and with classical music in particular?
I would say that virtually all children are attracted to music, and that having access to a musical education is one of the most valuable life-long gifts a person can receive. The work of the Instituto Beethoven is priceless because little else could so enrich the lives of the individual children who benefit, or society as a whole. Music colors everything–thoughts, feelings, experiences….life is infinitely poorer without it. In my case, I was so attracted to music that my earliest memories of myself are connected to certain songs which I still remember. My mother says that I sang before I could speak, but my first real contact with classical music was through old cartoons! My first exposure to Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner all came from animated films…Bugs Bunny, Ben and Jerry, etc. It doesn’t matter what the source is, so long as a child is exposed to it. I began to take piano lessons at age ten, then added violin to that, and began performing in musical theater productions when I was twelve.
– While you were training, did you envision or wish to become an internationally recognized soprano?
When I began to study classical singing, the only way not to become completely overwhelmed by the difference in quality between the noises I was making and those of the great singers was to focus on the tiny little steps I could take each day to improve. I wondered, then, whether I would have the patience for the long road. It turns out that my stubbornness is actually good for something! In fact, I simply love the process of learning to sing so much that I want to keep fighting to improve. No, I never imagined I would get this far with any of it. Singing was never about reaching a certain status for me, but rather all about my love of music and the wish to spend my life being surrounded by it and, ultimately, sharing it. I really doubt I could love what I do more.
– Have you worked with pianist Christopher Glynn before? How did you develop a successful collaboration?
I met Chris in London when I went there to audition pianists for this project. I wanted to find a pianist who specialized in song repertoire. My other recordings are with orchestra, so this was to be my first song album with piano accompaniment. I am afraid that he has spoiled me, because I have never enjoyed working with a pianist this much before. Music is very subjective, and there are many ways to interpret a song. There was a natural musical affinity between us from the start which made working on this album both easy, and a pure delight for me. I hope we will continue to work together for many years to come.
– Are there other works of yours that your audience should also get to know?
For those who like Baroque music, I have an album of Vivaldi arias called “Vivaldi Fioritura”. There is also a live recording of Händel’s 9 German Arias available on my website. The next album, “Troïka”, will be released shortly. It has the work of eight contemporary composers with new pieces written for me and chamber orchestra based on multi-lingual texts of the great Russian poets (Brodsky, Nabokov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev) who wrote and translated their own works into other languages. www.JuliaKogan.com has sound clips and information.
– You have performed with major orchestras and in great theaters like the Carnegie Hall. Can you describe how it feels to experience such special moments?
It is heaven, but I feel I must add something very important to that–it is not the height of human experience, as anyone who has children or has ever loved passionately knows. The most special moments on stage are ones where I feel an intense connection to the other musicians and the audience, which brings about a magical moment that is lived together. It is very much a group experience, and all about connection.
– In Opera there is a tendency that singer’s physical characteristics and scenic style should be compatible with the character’s. Do you think this is important? Or should the voice comes first?
The recent trend in opera is to have believable acting and physical characteristics. This is fairly new and made possible by the fact that there are many more fine singers in the world today than ever before. I come from a musical theater background, as I said, so acting is as important for me as the vocal aspects of a performance. I would prefer to see a touching and believable performance over a vocally brilliant but otherwise empty one any day. But, there are exceptions to everything. I always found Pavarotti, who was not a trained actor, to be very touching and quite thrilling. Perhaps the main ingredients are humility in serving the art and sincerity. It is more important to live the character than to do anything particularly sophisticated. Is largely a matter of taste and instinct.
– Do you believe you have your own singing style? How would you define it?
Oh, yes, very much so. It took me a ridiculously long time to finally feel entirely myself in my music making. A profound shyness was in my way. I was watching a star soprano sing something the other day, and I marveled at how different the experience can be for various artists. In her case, she had a tremendous sense of self as she sang, and the obvious conviction that the audience was lucky to be witnessing her in action. For me, the experience is one of melting away entirely. The sound comes from the depth of my innermost self, and is therefore an entirely personal and intimate experience, but I am not interested in the notion of myself performing, as such. I am only there as the tool which conveys the composer’s intent to the listener. It is a paradox. I am most myself when I lose myself entirely in that moment. If I think of myself as I sing, the magic is gone. Technically, I adhere to a specific technique…a very old-fashioned school of bel canto singing which I strongly prefer to all the rest.
– How did you chose the repertoire that makes up the CD Romances and Lieder?
