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Interview, Julia Sitkovetsky on Rachmaninov

Julia Sitkovetsky The soprano Julia Sitkovetsky has been on my ‘one to watch’ radar for a good ten years now: our paths first crossed in Oxford, when she was a first-year music undergraduate and I was spending far too much time singing as a final-year doctoral student in another discipline. Even back then, her voice stood out as something different and special among the many well-trained young sopranos on the choral and student opera circuit: I remember her making a show-stealing cameo as a sassy, disgruntled Berta in a production of The Barber of Seville, and singing a knock-out Eurydice a year or two later in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Since then she’s gone on to great things, making a name for herself as Mozart’s Queen of the Night in particular, and this Friday sees the release of her first solo album – an all-Rachmaninov recital with Roger Vignoles on Hyperion. It was a tonic to catch up with Julia last week to chat about establishing her own identity in a family of ‘big artistic personalities’ (her parents are the great Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky and American soprano and singing-teacher Susan Roberts, and her cousin Alexander is also a fine violinist), her connections with Rachmaninov, and how she’s keeping busy in lockdown…

Was your family background and Russian heritage a factor in choosing Rachmaninov for your first solo album?

It’s very much to do with my own background, yes: this is going to sound terribly artist-y, but there are certain composers where I feel like I'm speaking rather than singing when I perform their music, and Rachmaninov is definitely one of them. The history of my family and Rachmaninov goes all the way back to my great-grandmother in Russia, whose piano-teacher was in that legendary piano class with Rachmaninov and Scriabin; then my grandmother, Bella Davidovich, had one of her biggest successes with her recording of the Paganini Variations with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I first came into direct contact with Rachmaninov through my dad: I remember hearing him conduct his own string transcription of the Vocalise with his chamber orchestra when I was 9 or 10 years old and thinking ‘this is possibly the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard’. I was hooked from that point on.

I’ve known Roger Vignoles pretty much all my life, because both my parents have worked with him many times and they’re great friends. If it wasn’t for Roger I wouldn’t be the singer I am today, because he’s been such a wonderful guiding hand for me, especially with song. When I started studying seriously to become a singer he coached me a lot and noticed my affinity with Russian, and then we started exploring Rachmaninov together and felt that there was a particular strong connection there. So that’s how this project came into being – we decided it’d be grounded by Op. 38, and then surrounded by contrasting and complementing songs.

Are there any Russian operatic roles on your radar at the moment?

Whenever I perform in Russian, everyone says ‘When are you singing Tatyana?’. Of course it’s a dream role (as it is for a lot of people) and I’d love to do it eventually - but honestly, I think the longer I put it off the better. The thing that I feel that makes me me as a singer is that I’m a high soprano with a dark voice, and as soon as I start moving into repertoire like Tatyana there’s an element of risk in terms of losing those high notes: I have a lot more coloratura roles scheduled for the next few years, so I’m not actively chasing Tatyana for the time being, but once The Queen has done her last few top Fs then perhaps we can start thinking about it! I’m also very interested in some of the Russian repertoire that isn’t performed as often as Onegin and Pique Dame: I absolutely love The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, and that’s actually one of my audition-arias. Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila is also fantastic; The Golden Cockerel is really fun, and The Snow Maiden is amazing as well…I’m very much open to all viable suggestions! It’s tempting to move into the heavier repertoire because the music’s so fantastic, but as my mother always says ‘Gently, gently!’

Did your mother ever teach you formally?

She still does! I actually have two teachers: my mother and Marie McLaughlin, and their approaches to teaching are similar so they complement each other very well. I couldn’t study full-time with a parent for obvious reasons, but I think she’s the most marvellous teacher - so many of her students have gone on to do great things, and she’s been a real anchor for me with everything. I didn’t really start studying with her until after I left Guildhall, and then she and Marie starting doing this wonderful tag-team. It was around that time that my voice started changing a lot: when I was at Guildhall I was very much a light coloratura, but then this new darkness started to emerge and they both had a great way of managing that. My previous teacher, Susan McCulloch, was also absolutely brilliant and she heard my voice moving in that direction too, but we both decided that a fresh pair of ears would be useful. It would be silly of me not to use my mum, as her ears are just so good, but that does mean that it’s a little nerve-wracking when she comes to a performance!

Do you and your mother have similar voices?

