The director of State Opera – Rousse discusses the cross-border cultural cooperation and the events which mark the Opera’s 70th anniversary
Ivan Kyurkchiev has been the director of State Opera – Rousse since 2017. He comes from a family of musicians and he started playing the violin at the age of 6. He graduated from the musical high school in Rousse, studying viola and opera singing. He fulfilled his military service in the choir of the construction troops, with whom he had his first concerts abroad. In the last year of his studies of opera singing in the Conservatory in Sofia he was selected to specialise in ”La Scala” in Milano for two years. In his second year he won the competition ”Enrico Caruso” and then he received the chance to stay and work in Italy. Kyurkchiev has sung in many Italian cities, in South America, in Marsilia, Bordeaux, Montpelier, Budapest, Prague and other European cities. In 1996 he became the director of State Opera – Rousse for the first time. In 2000 he established his events company ”Opera Verdi”, which has organised performances for almost all Bulgarian opera theatres in Europe and the USA. At the end of 2017 Ivan Kyurkchiev became the director of State Opera – Rousse for the second time.
This text is part of a journalistic project by Smaranda Şchiopu and Vladimir Mitev, through which they try to better understand the Bulgarian-Romanian relations in the cross-border area around the Danube.
Mr. Kyurkchiev, you are the director of State Opera – Rousse during an important moment of its history. This autumn it marks 70 years since its establishment. Also it will be the 100th anniversary since the beginning of opera activity in Rousse.
On the 50th anniversary of the Opera the director was Plamen Kartalov, who now heads The Sofia Opera. I am the director now at the 70th anniversary. The opera of Rousse was created by some of the greatest experts in symphonic and opera music. When we were young, we used to come to watch the performances. We were coming out of the opera so happy to have listened to them. You can’t help but love opera music, when you have seen such performers. I need to mention Penka Marinova, Nikolai Zdravkov, Kiril Krastev, Nasko Atanasov, Maria Ventzislavova, Penka Dilova. They could have worked for any opera theatre in the world. I haven’t heard singers such as Nikolai Zdravkov and Kiril Krastev anywhere after that. They were an incredible generation. They left a mark on everyone who was touched by their art.
You speak about the opera’s legends. How do young people come to the opera today?
The world is changing every 5-10 years. When I was a child, I wanted to be an opera singer and violinist. My interest towards music was owed to my parents, who encouraged me in my musical activity. My father and his gang of friends would often sing at home. When one grows up in such an environment, they can’t avoid developing in this way. Then we would buy gramophone records in order to listen to Lili Ivanova and the big opera singers. That is how I listened to Gyuzelev, Raina Kabaivanska, Caruso.
Today’s generation is connected to the internet. While the world has passed through pop and rock music, Bulgaria travelled the same road. There were years when together with democracy, we tilted towards the chalga music. This was a difficult moment for the Bulgarian culture. A generation of young people couldn’t avoid growing up with this low-level music.
That is why we, the heads of cultural institutions, are obliged to do everything within our power to attract young people towards this type of music. There is a children’s opera within our cultural institution. The children’s opera performs in front of full halls. We do everything we can to include a children’s choir in any opera performances, whenever possible. We facilitate young people’s access to performances. We promote our shows at schools. The Mathematical High School and other schools have expressed their interest to see the show “Bulgarians from older times”.
We must do everything we can so that the young are brought up with classical music. I am not limited in my interests. I love other music as well – pop, rock. But classical music gives young people access to an elevated world, which is not aggressive and which will give them culture.
What events have you planned in order to mark the anniversaries?
The entire season will be marked by the 70th anniversary of State Opera – Rousse. At the moment of our interview the general rehearsal for tomorrow’s premiere of “Tosca” is taking place, with wonderful young soloists of State Opera – Rousse, such as Boris Lukov, while Tzvetelina Vasileva from Sofia will be a guest appearance. The conductor is also young – Bilyana Valcheva.