Well, I’m afraid I chose some of my favorite pieces. Many of them had been cooking in my head since my student days, and it was a joy to come back to them all these years later.
– What are the highlights of this CD?
Hmmm….it is hard to say because I love the pieces too much. Some of my favorites are Rachmaninoff’s Spring Waters, Lilacs, The answer, and How fair this spot; Mozart’s Als Luise and Das Veilchen, and Schubert’s Heidenröslein, Ganymed, Von Ida, Du Bist die Ruh, and Erlkönig.
– Of the three composers chosen for the CD, which o you find most exciting to you: Rachmaninoff, Mozart or Schubert?
They are so different. Rachmaninoff is lush and romantic, Mozart is sparse and delicate, and Schubert is so powerful, though each of those adjectives can describe each of the composers in various spots. They are all very exciting in their own way.
– Is there a point in common in the work of these composers?
The point in common is more poetical than musical….the songs are settings of romantic poems. For a number of them, nature, especially flowers used in allegorical ways, is the point of departure. I wanted to give a sample of the Russian and Germanic art song traditions, which are quite different.
– How long did it take since the first draft of the repertoire to the release of this CD?
– How do you feel and choose knowing that your work will contribute to several social projects in Brazil?
I couldn’t be happier about it. I am absolutely convinced that music can and must be used in new and creative ways to reach people. One of my greatest frustrations is the divide between the traditional concert going public and the rest of the world, for whom classical music is a great mystery–strange, somber, and intimidating. It should be none of those things. When done right, classical music is extraordinarily entertaining! And I can prove it.
– Although you have a succesful career in classical music, is there room for popular music in your leisure time?
I adore popular music of many genres, and I don’t think I could survive without rock and roll. I spent much of yesterday listening to Metallica and AC/DC as I worked on organizing my scores. My younger son plays the electric guitar, so much of what I like in heavy metal comes from him. He has excellent taste. Music is about creativity and experiencing a unique atmosphere, and not at all about a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one style over another. Classical music, nevertheless, is the richest tradition because of its staggering variety, long history, complexity, subtlety, and depth.
– Are you aware of Brazilian music, both popular music and Brazil’s major composers?
Unless I am much mistaken, Brazil has one of the most interesting musical traditions in the world. The first time I heard Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, I nearly fell off my chair. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it is to sing that sensual piece. I especially enjoy classical music which uses folk elements; they lend such a rich flavor and texture, and Brazilian classical music is full of this. And, of course, I love Samba and Bossa Nova. I am going to spend my time in Brazil totally immersed in Brazilian music and culture. Any suggestions? I can’t wait to dig in!
– Do you see in developing countries such as Brazil an adequate environment for sucessful musicians to flourish?
I was born in Soviet Ukraine, raised in the US before moving to London, and then to France, where I live now. From my experience, music, and art in general, flourishes in places where people have an emotional need for it. Developing countries are often where the most exciting music making takes place because there is a real need for self-expression. Brazil is an obvious example of just that. I am amazed at how many different styles of music have emerged from Brazil alone! Recently, I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with a number of Brazilian musicians–the genius harpsichordist Nicolau de Figueiredo, with whom I collaborated on the Händel I mentioned earlier, the wonderful young pianist Luiz Gustavo Carvalho, and acclaimed flutist James Strauss. With the help of organizations like the Instituto Beethoven, more and more young people from all walks of life will have the opportunity to join and contribute to the international musical community.
Audiophile Sound article about the Vivaldi recording
Chamber Orchestra Kremlin is a Moscow based ensemble known for its innovative projects as much as for their world-class music making. Misha Rachlevsky, founder, conductor and artistic director of Chamber Orchestra Kremlin joins forces with coloratura soprano Julia Kogan to offer us a recording of Vivaldi opera arias and the motet “In furore”. Here is our interview with the two artists.
Audio: Could you tell us a little about the arias you recorded?
Julia: Gladly, but since Eric Cross has contributed historical background notes and placed each piece in its operatic context, I would like to focus on what I found irresistible in each aria. “Ben conosco a poco a poco”, is light as air and very charming. It struck me immediately as being a precursor to Cherubino’s arias in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro both stylistically and textually, as is its counterpart “Un certo non so che”, both from Arsilda Regina di Ponto. Then comes “Vedrò con mio diletto” which is, I admit, my favorite piece of music on the recording. It is not only a stunningly beautiful and timeless melody, a profound sentiment, but also the best example of a deeply moving and personal text ideally set to music by Vivaldi. Truly, it is a masterpiece, as is “Alma oppressa”, one of the most difficult arias technically speaking, and also one of the loveliest. Once again, there is a perfect marriage between the text and Vivaldi’s inspired setting of it. And who can resist the advice offered? “Let chains around your feet make you suffer, but not those around your heart!” The other aria from La Fida Ninfa, “Dite oimè”, is more a recitative than an aria, accompanied only by cello and harpsichord continuo, but is so pure and strong, bathed in Baroque melancholy. It could have been Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be?” here, “should I live or die?”
