Liudmyla Monastyrska — An Interview

Although well-known and esteemed for many years in her
native Ukraine, as principal soloist of Ukraine National Opera, it was a
surprise last-minute debut at Deutsche Oper Berlin, as Tosca, in 2009 that won
her immediate international acclaim and led to a much heralded Italian debut at
the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, cementing her reputation as a
world-class performer with great vocal control and huge power.

And, another eleventh-hour call propelled Monastyrska onto the Covent Garden
stage in March this year, when Micaela Carosi unexpectedly withdrew from
Aida and Monastyrska stepped hastily into the Ethiopian
princess’s shoes— thereby pre-empting by a couple of months her
planned ROH debut, in this month’s revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002
production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

When I ask Monastyrska whether this was an exciting or nerve-racking
challenge, she is remarkably relaxed and unruffled: it’s a role she knows
well, and has performed many times before. Moreover, she was the understudy for
the role at Covent Garden and so was familiar with the production.
“During the rehearsals, when I was covering the role of Aida, I just
wanted to sing! And my fellow singers could see this too. So, when I had the
opportunity to sing they were genuinely very happy for me— and I’m
grateful to them for being supportive.” She adds, “It wasn’t
a question of being nervous. It was just a great honour to sing in one of the
greatest opera houses in the world”.

Monastyrka’s performance won her superlative accolades. One critic
noted her “powerful, opulent voice, form and controlled in the lower
register, and full in tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria,
‘O patria mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease,
her breath control superb”. Many were struck by the sheer power of her
“sumptuous instrument”, and enjoyed the Slavic duskiness which she
used to introduce shade and colour.

It’s clear that Monastyrka truly relishes the Verdian idiom. She
admits that although it’s hard to anticipate how one’s voice will
develop in future, the roles one sings play a predominant role in shaping the
voice, so it’s essential to choose one’s repertoire carefully.
“Verdi is so comfortable to sing, so that seems like a good path to
follow at the moment.” She will repeat Aida in 2012 at La Scala. She
currently has no plans to tackle Wagner or Strauss, despite being offered
Salome and some Wagnerian roles, though she has performed some Puccini,
including Turandot (which was in the repertoire of the Ukraine National Opera
in Kiev), and other verismo roles such as Gioconda, Nedda and

Verdi’s Macbeth does not always win the critical respect of
his two great late Shakespearian operas. This is Monastyrka’s first Lady
Macbeth, a role which she declares is the most difficult out of all the Verdian
roles— both technically challenging and dramatically and psychologically
complex. “It’s not something for very young singers to tackle, it
needs a mature voice and while it’s not necessarily a role that
I’ve been planning or determined to sing, I am happy to have the

She has a clear dramatic conception of the role. “Shakespeare’s
Lady Macbeth is a pure incarnation of evil, but in Verdi she has more of a
conscience; in her final aria the audience actually see her going out of her
mind, and thus they don’t judge her as much as in the play. The music is
her inner consciousness. In the duet with Macbeth, when he has murdered Duncan,
Lady Macbeth takes the knife and goes to make sure that the deed has been done;
when she comes back and looks at her hands, from that moment she realises her
crime— she has sinned and is immediately tormented by her guilty
conscience. This troubling remorse arrives much later in the play, in Act

Lloyd’s production is dark and radical: the evil of the witches is the
force which drives the action forward, and thus we see them taking
Macbeth’s letter to his wife, or engineering Fleance’s escape from
the assassins. As Monastyrska puts it, “Lady Macbeth is the weapon that
the witches use to carry out their evil”.

I wonder whether it’s easy, or even possible, to leave such an intense
and demanding role behind at the end of a rehearsal or performance? “One
tries to, but in addition to the concentration of the rehearsals, one is
thinking constantly about the role and the production— I even dream about
the role! The performance ends but one can’t put it away straight away;
it’s so deep and involving.”

Home is still the Ukraine, and while Monastyrska recognises that operatic
success will inevitably take her overseas, she doesn’t like being away
from home for too long. “I love to sing in Kiev, for it’s my
homeland and it’s given me much strength— it’s pleasing to be
able to give something back. It’s wonderful to perform in Kiev, where my
family and friends are, and where I grew up— I’m very attached to
my theatre there.”

Do Russian audiences respond differently to Western European audiences?
“Yes, they’re very different. People have been very enthusiastic
about my performances in Europe; but the audiences come to the opera already
knowing the score, and often having seen the productions, and they make
comparisons with others’ performances. They even know just how long you
should hold a particular note— and if you don’t, the critics
don’t take any pity on you! This is good, and absolutely fair, because
the singer should strive for perfection.”

Monastyrska also recognises the importance of language in opera and stresses
that it is essential to have a good language coach, something that she really
appreciates at Covent Garden. “When rehearsing Aida, if I got
two consonants wrong the coach would point it out and we worked very hard to
get it right because when you are actually performing you are thinking about
other things.”

Although her family are not trained musicians (her father is a businessman
and her mother a teacher) there was always music in the house, in particular
the folksongs which her mother sang, and which have become very important to
Monastyrska. “At the age of 15 one’s tastes start to change, and
you develop your own interests; I was very lucky as a teacher directed me
towards singing. I wasn’t sure if this was for me, but he said,
“You have a gift from God!” I sang often at school in festivals and
concerts and music has become as important to me as the air we breathe—
as necessary as that …”

Committed and passionate, and with a busy schedule in the months ahead,
it’s not surprising that Monastyrska finds little time to relax and
unwind, although she does enjoy listening to symphonic music, in particular the
music of Rachmaninov. She also likes to read, but performances can leave her so
drained that sometimes she just falls asleep over a book.

And, what roles would she like to explore in the future? Not surprisingly,
the answer is more Verdi— possible Amelia in Simon Boccanegra;
“And,” she says, with a smile and a shrug, “maybe

Claire Seymour

Macbeth will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
on 24, 27, 30 May 3, 6, 10, 13, 15 June at 7.30pm and 18 June at 7pm. On 13
June 2011 (GMT), this production will be broadcast live into cinemas around the
world, including: the United Kingdom, Austria, Croatia, France, Germany,
Latvia, the Netherlands and Spain, with delayed relays to the United States and
Australia. Please visit for
further information.

image_description=Liudmyla Monastyrska [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House]
product_title=Liudmyla Monastyrska — An Interview
product_by=Interview by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Liudmyla Monastyrska [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House]