You can definitely hear that we’re related, but the core of our repertoire is quite different: I do the more dramatic coloratura stuff with some lyric roles thrown in, whereas she concentrated on the soubrette/lyric coloratura repertoire and was so good at it. She made her bread-and-butter doing things like Blonde, Zerlina and Despina, and also quite a bit of twentieth-century and contemporary opera; she did a wonderful Lulu in Stuttgart and Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias at Grange Park in 1999, and as well as having unbelievable technique she’s also the most fantastic actress.

I presume you grew up speaking both Russian and English - do you still use a language-coach for Russian repertoire?

I’m actually not bilingual – I speak German pretty well, but that’s the closest I come to having a second language. With Russian I can understand about half of what’s being said, and I can read it pretty well, but I’m not fluent by any means: my dad was away so much when I was young and we didn’t have a Russian nanny or anything like that, so I didn’t grow up with it being spoken around me. If I need a Russian coach I use my dad, and in fact he was the language-coach for this album. He’s extremely hard on me, and we went through all of the texts on this album in the finest of detail; because of my background my pronunciation is pretty good naturally, but every now and then he would pick up on a couple of little ‘tells’, and it was a case of ironing all of those out. But even if I were doing an album of German song I would still use a language-coach to catch anything that might give me away as a non-native speaker, because with recordings even the slightest glitch in pronunciation is audible.

How much music do you make with your dad and cousin?

We’ve deliberately avoided making too many appearances together, especially when I was younger, because we didn’t want to become ‘The Sitkovetsky Family’ - nepotism isn’t cool! As soon as I started singing seriously, it was very important to all of us that I have my own identity as a musician: everyone in my family has such a big artistic personality, and my dad probably has the biggest of all! We have done a few things together: in general he doesn’t really do opera but we did a Bohème in Finland about five years ago, and I have tentative plans to do something else with his orchestra in Greensboro once the COVID situation has settled down. I absolutely adore working with my father, because in my opinion he’s probably one of the greatest musicians ever; not just in terms of knowledge and understanding but also technique, and I always learn so much whenever we make music together. I haven’t actually done anything with my cousin yet, and I’d love to – I really like what he does with his trio, but the opportunity just hasn’t come up.

How (and where) are you spending your time during lockdown: are you still making music, or looking on this period as an enforced sabbatical?

My base is in London with my husband and the cats, and that’s where I am for the foreseeable future! I work a lot in Germany, but because I don’t have a Fest contract it's not really worth renting a place over there long-term. I was quite unwell for the first couple of weeks of lockdown so I was forced to not do any practice, but I’ve now started working on the new roles I need to learn for next season, one of which is a really big one – at the moment it’s still going ahead, but who knows? What works for me personally is forging ahead and trying new things, because I know I’ll just slump and feel like I have no real goals if I don’t. I also did a virtual recording of a Strauss song with my friend Will Vann, which I shared on my Twitter feed, and I’m planning on doing something with my mezzo friend as well. But I totally understand people who can't face singing at all right now, especially colleagues of mine whose projects got cancelled at the last minute after months of preparation and rehearsal. I can imagine how demoralising that must be, and if what you need at the moment is silence, then don’t sing: you don’t have to be productive during this period if you don’t want to be. Aside from singing I’m doing lots of yoga and going for the occasional run, and I’ve also started taking drawing lessons – there’s a wonderful website called SkillShare where you can do classes in all sort of things including fine art, digital marketing, photography and video-editing. I’m not very good, but I love it!

What were your last performances before lockdown, and – COVID permitting – what’s coming up for you next season?

Roger and I got to perform the programme on this album at Wigmore Hall on February 23rd, which was a real highlight. In fact February was a good month for me in general: first I got to sing the Queen of the Night at the Semperoper Dresden, and then I got to sing some of my favourite songs at Wigmore! I was supposed to do another Zauberflöte in Santiago, and that was cancelled the day before I was supposed to fly out – that didn't come as a surprise, and in all honesty I was already a little nervous about going over there and getting stuck. I got that engagement as a result of doing the Paris Opera Competition and it’d been in the diary for a long time, so it was a real shame it didn’t happen. I also lost the last three performances of L’enfant et les sortilèges at Deutsche Oper am Rhein; I really loved that production, and it was sad not to get to say goodbye to it properly.

The rest of the Dresden Flutes this season were another casualty, although there are more Queens there coming up for me further down the line: next season they're mounting their first new production of Flute in around fourteen years, hopefully opening in November 2020. The Dresden ensemble and orchestra are overwhelmingly good, and the cast includes René Pape as Sarastro and Sofia Fomina as Pamina, so it’s going to be quite something!

Julia Sitkovetsky (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC