Doing the Right Thing: Jurgita Adamonytė and The Tsar’s Bride [The Royal Opera’s The Tsar’s Bride – 14 April-2 May 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson meets the Lithuanian mezzo-soprano who returns to Covent Garden for a new and indeed first production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s historical yet still-relevant opera…

Jurgita Adamonytė

All musicians and especially those in the classical field find that choices over what to do and what not to do play a vital part in their careers. But in the case of Jurgita Adamonytė there have been at least two occasions when doing what she instinctively felt to be right made for a rather difficult situation. In retrospect both of these decisions were the correct ones but that doesn’t lessen the courage and tenacity of purpose involved. I learn of this when I talk to Jurgita at The Royal Opera House where she follows up appearances as Dorabella and Cherubino with a smaller role, that of Dunyasha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, being presented in a new production by Paul Curran with Sir Mark Elder conducting.

I start by asking Jurgita how interest in opera came about and whether or not her parents approved of her career choice. “My parents totally failed to understand my musical ambitions. Some music they regarded as fine and indeed they had encouraged me to join a choir when I was six or seven. I was in that choir for twelve years, but that was folk music and they knew nothing of the world of classical music, least of all that of opera. They never took me to hear opera and I merely became aware of it through television, but being a teenager I had no interest in it and would switch it off. However, I did become attracted to classical music in general and I found that I loved songs. Equally I loved jazz and thought of going in for that, but the head of the choir was someone who had herself when young wanted to sing in opera but had never achieved that. It was she who pointed out that my voice would be better suited to classical music than to jazz and I worked with her with that direction in mind. After that I took private lessons with a real opera singer and then went to the Lithuanian Academy of Music. But the extent of my interest puzzled my parents: ‘Can’t you have music as a hobby while getting yourself another profession?’ They had it in mind that I had done well at school and would have been capable of emulating my brother who, five years older, had become a lawyer. That was their idea of a normal profession.”

Jurgita was at the Academy from 1997 to 2004 and pays tribute to a teacher there, Vladimiras Prudnikovas, who provided her with the grounding for her vocal technique. To start with, however, she had to make up for what she lacked regarding a general knowledge of music. “In Lithuania we have a two-year preparatory course for singers and that provided me with the music education that I had missed out on since I had never been to music school. But it came easily to me and I covered it in a single year and then went on to a first year of studies.” During her time at the Academy Jurgita took advantage of the Student Exchange Programme and went to The Hague for four months, an experience that opened her eyes. “It was like a new world in Holland. We did some contemporary music and I came across many new composers. I realised then how much I had been missing in Lithuania despite the fact that I was reaching the end of my studies there. They had no money to get new scores and we used to study from the old books of the Russian soviets. The contrast that was revealed brought home to me the desirability of trying to study further in London.”

Just how possible this move was became clear when Jurgita took the entrance exams for the big London academies, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College, and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Offered a place by all three, it was the RAM that she chose. It proved a wise decision when Anne Howells so knowledgeable in Jurgita’s mezzo repertoire became her teacher and just how much had been missing in Lithuania became even clearer. “I learnt so much from the coaches. We don’t have coaches in Lithuania and I understood for the first time the importance of language. And then during that year Dennis O’Neill came to do a masterclass and I sang for him. It was only for twenty minutes but he did miracles with me and consequently I took up his invitation to go to Ireland for ten days for some further classes and he mentioned that he was going to open his own academy in Cardiff.”

It was at this point that Jurgita had to take the first of those questionable decisions but which showed her doing the right thing. “When I met Dennis I felt that I had found a teacher who could really do things for me: he knew what to fix and how to do it. It would take time, but already I could witness results and see where to take it in the future. When he told me about Cardiff I wanted so much to go, although, quite properly, he didn’t ask me to come to him because he was aware that my two-year arrangement with the Royal Academy of Music still had a year to run. However, I decided to cut it short and to go to Cardiff. Of course, the Academy were not happy and I had to go to the Principal in order to make it clear that the decision was entirely my own and that Dennis had not poached me. So that was my choice and it resulted in the most amazing year of my life.”

The appeal of the Cardiff International Academy of Voice was enhanced by the fact that it was its first year. “Nobody knew if it would work or what would work, so Dennis would ask us what we wanted. He never imposed ideas but consulted us and that made it the exact opposite of all the other institutions where a programme has been established and you have to follow it without question.” If Jurgita’s year at Cardiff was a joy, she was also getting pleasure from participating in a whole range of competitions and often winning. Not all artists enjoy competing but for Jurgita the experience is altogether positive. “I love them totally. It’s an opportunity to meet other people and a chance to show yourself. It helped me at a time when I didn’t have an agent and had no job. Two opportunities, one in Chicago and the other with Frankfurt Opera, came to me in that way. What’s more through competitions you can sometimes win money to live on! But I’m not a person who cries if they don’t get a prize. I just love the buzz of it and, in particular, there was the summer of 2007. I had free time and I had just met my boyfriend, a pianist who is now my husband. Together we drove around Italy going from one competition to another: he would play and I would sing and being together was just wonderful. Furthermore we saw so many places. We had fun!”

