Ukrainian Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi was recently announced as a replacement in the title role of Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G, when the original singer had to cancel. Oksana G tells the story of a young Ukrainian woman lured into the world of sex trafficking by a recruiter who unexpectedly falls in love with her.
Natalya has performed the role of Suor Angelica with Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra and Opera Oshawa, and recently made her debut with the Brott Opera as the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. She has also sung Yaroslavna in VoiceBox’s Prince Igor, Zemfira in Aleko with Opera Five, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin with Slavic project Tchai, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Opera Nuova and Opera by Request, Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte with TSOW, and covered the part of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana with Maryland Lyric Opera, USA. Natalya successfully collaborates with Vesnivka choir, Toronto and is a guest soloist for the annual European Union Christmas Concert in Notre Dame Basilica, Ottawa. Recent recipient of the IRCPA’s Karina Gauvin Scholarship, she was awarded the Career Blueprint grant from the National Opera America Center and Sondra Radvanovsky.
I had the pleasure of asking Natalya some questions in anticipation of the world premiere of Oksana G May 24th
Are you more like your father or your mother?
Although I love and respect my mother a lot I am undoubtedly my father’s daughter. Restless and passionate about everything he took on, he had a mind of a mad inventor: he built furniture, houses, could draw cute puppies and was a successful engineer at a big plant during the Soviet era. I think I inherited his fearlessness when it comes to decision-making and I am the handyman of the family. However, my mother and I are more similar when it comes to music as my father can’t string two notes together in a tune while my mother plays piano and still sings duets with me at the dinner table. She’s the one who read us Pushkin and Tolstoy as bedtime stories and played opera recordings casually.
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
I do many things because I have to provide for my family. I call these things “survival jobs” and they have run the gamut from co-writing for Forbes Ukraine, being an usher for a Cirque du Soleil production to playing a speaking part of Rob Ford’s friend on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These experiences helped me learn discipline and time-management and allowed me to meet so many hard-working and friendly people.
However, I do struggle with finding a healthy balance. Do I go to a competition, or enroll my son in French lessons? Should I pick up a longer shift, or should I rest and be a real diva on a dime? With experience these little decisions become easier to make, but they are still a major challenge, I am sure, for many singers. But whenever I get the chance to sing and perform, it makes the “survival jobs” worth it.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Maria Callas all the way! Her interpretations are always on point. I also like watching videos of Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, or Patricia Petibon before a performance or audition to get me in the right mood. Most recently, I was preparing a modern aria about an abuse victim for Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G., so I watched several heavy documentaries on the topic before opening my music.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I’ve always wished I could play piano better. I started out as a biologist and later became a linguist so I never thought that I’d benefit from learning how to play piano well. I do play well enough to get through my notes when preparing the music, but I wish I could just spontaneously break into a jazzy arpeggio.
I’ve also always wanted to learn ballet and take some serious dance lessons. However, I am quite athletic and have had some basic, yet very valuable dance training at the University of Toronto. Let’s just say that no feet were stepped on when I had to dance in productions, but pointy shoes are probably not happening any time soon
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
My partner, Ivan Jovanovic, is a pianist and we like to travel on the rare occasion we both have time off. Even a little day trip can be very special, whether it’s a trip to Montreal or to the ROM.
On weekends, we usually explore Toronto with my son, who’s almost 12 and is the best companion for gastronomic and historical adventures. Normally you can get a brief lecture on European history over a burger and a milkshake, or, God forbid, a full classification of Pokémon. Never a dull moment.
More questions about preparing
Oksana G in a production for Tapestry Opera…
You’ve been brought in to play the lead in Oksana G. Talk about what that means, learning the part so close to the opening.
It’s a very ambitious role for me and the music can be challenging. Usually I prefer the role to settle in before I start rehearsals, but the Tapestry team has been so helpful and supportive – our motto is “divide and conquer” and we work with pianist Gregory Oh daily. I luckily have a significant advantage with Ukrainian being my second language and the comfortable tessitura of the piece so now I’ve been focusing on dissecting the scenes into excerpts that are easy to memorize.
What kind of music is this?
I would define Oksana G. as a Greek drama, but Tom Diamond, who’s the Director, describes it as an opera vérité and I completely agree. The topic of human trafficking is heavy, but the libretto is very realistic and does it justice. And I find that the music is truly respectful of the story it’s conveying. It consists of a series of dialogues that is more movie-esque than conventionally operatic – each character has their own specific way of talking and it’s incredibly clever. For example, the main anti-hero, Konstantin, who lured Oksana and many others into the world of human trafficking, has a very unsettling, immediately recognizable leitmotif – an eerie variation on Georgian folk singing.
What sort of role is this?
Oksana is such a unique and beautiful heroine. She has the purity and strength and all of the imaginable misfortune of Puccini’s heroines. However, she’s much more alive and detailed and is truly a breathing human being. With this comes the great challenge and responsibility of making her real on stage. Not to spoil the plot in any way but, I think there is a lot of Cio Cio San’s youth and strength in Oksana, accompanied by Tosca’s power. The role was written for a coloratura or a high lyric soprano, however my full lyric brings a wider palette of very Slavic colours to it.
What language or languages do you have to sing in this opera?
Oksana speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English, which is a really fortunate coincidence for me.
How would you describe yourself & your voice?
My voice has been going through some positive changes in the past few years. I’m coming from singing as heavy as Santuzza to finally settling into much more lyric, fluid repertoire. Oksana is comparable to Donna Anna and Violetta, and that’s where I find myself comfortable these days.
Oksana G. tells a story about human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Please unwrap some of the politics of this opera for us.
I grew up in Ukraine in the post-Soviet 90s and I find Oksana G. to be extremely accurate. Times were tough, people were naïve and desperate to make a living. Children, especially girls, are so vulnerable when such economic disasters unravel. I remember seeing one of my classmates suddenly coming to school dressed in a fur coat and sporting a new purse…
There were stories that my mother would share quietly over the phone: a friend of a friend went to Cyprus to work as a maid and left her old mother and a little daughter in Ukraine. They haven’t heard from her since. Those were regular women – mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, friends. They were just looking for a regular, paid job because there were no opportunities in Ukraine at the time. Oksana is an average girl – loved by her family, applying to university and looking for a summer job that can pay for tuition. Her recruiter knew exactly how to lure her and convince her parents, giving them a “legitimate” solution to their financial problem.
This issue is not in the past, unfortunately. Human trafficking is something we are dealing with right here in Canada too with hundreds of women being lured into its dark underbelly. It’s truly unsettling.
Are there any shows you’ve done or seen that now seem to have laid the groundwork for what you’re doing in Oksana G?
Suddenly I am looking at operas through the prism of Oksana G. , which has led me to question conventional operatic stories. For instance, Suor Angelica never mentions the man whom she had her son with. If she were in love, why wouldn’t she pray for both of them, or even curse the man’s name?
Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
It’s a small village really. I’ve been working with soprano Frédérique Vézina for the past three years and am very grateful to have her as my teacher. During my university studies I was lucky to be in the studio with Ingemar Korjus and then Lorna MacDonald, whom I still consult with.
There are also people like Wendy Nielsen who inspire and guide me even though I don’t study with them regularly. Her Donna Elvira at Opera Lyra was my first memorable Canadian operatic experience, and as an emerging artist I’ve learnt a lot from her both on a professional and personal level.
Oksana G has its world premiere May 24th at Imperial Oil Opera Theatre starring Natalya Gennadi, running until May 30th. Click here for tickets and further information.