Sonya Yoncheva
Photo by Alex de Brabant

Sonya Yoncheva: “Art cannot be lost”

Short Profile

Name: Sonya Yoncheva
DOB: 25 December 1981
Place of birth: Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Occupation: Opera singer

Ms. Yoncheva, do you need to be fearless to be an opera singer?

Yes, it is essential! For every artist, actually, not just in opera, but in all art. We need to make something that is special, and I think we must be fearless to show our real personality in that way. No one wants to see someone on stage simply repeating the same story — what is the purpose of that? Building a quality performance means that you make it unique. For example, opera always asks you to hide your personality: we can hide behind the different characters and nobody really can understand is it La Traviata? Is it Tosca? Or is it Sonya? I believe that we should always show this little part of us.

It must take a certain confidence to speak up for that idea, as I’m sure many directors and conductors would prefer you just sing the lines you’re given.

Yes. I'm a musician since the age of six, I started in music very early, I learned all the history of music, I have disciplines of all kinds; the piano, history of music, harmony, composition… I am swimming in this world forever. Even when I was a young singer, I always had an opinion of what I was doing and I always knew when something was wrong. And I always needed to say it! But when I did that, not everybody was happy about it. They would say, “Oh, but she's too young, she should just shut up and do the job. She should be happy that she's even here.” All these kinds of comments. And I think this is wrong. This pressure that we put on the artist, that’s how the artist loses their personality. And I think this is a big pity.

“My first role is always to defend the music. I preferred rather to be myself than to feel like a puppet.”

How would you deal with those kinds of comments?

I was always very free! Sometimes I would take the risk to be hated, sometimes I also quit productions because I said that way of thinking was insane, or that I don't identify with this. It was totally unacceptable to me if someone wants to, for example, cut few pages of music just because he thinks that the composer was not very inspired or that this is boring. So my first role is always to defend the music and to defend my art form. That was me! I preferred rather to be myself than to feel like a puppet. Someone told me when I was really young, “Don't be afraid to be yourself.” And this is what I did, of course.

Is the fact that your music will live on long after you’re gone also part of the motivation for you to stay true to yourself?

Oh, yes, absolutely. I have two children, and often I think about them and how when I’m gone, they will be here listening to an old CD of mine, thinking, “At least I can I can hear her voice.” I think this is very charming. It's very nice. And then, of course, I also think about the other generations of opera singers coming behind me… It's so important that they can have a real testimony of how it was in our ears. I think that what stands the test of time is really the memory of people hearing us singing somewhere. I sometimes I have some fans coming to me and saying, “50 years ago, I was listening to Maria Callas in this theater, and I was only 12 years old.” They’ve witnessed history.

Do you have your own memories like that?

Well, for my generation of opera singers, we are so happy to have a recording of Enrico Caruso, for instance. That is amazing. It just shows how important it is that we somehow do our job now, and find a way to pass it on to the new generation. It’s important that today we have the privilege of having those technologies, that everything can be recorded.

During the pandemic, many theaters and opera houses also started recording their performances and streaming them live, and now we’ll have those recordings forever.

Yes, because in the past, only really the most important major theaters in the world could really do it. Now, we can see it at every level! During Covid, video recording became something so common, and that was really a relief for the audience, you know, they could be at home and watch the show or a concert performed anywhere in the world on their computers. I think it's important because this helps to promote our art, I love that we can do this, that we can really reach people all around the world in a very easy way.

Do you think or maybe worry that these streams or video recording will replace live performance?

Oh, no. Nothing can really replace the sensation of being in the theater. Have you been to Metropolitan Opera House in New York? It’s just so huge, it's so amazing. It's one of the temples of the opera world, and you really feel like you're going to hear something unique… Even just being inside there, it is phenomenal. Theaters have so much history. They're like churches, somehow people feel protected in there. I don't know why.

It must have been frustrating, then, that during the pandemic, theaters were not initially seen as essential spaces in terms of where funding was directed.

That was really frustrating! But at the same time, you know, if I were president of a nation, I would rather first think about the safety of my people and their health, of course, their state of mind. So I do understand, but it also turned out that the thing that helped so many people during the pandemic was music and art. Friends of mine performed in hospitals and things like that. I think theaters and institutions understood the importance of art in this time.

“Art is so timeless. It cannot be lost. It’s a part of our world heritage, and we need really to take care of it.”

You even organized an opera gala in Sofia, Bulgaria during the pandemic as a gift to the people of your country.

Yes, I wanted to communicate with my people there to give them a little bit of courage and a little bit of light after the lockdowns started to lift. Another project that was very special to me took place when we were right in the eye of the hurricane, during this early period where nobody could work. I had so many conversations with my friends and colleagues who were all devastated by the circumstances.

The music world was hit especially hard during this time, right?

Because a lot of singers are living day by day, week by week, or project by project, so they can’t think about the possibility that this can stop. I consider myself in a privileged position because even in the pandemic, I was one of the first artists to be offered a job. And I had to think how to help. Maybe I’m not able to offer them what I have, but maybe I can talk to some people that I know, and they can possibly imagine that some help, some aid was going to be organized. This is how we managed to create this concert series called Perpetual Music, in collaboration with Rolex. We thought about many different forms, where and how to perform, how to record it, and finally settled on the solution of having many of the brands ambassadors offer this opportunity to our colleagues to perform again. I was really happy because Rolex did something that was almost impossible: to organize it during a pandemic, to do it at such a high level, and to provide this financial aid to all these people… I was really proud.

It’s also a bit of a wake-up call about how fragile the music industry really is.

You know, it was always the case. I mean, in human history, there have been so many wars, people destroying the world, illnesses and pandemics of all types, moments of catastrophe… But art was the form that really survived this. It's a part of our story and I truly want to preserve it. I want to work to give people the chance to simply feel the release of being in touch with such a special form of art. That’s why I think that art is so timeless. It cannot be lost. It's a part of our world heritage, and we need really to take care of it.