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Russian opera, composers and music. An interview with Sigrid from  the Australian Institute of Music

“I began teaching myself Russian while I was in High School, from a book found on my parent’s shelf at home”, says Sigrid. She was born in Yass, a small town in south-eastern New South Wales, lived and worked in Canberra for many years. In the interview, Enjoy Russian school guest and the Australian Institute of Music student tells why and how she connected her life with Russian music and reveals some facts that are not commonly known.

picture by Chris Baum

Tell us a bit about yourself and your career

I currently study music composition and production at the Australian Institute of Music. I make electronic music under an alias. I have been involved in music for most of my life, and have always been drawn to structuring and understanding sound, as opposed to performance or interpretation, although I have to delve into these areas too. When I had my first ever music lesson (I was learning the flute), I went home and made a song out of the few notes I had mastered. I have been doing this ever since- I am always incorporating new sounds and ideas into my work.

Who are your favourite Russian composers, contemporary electronic music, and opera singers?

My favourite Russian composer is Igor Stravinsky, and to me his music represents so much of what is Russian, or Slavic more broadly. He was inspired by a lot of Ukrainian folk music. I love the fundamental groove of his sound. I also like Modest Mussorgsky. His music is quite distinct from his contemporaries (to my ears), but somehow still representative of his country, and he was cognisant of making ‘Russian’ music. He listened to past tradition and technique and tried to emulate the speech patterns of contemporaneous Russians in much of his vocal music. He restricted his inspiration to the mundane, but his music has a transportive effect. Particularly ‘Promenade’ from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Modest Mussorgski, Russian composer

My favourite electronic composers are Grimes, Burial, and SOPHIE. Each of these artists (mostly) make music which is like their own personal infusion- the music is strongly coloured all through by their personality/mind/soul. Even when they are constricted by inexperience or rudimentary tools (Grimes’ and Burial’s early digital audio workstations), the quality of their work punches up even more, and really shines through. A lot of electronic artists are technical masters, but their music isn’t compelling to me. Electronic musicians are still artists, and I look for that vulnerability and thematic exploration in their medium, as I would with a songwriter. Something meta-musical.

I don’t listen to Opera much anymore at all, and if I do, it is Baroque opera. However, I still have my favourite voices. Joan Sutherland was an Australian soprano with an incredible voice- freak of nature almost, but like nearly everything in this world, there is a detailed and interesting backstory (including heavy work) which explains her sound. Listen to her perform Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959.

Luciano Pavarotti of course, the Italian tenor. Listen to him sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot. Spine-tingling voice.
Maria Callas is my ‘artist’ opera singer- she had assured knowledge of anything she sang, as well as of the composer. Her voice was also one of a kind- huge, dark, very distinct timbres through her register changes, and every note she sang was authoritative. I’ve never heard her sound trepidatious.

What are some of the facts about opera which are not commonly known?

People generally know that opera singers are broadly divided into categories of register, such as soprano, alto, contralto, tenor and bass etc. However, these categories are further divided, into subdivisions of weight and colour. For example, take two soprano’s- they will generally be able to cover the same notes, but one of them has distinctly more tone and power. That one might be classified as a dramatic soprano. Now, take two such similar sopranos. One of them has the tone and power, but you notice they are more agile, and the other has a lot more weight and volume in the voice. So they are divided again- the agile one is a dramatic coloratura soprano, and the other is definitively a dramatic soprano. Now, what about the other initial soprano, who did not have notable tone and power, but rather a sweet, lyrical tone? She might be a lyrical soprano, possibly a soubrette. Maybe a heavy lyric soprano.

The categories are numerous (and sopranos have the most categories), and they determine the repertoire that a singer will undertake. A singer who sings outside of their voice type for extended periods, runs the risk of damaging their voice, particularly if they are relying on more weight and power than they have. It is very similar to fighters working outside their weight classes.

Opera singing is difficult. It is a discipline first, and then the theatrics and the artistry can shine through. There is also a lot of incorrect and bad practice among many seemingly qualified teachers and at the highest levels, particularly in Australia.

Follow Enjoy Russian blog, PART 2 of the interview with Sigrid is coming soon!

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