Saturday 5 March 2016

Not a shooting star, but a well rooted planet - my encounter with soprano Ilona Domnich

Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
The soprano Ilona Domnich has had a busy year with roles including Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme (see our review), and the four heroines (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, Stella) in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann (see my review) with English Touring Opera, Hanna Glawari in Ryedale Festival Opera's production of Lehar's The Merry Widow, as well as the release of her first solo Cd, Surrender (see my review), with Simon Over and the Southbank Sinfonia. A disc which features two duets with the distinguished Italian baritone Leo Nucci. Ilona and I met up recently to chat about how a Russian-born woman who was studying in Jerusalem with a fascination for homicide and criminality and little thought of being a singer ended up as just that, living in the UK.

Ilona Domnich & David Butt Philip - La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich & David Butt Philip - La Boheme
English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
She explains that it was all down to coincidence. She was at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance studying piano, and in her first year of studying singing. Undecided on her career choices she had previously been studying forensic science. She was in the audience for a master-class by the great Vera Rozsa, whom Ilona describes as being tiny and rather fierce. Vera did not say much but seemed to have the knack of making the young singers perform better.

One singer at the master-class did not turn up, and with Vera waiting a rather embarrassed head of faculty asked if any student in the audience had music. So Ilona, with her one year of singing lessons, sang an aria from Donizetti's La fille du regiment. Vera said little and simply looked cross but afterwards Ilona received a note from Vera, with her phone number at her hotel, saying that though Ilona had zero technique she had a sensitive talent and a memorable voice, and that Ilona should phone Vera. Ilona did, and was told that if she came to London and had lessons with Vera, they would try and get her into music college. So Ilona did just that, and three months later she was studying at the Royal College of Music in London.

Ilona Domnich as Jacqueline - Messager: Fortunio
Ilona Domnich as Jacqueline - Messager: Fortunio
Grange Park Opera
Ilona does indeed have a memorable voice and now, thanks to Vera Rozsa and her time at the Royal Academy of Music, she has an enviable technique too. She also credits her current teacher, Susan Roberts, with whom she has been studying for the last three years. Ilona feels that Roberts has given her the most amazing foundation for vocal technique and set her on a confident journey. Ilona is a lyric coloratura and she combines roles such as Mimi (in Puccini's La Boheme) and Tatyana (in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin), with more coloratura ones such as Olympia (in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann) and Gilda (in Verdi's Rigoletto). Married with a young son (who is musical enough to hum snatches of his mother's arias to himself), in person Ilona is charmingly lively company. Her background in forensic science and criminality comes out in the way she is highly interested in people and their motives, digging into reasons and behaviours, but all in an upbeat fashion. We chatted for an hour but it could easily have been longer.

'You have to have your heart of fire
and your brain of ice'

Arriving in London Ilona was terrified, with little idea of what to expect. (And I understand from one of the singers Ilona met at master-classes at this period that her English was somewhat more limited and her accent stronger than her current admirable fluency).  Vera proved kind and sweet as a person, but lessons with her were ruthless and unforgiving. Ilona was impressed with the way Vera could not only accompany arias without looking at the music, but could instantly transpose too. What partly sustained Ilona was the sense that she was there because Vera had chosen her.

Ilona admits that when she got into the Royal Academy of Music she wasn't really ready, having neither the life experience nor the full technique. And it is only now that she understands just what it takes to be an opera singing, with the need to be a good actor, have considerable stamina and a sensitive ear, and listen to a large amount of repertoire. Not just vocal music, Ilona feels she has learned a lot from listening to Daniel Barenboim playing. And a singer must be able to bring a lot of life experience too. And once you have mastered all this, 'you have to have your heart of fire and you brain of ice', the combination of fiery intensity and cool control, with a sense of commitment and communication.

She projects what is happening in her life onto the role

Ilona Domnich & Simon Wallfisch - Pelleas et Melisande - Grimeborn Festival - photo Alastair Muir
Ilona Domnich & Simon Wallfisch - Pelleas et Melisande
Grimeborn Festival - photo Alastair Muir
When I ask about favourite roles, Ilona says that she enjoys each role as she does it. Whatever the role, she projects what is happening in her life onto the role, thus connecting herself to those aspects of the part. And though each role is a favourite at the time, when she returns to role they are different and second time around she can draw more life experience into the role.

She describes herself as a very Russian tortured soul and she loves high drama. She sang Melisande (in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande at the Grimeborn Festival, see review) during a difficult time in her life and she projected her own confusion and uncertainty onto Melisande who Ilona sees as a symbol of something tortured. And after the performances, Ilona confesses to feeling relieve and she really enjoyed performing the role.

