this letter is my opportunity to write to you a bit more in depth about where I come from, how I came to be an opera singer, and show a bit of what I am actually “like” in a manner that is informal: from me to you, so to speak.
I was raised in a village called Dolne Dubove, which is a 30-minute drive without traffic, (If you are (un) lucky enough to have a massive truck in front of you, it will take longer) from Bratislava. The village is over 800 years old, and my family still lives there. They have chickens and rabbits, and when I was little there were also pigs, turkeys, geese and ducks.
I liked playing with my friends but I also enjoyed my solitary hobbies: playing with Legos, looking through the Encyclopedia and running my two aquariums; which housed fish and a water turtle. A few guinea pigs also lived with me. I went to school, of course, and on the weekends, holidays and during the summer I worked in our family’s field of Corn, whey, beets, potatoes and poppies. It was intense work but don’t worry there was no scary eastern European child labor going on. My brother and I were taken on sea- side vacations every year to different places like Georgia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and in the winter there were Ski trips.
When I was ten, I became much more active musically. As it happened, the position of organ player in our village’s church opened up after the elderly fellow who played the services died. Since our village is small and everyone knows what everyone is doing my parents were asked if I would play the organ for the church services since I had been taking piano lessons for a few years. My parents accepted with great enthusiasm – having their first-born play the organ at the village church was a seriously big deal. Slovakia is a pretty religious country; villages that are small are all the more religious. Our village had 500 people, so it was a very big deal. All was going according to plan, since I deviously murdered the elderly fellow in order to pursue my music career.
I played services every single day, on Sunday two or three services. Sundays I played one long and one short service, sometimes with another long service added in. Did I mention the holiday schedule? I will spare you.
On special occasions the village cultural center was transformed into a discotech. My brother and I formed a band with our friends and took the stage there a few times to play all the hits of the 80’s.
There is some history of classical music in my family. When my grandmother and her cousin were very young, they decided they would travel to Bratislava together to become opera singers. (I heard my grandmother sing to herself from time to time in a rich contralto voice as a child and was very impressed by how powerful it was.) They had no experience living outside the village, and my grandmother changed her mind while her cousin went on to audition for the conservatory in Bratislava. She was accepted, and went on to have a very successful career as a Soloist at the National Theater. Her name is Stefania Hulmanova, and she sang big soprano repertoire such as Yaroslavna, Tosca’s and Mimi’s.
Classical, sacred, pop, all kinds of music were present in my life and when I was in my teens I developed a passion for sound engineering. I considered it as a possible career, but there was no school to go and study it at that time in Czechoslovakia. Music and singing were beautiful to me, so I decided to audition for the conservatory when I was 14 years old. As you can imagine many people did not see a music career as a stable option but my parents were supportive. I did well in school and they had complete trust that whatever I chose to do would work out.
I was accepted into the conservatory. I was studying opera at the age of 14 and I had never seen a live opera. I had listened to it on audiotapes and watched it on TV, but never saw a live performance. I went to see performances of Don Giovanni and Magic Flute -both sung in Slovak. My timing was interesting, because those turned out to be among the last operas to be performed in Slovak as opposed to their original language. In any case, the translation was pretty bad and not even in synch with the music and phrasing and left me disappointed – thinking maybe opera was not as beautiful as I thought it was. I should mention that when I was accepted into the conservatory I was labeled a lyric baritone. I always had the low notes of a bass, but was told that because my top notes had a bright ring and because I “look like a baritone” that I was a Baritone. I was assigned roles like Papageno, Malatesta and Dulcamara and Don Giovanni. Singing all kinds of Baritone arias felt absolutely wrong, but I was obedient and thought my teacher must know better than I do. All I could do was practice alone to try and keep my voice healthy.
Yvgeny Nesterenko was invited to give a masterclass in Piestany, Slovakia. My teacher introduced me to him and I sang an aria. After I sang, Nesterenko asked me for my repertoire list. After I handed it to him, he looked it over and said, “ no this is a list of Baritone arias, I want to see your repertoire list. “
“That is my list.” I replied. Nesterenko looked very surprised. After that encounter my voice was finally accepted for what it really was: a true bass. I am really grateful that I didn’t lose my voice after being made to sing too high and in baritone tessituras. I trusted my instincts and tried to keep myself in shape, but I know so many young singers continue to be mislabeled and crippled by bad teaching – it is a real problem for many young singers and I am glad I managed to escape without damage.
Nesterenko did not give private lessons, if I was to study with him I had to become a student at the Vienna state conservatory, so that is what I did. My grandparents gave me all of their savings to help finance my schooling, I worked two restaurant jobs where I did all the gritty work: cleaning toilets, windows, tables, preparing produce for chefs, washing dishes. I also took a construction job. During my four years at the conservatory, I allowed myself a special treat once a year for my birthday: I had a waffle from Rosenberger for 3 Euros and 50 cents.
In 2002 I auditioned for a small agency in Vienna. The agency sent me to audition for the Landestheater In Linz; the administration there was looking for a Verdi Bass. They accepted me as a Fest (fixed ensemble) singer. After the administration in Linz realized I could sing not only Verdi, but also Mozart, French, German, really all kinds of repertoire; they assigned me a great variety of roles. I sang Filippo my second year there. My first year in Linz I also started singing internationally, making appearances in small parts in European theaters such as Opera de Nice and Liceo. By 2004/05 I made my debut in Wiener Staatsoper as il Commendatore and then Il Gran Inquisitor. It was a really great early career intensive for me: singing all those great parts during my time there.
After four years in Linz I did not want to be under a Fest contract anymore, so I auditioned for Theater Basel hoping to secure engagements as a guest. They offered me a Fest contract and I turned them down. They then came to me with an offer I couldn’t refuse (no godfather references here): I would sing a number of performances with their company and in addition to that I would also have time to guest in other theaters. After two years in Basel I had more and more job offers, so I did not have time to be under any more fixed contracts. My career has taken me all around the world since then, Although at the moment I am writing this from my house in my village.