“I simply have to sing them all.”

Portrait of the soprano Sonya Yoncheva

Sonya Yoncheva
(Photo: Kristian Schuller)

The soprano Sonya Yoncheva is one of the most versatile and interesting singers currently before the public. There is nothing that she is afraid of, she has already appeared onstage alongside Sting and occasionally spices up her programmes with the odd song by ABBA. In April she is giving a song recital at the Philharmonie in Berlin.

There he sits, poor Rodolfo, in his cold dreary attic, crouching over his desk. His wretched situation looks hopeless. “And then I come along,” says Sonya Yoncheva with flashing eyes and a disarming smile. “I seduce him. I coyly give myself to him. But inside me I’m on fire.”

This is how the soprano describes Mimì’s first appearance in Puccini’s La bohème. This balancing act between the outward appearance of innocence and an inner feeling of total self-abandon is a fine example of Sonya Yoncheva’s gifts as an artist. She does not sweep on to the stage as a larger-than-life figure, as Jessye Norman used to do, nor does she hold court or play the diva, and yet it is generally clear from her very first note that Sonya Yoncheva lives for music.

Here is a singer well grounded in life, a singer who with astonishing speed has conquered the world’s leading opera houses and already mastered an unusually wide range of roles. “The voice is an expression of the soul,” she says simply, while pointing out possible risks and side-effects that stem from the fact that “music generally possesses a good deal of power. It can really get us down but it can also fill us with feelings of euphoria and give us incredible strength.”

The children are to become musicians

From the outset the stars have looked kindly on her, although her outward circumstances were initially against her. She was born in Bulgaria’s second-largest city Plovdiv on Christmas Day 1981. Poverty was rife. There was little food and even less electricity. So her mother had the idea of giving Sonya and her brother Marin a musical education. She bought scores, instruments and concert tickets. In both cases her plan worked out: Marin studied the double bass and piano and is now a celebrated popstar in Bulgaria – his sister has already shared a stage with him.

Sonya initially studied in her home city before moving to Geneva. She had not yet turned twenty when she was already winning competitions, including Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in 2010. A year later her debut album was released, Rebirth, on one of the world’s most prestigious labels. “As a child, I had never dreamt, of course, that I’d one day be leading a life like this.

Even so, I always felt that I had to do something involving art,” she once declared in an interview. She has never lacked imagination and has always been creative. When she was young, she painted, acted and played the piano. “But I never suspected that things would take off as they have done.”

In Geneva Sonya Yoncheva met the conductor William Christie: “A great conductor and a wonderful teacher,” she told Die Welt. With hindsight, the singer ascribes their encounter to the workings of fate. She sang an aria from Handel’s opera Alcina to the grand seigneur of early music, the first time she had tackled a work from this repertory. But even her choice of an audition piece demonstrated a quality that has stood her in good stead: sound common sense.

The Baroque repertory became a springboard to other things

Christie was interested in continuing to work with her, leading Yoncheva to immerse herself in early music, including Monteverdi. And she kept coming back to Handel. “For me, it was interesting to see how Handel uses different harmonies and melodies to describe three characters as different as Cleopatra, Agrippina and Theodora.” She enjoys “bringing out these differences and revealing the characters’ various faces”. She wants to “tell stories”.

This is very much one of her hallmarks. She is not a singer but a performer. She does not present a role but immerses herself in it. She can never be seen standing stock-still onstage and merely looking resplendent or lamely wandering around: she whirls around with a dancer’s elegance, and even when her character is dying, she reflects a sense of both grace and wretchedness. A glance into her eyes – alert, questioning, coquettish, adding their own independent commentary to all that she says and often rolling upwards in disbelief – is enough to know that for Yoncheva singing is an all-round physical exercise.

The Baroque repertory finally became a springboard to other things. The conductor Emmanuelle Haïm likewise provided her with tip and tricks. She learnt to deal with questions of ornamentation and with a rhetorically pointed approach to the words – “things which singers of nineteenth-century works are fond of ignoring”. In this way her experience of the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became a kind of test of her abilities. “It helps you to avoid many later mistakes if you address them right from the very beginning.”

There followed many opportunities for Yoncheva to step in for ailing colleagues: cancellations by others helped her to advance her own career. On several occasions she was asked to take over from Anna Netrebko, notably as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the 2014 Baden-Baden Whitsun Festival. When Netrebko cancelled, Angela Gheorghiu was invited to step in, only for her to take exception to the staging and withdraw in turn. The then thirty-three-year-old Yoncheva was happy to seize her moment: it was a triumph for her both onstage and off.

Five role debuts

Her 2018/19 season was not planned to break any records but that was just what it did, with no fewer than five role debuts filling her diary. “I was more open to temptation back then,” the self-critical singer explained in an interview with Das Opernmagazin.

Yoncheva doesn’t like to say no. Tosca (“perhaps I shouldn’t have sung it so early in my career”), Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Luisa Miller (“the hardest role for me”), Cherubini’s Médée in Berlin and finally Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata at La Scala, the story of an unhappily married woman who falls hopelessly in love with the wrong man – the leader of a band of pirates – and goes mad. Death alone awaits her at the end.

Listen to Sonya Yoncheva on Spotify!

Yoncheva was acclaimed as the first singer to take on this role in Milan since Maria Callas, a hyperbolic claim that Yoncheva herself conscientiously corrected by pointing out that Montserrat Caballé had sung Imogene at La Scala and had done so, moreover, without cutting a single bar from the score. Yoncheva equalled this feat, first in Milan, then in Madrid, performing the final scene – a marathon lasting twenty minutes – with none of the traditional cuts.

But why does she take on so much? There may be a dash of thoughtlessness to all of this, but far more important is Sonya Yoncheva’s own motivation. She does not see herself as a singer or as a soprano but as an artist. If she found it both fascinating and inspiring to accept all these offers, this was not because of the music but because of the characters that she had to embody. She loves powerful or at least ambivalent female characters. “I simply have to sing them all onstage.”

Is such a passion for the stage not without its risks and side-effects? After all, she still has a private life. Her husband fortunately knows the profession. Domingo Hindoyan is a conductor from Venezuela and was Daniel Barenboim’s assistant at the Berlin State Opera when the couple first met. The two children that they have had together need looking after, encouraging Sonya Yoncheva to mention a second central pillar of her life that likewise requires a certain art to deal with it: the art of organizing her life on a day-to-day basis.

Opera, Lied, film music, ABBA

In remaining down to earth, Yoncheva is undoubtedly helped by the fact that she has not staked everything on a single operatic card but regards the song repertory as a second home. As she once explained, she is attracted by the idea of “exploring this very intimate experience”. Here, too, her roots can be traced back to her “Baroque training”. When performing songs she does not feel like a single cog in a much larger mechanism that needs to be constantly oiled but which still risks overheating. Ultimately the song repertory allows her space to meet exciting female figures like Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot and Carlotta Ferrari, the last-named an Italian composer who studied at the Milan Conservatory with Verdi’s later wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

But Yoncheva is keen to avoid drawing strict lines between the different genres. She makes no secret of her fondness for film music – and she has shared a stage with both Elvis Costello and Sting. Her recital at last year’s Salzburg Festival included a song by ABBA. Works from her Bulgarian homeland are important to her, too. Homeland? Sonya Yoncheva has long been at home in other countries and has houses in both Switzerland and Berlin.

Christoph Vratz

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