The three arias for Il Bajazet are striking. “Nasce rosa lusinghiera” is pure magic, and in our version of it, it almost feels like a tune coming out of a toy music box. There is a playful sunbeam in this one. “Sposa, son disprezzata” is monumental in its emotional impact, and gothic in tone. It is, deservedly, one of the most famous of all Baroque arias. “Anch’il mar par che sommerga” is a classic coloratura spectacular, and representative of the style. The most surprising aria musically speaking is “Squarciami pure il seno” from Il Tigrane. It stops and starts, is full of jolts and changes, and is very effective musically and dramatically. The two arias from Ottone in Villa are diametric opposites of one another. “Gelosia, tu già rendi l’alma mia” is violent and rhythmically driven in a quintessentially Vivaldi manner. “Quanto m’alletta” is innocent and tender, and I adored the repetition of the transposed chromatic melody on the word “l’amante”, and the orchestral opening. I end this description with the piece that began my Vivaldian adventure, the great motet In furore. I was in love with its opening phrase from the moment I put the score on my piano and began to sing, in disbelief at the beauty of it. The piece is a world unto itself, a complete picture, with drama, sweet sadness, and a triumphant Alleluia, and is one of the most potent pieces of liturgical music I know. All these arias put together are a great gift to a singer.
Audio: Misha, we know of your virtuosic string orchestra through its many recordings, but this is the first with Baroque repertoire. A change in specialization?
Misha: Not at all. In fact, when asked in previous interviews what repertoire we specialize in, I was always tempted to say that we specialize in everything except Baroque. There are a number of outstanding ensembles, especially here in Italy, with the skill and credentials to present as authentic a version of Vivaldi works as one can hope to achieve in this day and age. The remarkable work of Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante springs immediately to mind, and there are others. I make no pretense at all of offering the listeners an authentic version of these works, of trying to approximate them as they may have sounded when performed in Vivaldi’s time. Nor am I interested in what was fashionable in the 1980’s and earlier, before the current quality of Baroque ensembles came to be; a romantic sounding reading of these works. My intent is something entirely different.
I hoped to give a historically informed reading of these works, but allowing for the sound of the modern instruments on which my orchestra plays (by the way, a few of them are made by contemporary Cremonese makers), as well as a certain modern musical awareness we have acquired through the performances of music from other periods. “Vivaldi senza maschera” was the title we chose for the disc. I wanted the music to be somewhat liberated, unmasked, from the strict stylistic conventions. The musical world allows contemporary pianists to play Mozart on modern pianos in a style informed by post-Mozartian traditions, and we were aiming for a similar sense of freedom, not to distort, but to explore. Our goal was to make a recording that is stylistically appropriate to the period while retaining our usual emotional involvement, which with this musically rich material, was a very natural thing to do. Now it is up to your readers to determine whether we have succeeded in offering a fresh and musically rewarding version of these pieces.
When we take this program on tour, I intend to make a two-part concert of it. The first part of the concert will be Vivaldi vocal and instrumental works, and the second part will reflect the tremendous influence Baroque music has had on 19th and 20th century composers. There are fantastic Baroque inspired works from Grieg, Respighi, Schnittke, Panderecki, etc., and it would be of great interest to audiences to hear these performed in the same evening as the source of inspiration. We live in a musical world of unparalleled richness and diversity, and few musical journeys are as rewarding as the experience of living the evolution of the musical timeline in a single performance, and feeling the connection between the past and the present.
Julia: I saw an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last spring of modern Spanish masters and the great Spanish masters of bygone eras who inspired them. I enjoyed the exhibit more than if I had seen them displayed in separate rooms. Each highlighted the qualities of the other.
Misha: That is very much the idea.
Audio: How did your collaboration come to pass, and why did you choose to do an entire disc of Vivaldi arias?
