A major attraction of the Canadian Opera Company’s fall season is the appearance of Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina and American tenor Charles Castronovo as the star-crossed lovers in Verdi’s most popular opera, La traviata. These two artists happen to be a real-life couple, which gives the COC production an interesting twist. They met in 2004, at the Berlin Staatsoper’s L’Elisir d’amore. The cute story is that they drank the elixir and it worked! “Love at first sight,” says Ekaterina in our recent interview. Her husband Charlie chimes in, “Actually it was love at first sight for me. For her, it was more like two days later!” They make a beautiful pair onstage and off. Ekaterina hails from – appropriately enough – Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Ural Federal District in central Russia while Charles is a native New Yorker. Now they have a home in Los Angeles where their two boys are – Alessandro and Valentino.
The couple has sung together in The Pearl Fishers, Die Zauberflöte, Rigoletto, La sonnambula, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, The Rake’s Progress as well as L’Elisir d’amore. They’ll add to that growing list the COC La traviata. Castronovo has sung Alfredo something like 100 times in more than 10 productions, but this will be Siurina’s first complete Violetta. The Verdi opera will be an ideal vehicle for the two singers, given their great voices and charismatic stage persona.
I had the pleasure of hearing them separately and together on several occasions. The first time I heard Castronovo was as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte at the Santa Fe Opera, way back in the summer of 2003. I recall a beautiful lyric Mozart tenor and a handsome stage presence. Then in 2010, I heard him as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, again in Santa Fe, opposite his wife as Pamina. Given their busy international careers, the best way to be together as much as possible for the married couple is to sing together. “In our best year, we worked three times together, in The Rakes Progress, Zauberflöte, and L’Elisir d’amore,” explains Siurina, in her fluent English liberally peppered with American slangs, all delivered in a charming Russian accent. “That year, we had a baby because we were so long together (laughs)!” This season, the COC La traviata is their only opera production together, although they have several joint recitals, in Brussels and London’s Wigmore Hall.
I had a delightful interview with them two weeks ago, in anticipation of their upcoming Canadian debut. It was a busy morning for them, having just returned from appearing on the 96.3 FM morning show. Happy and relaxed, they were down to earth and personable, fielding my questions with candor and good humour. They spoke almost with one voice, finishing each other’s sentences. The two recently celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, and it’s obvious that they are very much in love:
JS: First of all, welcome to Toronto. Is this the Canadian debut for both of you?
ES: Yes, it is. I’ve never been in Canada, and we’re very happy to be here.
JS: Have you seen much of the city yet? Like the CN Tower?
ES: Not yet – with the nice weather, we try to be outside, walk around and go to the park. When bad weather comes, we’ll be inside, going to museums!
JS: Doing research on you guys was easy because so much have already been written about you. I read that you make your home in LA?
ES: Yes, we have a home there. It’s been our base for a couple of years. We have two children – Alessandro is eight, and Valentino is two.
JS: Is Alessandro showing any interest in music and opera?
ES: I think as a child of two musicians, he kind of had enough. He enjoys coming to the shows and likes to play a little bit of piano, nothing serious.
CC: Our theory is not to force him. He has a very good voice. We brought him to Covent Garden for the Zauberflöte, and he loved it. He was an extra in the show.
JS: Ekaterina, I understand this COC production is your first Violetta?
ES: Yes it’s my first full Traviata. I sang it with cuts, and a bit of interpretation, ten years ago in Moscow. For me, the COC Traviata will be challenging since the director prefers to do this with no cuts. It makes it a much longer role.
CC: Except for my cabaletta (after ‘De miei bollenti spiriti’) which I’ll do just once…
ES: I think it’s a man’s world! I’m saying he should do two times the cabaletta (laughs)!
JS: Your ‘Addio del passato’ – are you doing the repeat?
ES: I’m singing everything, every single note!
JS: Do you prefer ‘Sempre libera’ or ‘Addio del passato’?
ES: I won’t be able to say which I prefer. I’ll be happy if I am in good health, what with the weather, children, stress, etc. I hope I’ll be fine. A run of two months can be exhausting – we’ll see.
JS: You attended the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in Moscow which includes theatre, ballet, etc. Did you also study acting?
ES: No, I was always a singer, but I love drama. In school we learned all the stagecraft, acting, movement, ballet, I enjoyed it. I was one of the strongest in my class in drama, apart from the singing. My mother was an actress. My father’s also an artsy guy in life – he can sing jazz without knowing the words. He’s a jeweler, does painting, a little stone work – generally artsy with his hands.
JS: Charlie, I read that you come from a Sicilian family in New York. Are there musicians in your family?
CC: My father came from Sicily to America when he was 16. I was the first born. My mother is from Ecuador. She also came to the States when she was about 16. There are no musicians in the family.
JS: When did you discover you had a voice?
CC: As a child I liked to be in plays at school. I was always dancing – I had great rhythm. Then around 13 I discovered rock n roll, started playing the guitar. From that point on, I started singing. But my voice was always too clean for rock n roll – didn’t have the right sound. It fit really well in a choir, and once I joined the choir, I started getting solos. It felt very natural. I still love rock n roll, but my voice is more suited to classical.
JS: Have you always been a tenor? Who did you study with?
CC: Yes, always a tenor – when I sang Beatles songs, I always sang the Paul McCartney lines! I’ve only had two teachers in my whole career; my first was Mark Goodrich. He was teaching at Cal State Fullerton in the Los Angeles area. I studied with him until 2010. Only the last few years I started working with Arthur Levy in New York. It happened the right way – the first teacher gave me a strong base. I had success early and was travelling so much that I didn’t see him very much. He gave me the basic technique, so I was able to take care of myself and improve with experience on stage. With my new teacher, he helps me to explore new areas (of repertoire) that maybe I wasn’t ready before.
JS: Are you going more into French operas now?
CC: I’ve been doing a lot of French operas the last few years, even very rare ones, but also Faust, Romeo, Des Grieux…
JS: Are you going to sing Werther?
CC: Yes, I’ll do it in concert first – that’s one of the big ones. Now we’re looking at Hoffmann and possibly Don Jose later. I’ve always gone slowly in my career, but now the last two or three years, things have been developing faster. I am forty now, so it’s time.
JS: Ekaterina, tell us a little about your early training…
ES: I studied in Moscow with my teacher, Emma Sarkisyan, a mezzo-soprano, and quite a famous Carmen. She was working at the Novaya Opera in Moscow, and she recommended me to audition and they accepted me. I was in the third year of my study, from that time on, I was always in the theatre. You can train for years and years in a classroom with a great teacher, but you need experience, and I got the experience. I’m very grateful for that.
JS: And you made your debut with Dmitri Hvorostovsky – talk about starting at the top!
ES: It was 1999, as Gilda, with Hvorostovsky in the Novaya Opera.
CC: It was Dmitri’s first Rigoletto too – he came there to try it out in a smaller theatre.
ES: It was a dream come true, from being a student, never having sung on stage with an orchestra, to singing opposite Dmitri Hvorostovsky on opening night! I was grateful to (the late) Maestro Evgeny Kolobov, who gave me a great start. Later on when I thought about it, I guess it was a good match – a young girl from the Urals, never sang on stage before, it fits Gilda well!
JS: You two met in L’Elisir in Staatsoper in 2004…What a charming story!
ES: We just celebrated our 10th anniversary. It was difficult, but we made it!
CC: She said we’ve been together only about four of those years! (laughs)
ES: Because we travel so much. When we’re together, we are like newly-weds…keeps our relationship fresh! (more laughs)
JS: Where are your two sons when you are away working?
CC: They are here with us. Our older son is home-schooled for the moment. I don’t want to leave him in Los Angeles with my family – then we won’t see him for long periods of time. The homeschool gives us the flexibility. Of course, he wants to be with the other children in school but for the moment we have to do this.
ES: We need to find a great nanny! (Siurina speaks into my tape recorder). If there are any good nannies available, a little bit older, experienced, soft ladies who love children, please contact us; we are so interested! (laughs)
CC: The traveling can be difficult. I would say 90% of our careers is in Europe, so we need to make the full move there. If I’m in Paris, and she’s in Munich, I can get there in an hour, everything is so close. If our home is in LA, and I’m singing in Barcelona, even if I have three or four days off, it’s impossible to go, it’s just too far. Europe is obviously the solution to help us manage it better.
ES: My parents are so far away in the Urals, and they are older people and can’t help too much.
CC: Once we move in Europe things will improve. You can always get home very quickly when you have a weekend free.
JS: Obviously you enjoy singing together. Is there a sense of competitiveness onstage?
ES: I love to sing with Charlie, it gives us an opportunity to be in the same city. Competitive? No, not at all…
CC: We support each other onstage; the only issue is arranging the time. You know if you are a good tenor, you can have three hundred sixty-four days a year of work if you want! It’s easy to book yourself much too much.
JS: When you guys are singing together, do you find you bring your work home? Like talking about what happened on stage or in rehearsals?
CC: Usually it’s the technical things, what’s happening on the rehearsals. With Traviata, I’ve done a hundred performances already, and she’s done very few. I help her with little details that one gets only from doing the role many times. As husband and wife, there’s a special support we give each other.
JS: Ekaterina, do you have a favourite opera role?
ES: For the longest time, it was Gilda. I knew it very well, having sung it like a hundred times. Then it’s Capuleti e I Montecchi…completely my part, I feel it 100%! I love the music. I also love La sonnambula.
JS: Have you ever sung Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette?
ES: I haven’t done it. Of course the duet and aria, but not the whole opera. Just something that didn’t happen. But I have other parts I’m happy with. I started singing big roles, and now I do smaller ones like Nanetta (in Falstaff). It’s so beautiful…I love my aria. It’s an easy night…nobody dies, how cool!
JS: Ekaterina, do you have a favourite soprano?
ES: Yes, I love Joan Sutherland, for all her brilliant high notes, her Olympia. I did a competition in St. Petersburg when she was on the jury, and I spoke with her a little bit. I also love Gruberova, when she sings those mean characters, like in Roberto Devereux. She’s great, a monster on stage! Anna (Netrebko) I’ve always loved, a great actress and a great colleague, amazing person, fun to be out with her. I also loved (Ileana) Cotrubas, as Violetta, Mimi, and Gilda…very touching.
JS: Tell me, Charlie, who are your idols… Domingo?
CC: He’s always been a part of how I got started. When I heard him sing the entrance in Otello, I thought ‘I want to sing opera!’ When I made my professional debut in a small role in Fedora, Placido was singing the lead. Besides Placido, if I had to say one who inspires me the most emotionally, I’d have to say, Carreras. The young Carreras – he’s the one who made me want to sing.
JS: Anyone else, other than Domingo and Carreras?
CC: I love so many old tenors! It’s so hard to choose. The young di Stefano I love! Oh and Wunderlich, for the honesty of his sound.
ES: I love those tenors also because they are what we listen all the time at home. We only listen to what Charlie puts on. You’ll never hear in our home a soprano!
CC: …unless she’s in a duet with a tenor (laughs)
JS: Tell us about your time here in Toronto so far…
ES: We love it here, and the time period that we are here. We love the architecture. The city is clean, and people are nice. People say hello and smile!
JS: Where do you go after Toronto?
ES: I go to Moscow for two concerts, and Charlie goes to Dallas for Damnation of Faust.
CC: In December she goes to Australia, to sing in Sydney, in Pearl Fishers…and I’ll have time off at the beach!
JS: I wish you guys all the best, and I’ll will see you on opening night!
ES/CC: That’s great…see you!
Verdi’s La traviata runs October 8 – November 6, 2015 at the Canadian Opera Company. Tickets available here.
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