The roles she would like to sing include a group of Rimsky Korsakov's operas - the title role in The Snow Maiden, Marfa in The Tsar's Bride and the Queen of Shemakha in The Golden Cockerel but these are operas which are rarely being performed nowadays. French roles which appeal include a pair of highly contrasted operatic heroines, Blanche in Poulenc's The Carmelites and the title role Massenet's Thais, another rarely performed opera.

Though she has performed Blonde in Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, she would love to sing Konstanze. When I comment about the difficulty of the role, Ilona says that she is confident she could perform it if she put her mind to it. She adds that she feels she is a very responsible performer and never takes on a role unless she believes herself capable of it.

Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, Stella

Ilona Domnich as Olympia - English Touring Opera - The Tales of Hoffmann - © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich as Olympia - English Touring Opera
The Tales of Hoffmann - © Richard Hubert Smith
One of Ilona's most recent challenges was the four heroines in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann for English Touring Opera, roles which require the soprano to go from coloratura to lyrical intensity. It was an experience that she really enjoyed, finding it a fantastic experience being able to explore the four  different characters. She even enjoyed being on tour as this gave her the scope to explore the extremes of the characters. It was a very busy, and in some ways challenging, production; certainly not one which left her to simply stand and sing. One of the biggest challenges was Olympia, being required to sing Olympia's aria  and manipulate a puppet. Ilona enjoyed the experience of pushing herself to the limit, exploring the thing not in the score. And she found working with the director, James Bonas, an inspiring experience.

A very different production of the work was that of Richard Jones at English National Opera where Ilona Domnich covered the soprano roles, and she found it fascinating working with Richard Jones. She also loved her time at ENO, and covered the role of Rosina in the Jonathan Miller production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville, when the role was sung by Lucy Crowe. And this time, Ilona did two performances in her own right, conducted by Jaime Martin.

During the forthcoming year she has less opera in prospect, but is doing lots of concerts as well as some more of her own projects. Following on from her CD, Surrender, she realised that she would like to continue with more of her own projects; not just CD's but a one woman show mixing opera with other styles This came about because musicians live so much of their lives by chance, with a lot of waiting. So Ilona made a list of all the things she would do if she had a choice, and she is lucky enough to have a wide circle of performer friends to whom she can offer projects.

Though music will not stop wars, it influences minds and souls.

Further ahead she has another production of La Boheme to look forward to in 2017. But she feels there is now hurry and does not rush to find the next role. Instead she prefers to stay in the moment. Currently she has Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, Brahms Deutsches Requiem and songs with orchestra, and Poulenc's Gloria to look forward to. This latter work is being performed with Gounod's Messe Solonnelle in Notre Dame de Paris by the British Parliament Choir. This takes place before June 23 (!), but Ilona feels that the singers put their differences aside and that music connects everybody. She adds that though music will not stop wars, it influences minds and souls.

Not a shooting star, but a well rooted planet

Ilona Domnich as Hanna Glawari - The Merry Widow - Ryedale Festival Opera
Ilona Domnich as Hanna Glawari - The Merry Widow - Ryedale Festival Opera
The phrase enjoying the moment is one which Ilona uses a number of times, not just to refer to enjoying life but about performing too. She comments that as a singer you have to enjoy the moment and commit to a phrase as you perform it.

She has never won any competitions and was not one of those singers who was a star straight from college. Instead her journey was slow and thorough, but she gained insights along the way and achieved a certain maturity. She describes herself as not a shooting star but a well rooted planet.

The last few years have been very fruitful, and in addition to recording and performances she was on Woman's Hour taking about The Tales of Hoffmann and about her interest in forensic science, and was named in Opera magazine as one of the ten UK singers most likely to have an international career. And her performing success has not just been in the UK, there have been performances in Italy and Spain, with new contacts developed and new doors opening.

And she feels that there is so much repertoire to explore, and so much to learn. She feels that some people trot along in their careers, but she needs to change and to develop. As a singer she refers to herself as investigating the human soul; she loves digging into the depths of herself and though it is scary and difficult, once you do it it is so rewarding.

Ilona Domnich's calendar of events on her website, and her YouTube Channel.

Ilona Domnich on Planet Hugill

  • April 2015 - Puccini's La Boheme at English Touring Opera
  • November 2014 - Late Romantics - Ilona Domnich & Nigel Foster at the London Song Festival
  • July 2013 - Messager's Fortunio at Grange Park Opera
  • September 2012 - Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera

Elsewhere on this blog:

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