Misha: Well, this project is the result of a number of unexpected circumstances, beginning with the unusual story behind my meeting with Julia. The only other time I have told this story was during a promotional radio interview in Moscow at which she and I were both present, and I had the pleasure of watching her turn pink with embarrassment in front of the studio microphone. Would you care to narrate it this time?
Julia: Yes, I am willing to tell the readers of Audiophile this story for its entertainment value, as much as I would like to forget it for the light it sheds on my naivete. It dates all the way back to the spring of 2005, when I was young and foolish. I would like to believe that I am older and wiser now. I am, at the very least, older.
I was sitting in an almost empty train compartment in the south of France, returning home after a successful audition, and was rather more talkative than usual on that account. There was a man across from me who presented himself as being in the perfume business. After a pleasant chat, I gave him a copy of my demo CD, on which there were several opera arias with piano accompaniment, and we went our separate ways. Several days later, he e-mailed me to say that his company would like to sponsor an orchestral recording of romantic opera arias to sell along with their perfume in a holiday gift pack. They would allow a generous recording budget.
I was skeptical, but after several meetings with this fellow discussing everything from the design of the bottle to copyright laws, I began to look for an orchestra with whom I could record. This is surprisingly easy to do, as many ensembles can be hired for studio work, and audio samples are generally available on the orchestras’ websites. I looked through dozens of sites until my mother called with a suggestion from a musician friend of hers, who knew a conductor with his own orchestra in Moscow. It was Misha Rachlevsky with his Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, of course, and the minute I clicked on the play button, I was thunderstruck. I couldn’t believe the quality of what I was hearing, and immediately let Misha know that I was very interested in working with him if he was willing.
Misha: Why not, with such a generous proposed budget? I had heard Julia’s demo recording, liked it very much, and it seemed like a pleasant proposal altogether. We moved fairly fast, and planned the studio sessions, with all the scores ready to go, until several weeks before we were to begin recording…
Julia: Yes, not long before we were to record, my sponsor disappeared, followed by the revelation that he was a professional criminal wanted by the police far and wide. Instead of my recording, I spent that time at the police station giving evidence.
The worst part of it for me was that I had put Misha to an incredible amount of trouble. The planning stages for any such project require a lot of preparation and discussion, and I had a log of letters from Misha to me that he had taken the trouble to write about all the arrangements he had made. I was mortified. What can one say in such circumstances? I wanted to drop through the floor!
Misha: I remember the e-mail Julia wrote telling me what had happened. It was not good news, to say the least, but I had to laugh. She said that there was no need for me to kill her…she would take care of that herself. I let her live, as you can see.
Julia: Misha was more understanding than I could have imagined possible under the circumstances. I offered to come and do a concert with him at a place of his choosing without pay, since all I have is my voice. Thank heavens, he agreed. After all that has happened since then, if I ever see my criminal on the street, I will be very tempted to give him a kiss (before calling the police).
Misha: I invited Julia to come and sing a concert, which became two concerts after the first one sold out, of Baroque music at our annual Christmas at the Kremlin Festival. Julia was very greedy, and sang a huge program of seemingly every Baroque coloratura aria in existence. I know now not to let her sing as much as she wants, because she will never get off the stage or give us time to play. After the Purcell, Bach, and Haendel arias, she added a Vivaldi motet, the glorious In furore RV626, which ends our CD. Before the festival, we tried out this difficult piece in a town near Moscow, and on the return journey from this first performance together, I had the idea of doing an entire CD of Vivaldi with Julia. In furore felt great from the first time we performed it, and the audience reaction was fantastic. There is an extraordinary energy in Vivaldi’s virtuosic coloratura works. Julia was less enthusiastic about the idea.
Julia: I had learned the brilliant In furore for the Christmas at the Kremlin concert after having stumbled upon it accidentally, and had never sung any other Vivaldi. I am not a specialist Baroque singer, but a standard operatic one. I am mostly known for my Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, as well as other classic coloratura roles, such as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio, etc. I was not at all certain of being up to the task, nor did I know the repertoire well enough to judge whether or not there were enough interesting arias suitable to my voice to fill an entire disc. I knew of Bartoli’s incredible work, but many of those arias lie too low for my high soprano voice, and I also did not want to simply repeat what I felt was wonderfully recorded material. My strategy was a somewhat primitive one when choosing the repertoire. I waited to fall in love.