At this point I ask Jurgita how it came about that she made her Covent Garden debut in 2009 when she appeared as Lucienne in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. “How I got that is a long story. When I finished at Cardiff I didn’t know where to go and had no work but then I thought of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme here at Covent Garden and decided to try for that. It took two or three months to get from the first round to the third and it was also at that time that I signed up with an agency. Then I received an invitation to go to Salzburg for an audition and they offered me Cherubino in a tour of Le nozze di Figaro the following year. And that was how I came to be confronted by this other difficult decision because I was offered a place in the Jette Parker programme but that would have prevented me from doing Cherubino. If I opted for the programme it would be uncertain what roles would come my way and in any case I had by then studied for so long that I felt the need to take this opportunity to go out into the world and see how I fared. For that reason I refused the place on Jette Parker, which was big news because people don’t do that. Making that choice was stressful because I wasn’t sure at first if my decision was the right one. People started to suggest that because of saying ‘no’ the doors of this opera-house would be closed to me. But then I received an e-mail from the casting director Peter Katona asking about my reasons for turning down the programme. I explained to him exactly what had happened and he responded by asking me to come as a guest to appear in Die tote Stadt and to cover the roles of Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. When I read that it was just like Christmas. So I did Salzburg and came to Covent Garden, returning later for The Gambler and for Così fan tutte as well as reprising Cherubino.”

When it comes to repertoire Jurgita like many artists favours Mozart. “For a young singer it’s the most comfortable and the most-healthy. Also it sits well for my voice because most of his mezzo roles are quite high and I’m a high mezzo.” In fact Jurgita started out as a soprano (in 2002 her debut was with Lithuanian National Opera as Zerlina) but she recognised for herself that an adjustment to mezzo was the right step. Another aspect that confirms how right Mozart is for her lies in the fact that, whereas some composers create only small roles for mezzo voices, his are large ones. However, the size of the role is not a consideration for Jurgita. Consequently she is very happy to be appearing in The Tsar’s Bride as Dunyasha the friend and confidant of the ill-fated heroine Marfa who, unluckily for her and for the man she wants to marry, is chosen by the Tsar to be his bride – a perfect example of an offer you can’t refuse!

When I met Jurgita she was pleased to be working for the first time with Mark Elder, in rehearsals with piano thus far. We discuss her role. “It’s a challenge because, although I’m on the stage almost as long as Marfa, I don’t sing very much. I do though create a character, one who supports Marfa and tries to make things comfortable for her. For me achieving this characterisation through acting more than through singing makes it that much more difficult and I must do it without distracting the audience from Marfa who is doing most of the singing. Getting the balance right is something to work on with the director Paul Curran.”

It was only on arriving at Covent Garden that I learnt that this production is to be given a modern setting despite the action is nominally set in 1572. “I think that the modernisation is very acceptable because people are less familiar now with Russian history and with the times of Ivan the Terrible. By bringing it nearer to the present day the audience can draw on their knowledge of more recent events and recognise the terror behind the arrival of bodyguards and of those working for the tsar. The opera is so political and that fact becomes very clear when you are invited to think of what you see in terms of the modern world.”

Jurgita is looking forward to another challenge this summer when she has a role in Janáček’s The Makropulos Case at the Salzburg Festival. But for now excitement centres on The Tsar’s Bride and a production that features many Russian natives including Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, a role much associated with Galina Vishnevskaya. “I still speak Russian because in my childhood in Lithuania we learnt it in school and at that time I had many Russian friends, but I haven’t spoken it in years. It does mean, though, that unlike some of the cast I can understand everything that the Russian artists are saying and that’s very interesting! As for the opera itself it is often done in Russia where it is considered a jewel of the repertoire. Elsewhere Puccini or Verdi will have preference, but if it’s done too infrequently worldwide that’s perhaps because managements are a little bit afraid of Russian works due to the language.”

Full of generosity for her fellow artists, Jurgita cannot conclude without picking out one of them, the singer who has what strikes Jurgita as the most impressive role in the opera, that of the conniving Lyubasha who plays her own part in Marfa’s downfall. “Ekaterina Gubanova is singing the role and she too is a mezzo. She’s a young artist who is going right to the top. She is a wonderful, wonderful talent.”

  • The Tsar’s Bride – Seven performances at 7 p.m. from Thursday 14 April to 2 May 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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