Soprano Raina Kabaivanska Speaks of the Vecchia Scuola in Opera News

Reunion: Raina Kabaivanska

Steven Mercurio catches up with the great Bulgarian soprano who became one of verismo’s most thrilling performers.

Reunion Kabaivanska hdl 913

Photographed by Joseph Nemeth in Modena, Italy
© Joseph Nemeth 2013
When I first became interested in opera and singing, I used to be an avid reader of Opera News.  It was fascinating to read the articles and see the pictures of the singers on stage, and read about their thoughts on singing and acting, but in recent years I honestly haven’t read it as much as I used to.  This month, I decided to pick up the September issue, mainly because of Anna Netrebko’s face on the cover (her interview is also worth a read since she discusses other aspects of today’s school that are both conflicting and difficult) and was pleasantly surprised to find a feature on the Bulgarian Soprano Raina Kabaivanska.  Normally, I wouldn’t write a blog post on this sort of article but I feel it’s important to reiterate what Mme. Kabaivanska said and why.  
Immediately attractive to me was the mention of her studies at the Liceo Musicale di Viotti in Vercelli in 1959 and how her teachers immediately placed her in a specific repertoire.  There was none of this toying around in every genre and style, which is beneficial in many respects, but in regard to training an opera voice, perhaps the old school way of following a maestro or maestra’s indelible knowledge to guide a voice in a specific repertoire was more economical in the long run. Also, when young singers are spread out among repertoires they often become confused and aren’t sure where their voice should remain.  She wrote that her teacher immediately placed her in the Italian repertoire and she “began to focus on the major Italian roles–Nedda, Mimi, Desdemona, etc.” At one time, and many aficionados remember, there were separate wings at the Met in which specific singers were known for specializing in either the Italian, German, or French Repertoire.  Today, it seems that a soprano is supposed to sing everything and be jack of all trades, master of none.  That is not to say that one should not sing German opera if you are an Italian singer, but maybe the old school had it right….leave the singing of specific operas to those who can sing them best.  Would you rather hear Nilsson in Wagner or in Verdi? Caruso in Freischutz?  No thanks, at least not me.
Kabaivanska talks about pronunciation because most of what you are doing in bel canto is sustaining words (vowels) as opposed to sustaining sound.  She brings up the issue that in today’s school (if we must segregate the two) that singers aren’t as apt to focus on the word.  I tend to agree with her.  It isn’t just about sound, it’s about sound connected to your own natural innate one, your own voice…the one that speaks.  I won’t even get into the number of contrasting and contradicting technical schools I’ve come across in my life, but essentially “si canta come si parla” is a rule of thumb for this woman and I’m with her.
She discusses her first Tosca and her love of the role Francesca da Rimini, which she doesn’t classify as a Verismo opera.  She sees it more like “Strauss alla Italiana,” but what is most interesting is her discussion about the conductor’s role in preparing the singer to achieve a role successfully.  “Often in today’s musical environment, conductors find themselves in a situation where the singer is “prepared” or has learned the role in a particular way, with little interest in learning, sharing or discovering more,” she says.

“Those times were completely different!

We approached our work with much more humility.”

According to Mme. Kabaivanska, once you learn the music correctly, there is the learning of “tradition.” She recalls her first days with Maestro Fausto Cleva and how terrified she was to please him.  “Everyone respected the authority given to the position of the maestro.  It was important to get it right. But once again, these conductors had the insight to understand talent and how to help bring it out of everyone, which in my opinion is at present unfortunately and sadly missing,” she says.  Openly, she goes further to say that issues also plague the theatres in that they are being run by people who aren’t really qualified for the position.

I must say that I have always respected Mme. Kabaivanska, but I think my respect deepened for her in reading this because it really illuminates clearly the fact that two schools exist, but also that we as singers need to pay attention to those who were linked to that period of opera she discusses.  She belonged to opera of a different time.  Audiences did not want less or more, but they expected singers to follow in the tradition of Muzio, Tettrazzini, Ponselle, Cigna, then later Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Favero, etc.  As generations pass, who is going to know about this tradition if today’s singers are not following in it.  There are, of course, those singers who are but there is no question that a distinct shift in technique and style is audible and no one can deny that. Personally and I think for many young singers, we want to cling to that “vecchia scuola” which is for some of us the “only” school.  Of course, this is my opinion and it is not the only one.  Many may disagree with me, but I hold to it and hope that when I open my mouth and my singers open their mouths that something of our attempt to belong to that tried and true tradition is present.



I respect deeply those singers like Mme. Kabaivanska and others who speak their mind and lived during that magnificent period of golden voices and excellence.  We can all learn from their continued devotion to the art form and by trying to place our feet gently and carefully within the giant footprints they left for us to follow.