Next, we’ll make “Bulgarian from older times”. We are staging a Bulgarian show on purpose, in order to attract Bulgarian public. We are producing this show together with dance ensemble “Koukers” and the star Nikolai Urumov will also participate. On the 27th November 1949 the first premiere of the State Opera – Rousse, took place – “Traviata” by Verdi. On this date this year we will stage a new “reading” of “Traviata”. On the 29th December 2019 we will celebrate 90 years from the birth of Gyaurov in the National Palace of Culture and to commend this even we have invited eight great bass singers from Bulgaria and the rest of the world. On the 6th December 2019 Leo Nucci comes for the first time in Bulgaria and we will celebrate the anniversary of State Opera – Rousse with him as well. We are producing ballet performances, as our ballet also marks its 70th anniversary. “Fille mal gardée” will have the premiere in November 2019. In December there will be a new show of “The Nutcracker”. In 2020 we will stage “La vie parisienne” together with the team of the musical theatre “Montmartre” in Paris. We will mount the opera “Mephistopheles” for the festival “March Music Days”, it will be mounted for the first time in Rousse. We hope that we will have sufficient energy to mount “King Igor” before the end of the season. And we are also planning to mount one of the favourite operas of the people of Rousse – “Hunters of Pearls”.
We will open the March Music Days on the 13th March 2020 with the “9th Symphony” by Beethoven. I’m talking about an intense programme, in which 99% of the participants come from the State Opera – Rousse. The young artists, the ballet, the orchestra, the people, the workshops, all work actively for the realisation of this programme.
The State Opera – Rousse has accomplished a lot of co-operations with Europe. You have ballet dancers from various countries in the world. What are your achievements in international cooperation?
You know that we work with delegated budgets (which means that the state subsidy is based on the quantity of sold tickets – translator’s note). We need to put in effort in order to work for our own public and thus to generate income. I think that this is right. When people have established the opera 70 years ago, it was an opera for the region of Rousse.
Of course, the opera theatre, which makes quality opera performances will always be interesting for its external partners – e.g. in Deva, Romania, in Graz, Austria, where we have been going for so many years. The orchestra has been making symphonic tours in France for many years. We have often visited Switzerland. We established connections in Japan.
These international contacts are not our No. 1 goal though. Our main goal is to make quality shows. When we are strong with our productions, everyone wants to cooperate with us.
What is the public like in Rousse? How do you feel your public? How do you understand their needs?
We have shows for any type of public. We have shows with the rock band Diana Express, of the singer Nina Nikolina, “False hero – the Classics of Todor Kolev”. These are shows for the wider public, not the typical opera audience. We have shows for children, for music lovers, we have ballet. We have shows for those who listen to philharmonic music in Rousse. We had to make different productions so that the opera could go on.
We have talked about the large-scale activity of the opera, but let’s not forget that Rousse is not the capital of Bulgaria. To what extent the division between center and periphery influences your work?
A wonderful question. “La Scala” in Milan is not a capital city either. Rousse has always impressed the public in Sofia with its singers – both now and in the past. Last year we performed “Lud gidia” and “Turandot” in the Opera of Sofia. They were powerful performances. The Sofia music lovers and critics speak with great respect about the Opera of Rousse.
Last year we played “The 5th Symphony” by Mahler during the March Music Days. Next, we played it in Bulgaria Hall, where the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra plays. We were met with great respect.
As I already mentioned, later this year we will have shows in the National Palace of Culture. These will be ”90 years of Gyaurov” and the Leo Nucci’s visit. It is not accidental that Leo Nucci chose to come in Sofia with the Opera of Rousse.
Therefore, Rousse is not a province in opera art.
It is not. It can’t be. And we don’t have to think like that. If we think that we are province, we close ourselves and remain with a small circle of fans. On the contrary, as an opera singer and as the director of an events agency I have always aspired to the highest goals.
Something important for Rousse as a city and for the opera are the contacts with Romania. What collaborations have you accomplished?
We are in excellent relations with the director of the Giurgiu theatre. Our ballet performed there the last year. We expect that by the end of this year they will return the visit and come to Rousse. In the past the opera often went to Constanţa or Braşov. Now for a second consecutive year we will visit the opera festival in Deva. We put on shows in front of the marvellous “Corvin” castle. Last year we mounted there “The Troubadour”. This year we mounted “Turandot” and “Carmina Burana”. We are in discussions to make “Aida”, “Traviata” and “La Boheme” next year with 99% of the performers being ours.