I was very lucky to have enlisted the help of Dr. Eric Cross, an eminent British musicologist and conductor specializing in Vivaldi operas, who had himself edited a number of critical editions of scores that were used in various outstanding recordings. Eric was kind enough to send me a pile of scores, and I had the pleasant task of sitting at the piano and reading through the scores waiting to have what the French call a “coup de foudre”; or a lightening bolt moment. I also did quite a bit of listening…in fact, I listened to every Vivaldi vocal recording I could get my hands on. What an amazing discovery. The quality of the music is very uneven. At its worst, it is of little interest; pure formulaic repetition, with no dramatic impact. At its best, there are masterpieces, which send shivers up and down my spine. Encapsulated within that music is the very essence, the great chiaroscuro heart of the Italian Baroque, with its inimitable atmosphere. I was swept off my feet, and what had started as an effort to find enough material ended with me cutting down a far too long list of arias I very much wanted to record.
Audio: And were there particular vocal challenges?
Julia: Yes, Vivaldi is not easy to sing well. The coloratura work has to be very fast and precise, and the phrases can be fiendishly long. The voice is never given the sort of freedom to open that one finds in bel canto singing, and yet legato must be combined with fioratura, which should, nevertheless, remain distinct. It was a tremendous effort for me to try to identify a way of accomplishing those tasks, and of maintaining a sound I felt to be my own. Not being a specialist Baroque singer, I wanted to explore ways of keeping as much of the natural color of my voice in tact as I could. I did not want to imitate other singers, though I learned so much from them, and couldn’t see the fun of such a project if I wasn’t able to find my own natural Baroque sound. I lightened my voice to match the character of some of the arias, sang fully and dramatically in others. I care less about being consistent than about discovering the feel of each aria. Now that I have gone through this process, I want to do a lot more Baroque singing. It is powerful, and can be extremely expressive within a disciplined technique.
Audio: Do you have other projects together?
Misha: We have a very unusual project, which also sprang out of a strange twist of fate. I held an international competition for composers in honor of the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Mozart’s birth. We had a wonderful turnout, with hundreds of composers submitting works from all over the world, and Julia happened to really like one of the finalists’ compositions. The finalists were assigned numbers, so no one knew who was who. Later, as we learned who the finalist in question was (it turned out to be a Russian composer, Eskender Bekmambetov), I decided to commission a piece for Julia from him, and offered her the opportunity to pick a poem. As usual with her, she chose five of them instead of one, and the project grew into a full-fledged vocal cycle, which takes around thirty-five minutes to perform. The poetry is that of Nobel Prize winning laureate Joseph Brodsky, and is sung in Russian and in the poet’s own translation of the same poems in English. The two languages are ever present in each song, and the music reflects the differences and commonalities of both. This song cycle, called “there…” had its world premiere in Moscow, and will be performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Library of Congress concert series in Washington D.C. in February. We are expanding the project to include the poetry of Vladimir Nabokov, also performed in Russian and in English in the author’s translations, and have commissioned composers whose work is still in progress. We would like to turn it into a CD, and also tour with this unique project, whose quality has exceeded my highest expectations.
Audio: Misha, do you have any tips for our readers about the equipment they should use to listen to your recordings?
Misha: I am really the wrong person to ask! Now it is my turn for an anecdote. When I moved to North America, the first thing I bought outside of day-to-day necessities was a very elaborate hi-fi system. I remember having to take a substantial loan, and I also remember that about 20 years later I was offered a surprising sum for the receiver (Harman Kardonn) by a guest, who happened to be an audio connoisseur. Anyway, back at the time when I was a proud owner of the top-of-the line system, my other audio source in the apartment was an alarm clock with a built-in radio. One day I was awakened by a tremendously engaging playing of the Sibelius violin concerto. The radio turned itself on only a few seconds into the piece, I was totally taken by the performance and was determined to listen to the end both to enjoy the playing and to find out who the violinist was. Some half an hour later this information was given and I was able to go on with my day. Only some hours later did I realize that I could have turned on my wonderful stereo system and heard this performance in all its glory. As I was still paying the loan for this equipment, this realization registered itself quite strongly – as you can see, I still remember it. Apparently, my brain works differently – I hear the content far more than the fidelity.
There is no doubt, however, that for the great majority having fine equipment can make all the difference, therefore I sincerely hope that your readers are judging our work from the advantageous viewpoint of an excellent stereo system.
Audio: Have you done much recording in the past?
Misha: We have sixteen recordings out on the Swiss Claves label, and a dozen or so live recordings on our own Kremlin Live label. Recording has always been an integral part of our music making, as has international touring, which adds an extra dimension and much pleasure to our musical lives.