We have collaborations with performers from the Bucharest Opera, such as the tenor Alin Stoica. I have invited the director of the Bucharest Opera himself – Ştefan Ignat, to see the opera in Rousse. The director Cristian Mihailescu makes constantly shows in Rousse. We have great relations with the agency of Ion Pavel, with whom we collaborate in the March Music Days. We are close nations. Only the river separates us. It makes me happy to work with wonderful and honest people.
Do you have similar connections with cultural institutions from other neighbouring countries of Bulgaria? What use do these cross-border relations have?
The Opera of Rousse has no such connections. The opera in Stara Zagora makes performances in Edirne. The Sofia Opera makes visits in Greece. These cross-border relations do help. Sofia is 300 km away from here. Hunedoara is 400 km away. But we can make shows there constantly. The public is different from the one in Rousse. It appreciates and loves opera music very much. We respect them a lot.
Therefore, this is a new experience for the performers…
Yes, this is a very elevated public. I mean even the public in the provinces. Now a new cultural center is being created in Otopeni, a suburb of Bucharest. It is an accomplishment to have performances in Bucharest, where there is a musical theatre, a national opera and where one of the greatest festivals in the world takes place, with great financial support – “George Enescu”.
How do these co-operations with Romania take place? What problems arise in these co-operations? How do you overcome them?
We haven’t had any problems. When the partners are serious people, there are no problems. I’m grateful to the deputy president of the regional council Deva on the questions of culture, Daniel Andronache. He is not only a fan of opera music, but also a big friend of the opera in Rousse. When such a bond exists, things happen.
How does this relation with Romanian cultural institutions happen? Whose initiative is it?
Contacts take place on the initiative of both parties. Before becoming a director, I had a lot of friends in Romania – opera singers, set designers. When I became the director of the opera in Rousse, word got around and we started talking. The director of the theatre in Deva, Mihai Panaitescu makes shows in Giurgiu. That is how the connection with Giurgiu took place. Giurgiu has no possibility of making workshops for costumes, but we do, so we made costumes for a few of their plays.
The theatre in Giurgiu is interesting, because its team is young and it is open to international contacts. How does the cooperation unfold?
They invited us and we went there with the ballet. Now they are going to come to Rousse with a play. We are in discussions to make opera performances and gallas there. Rousse has advantages in this regard, which have to develop further. You know that an open scene is going to be constructed at the Danube quay and opera shows will be presented there. We have to attract the people and the tourists. We have to attract the public from Giurgiu. It’s only 5 km away. We have to work for greater promotion of our activities. I am sure that there will be people from Giurgiu who will come to watch opera performances. Great stars have often come to Rousse – people who sing in Staatsoper in Vienna or in ”La Scala” in Milan.
Are there sufficiently developed transport connections between Rousse and Giurgiu so that people can come?
One has to check that. I go there by car. I know that there are mini-buses going to Bucharest and Otopeni. It would be great if our politicians made such connections. We have a lot of things in common. We celebrate together St. George. Classical music is something that can bring us closer together.
The cultural initiatives between Rousse and Giurgiu are something to be lauded. But to what extent do these initiatives lead to changes in the larger part of society, in the attitudes towards our neighbours?
Last year in Deva the conducting body of the festival and the deputy president of the regional council Daniel Andronache invited politicians from Rousse. They established connections and co-operations not only in the cultural sphere. These relations, which are created because of shows, are lovely, because they go on.
How do cross-border performances influence the public in the cities where they take place?
I have been dealing with concerts’ organisation since 1996. When they invite you to return after a visit, it means you have done your job well. We are happy to be treated this way.
You describe a large scale cooperation. Do you have any personal philosophy or vision for cross-border cultural relations between Bulgaria and Romania?
I have always worked in this direction. If I become a municipal counselor, I would work for closer relations with Romania. Both people can only win, if we help one another. Let’s look for what makes us closer and makes us happy. That is what music is.
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