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A conversation with Elena Tsallagova
Elena Tsallagova – Sounds like fully-fledged, 14-carat opera, like a singer who combines beauty with an incredible voice, whose way of inhabiting a role can be relied upon to move an audience to ecstasies. And yes, all that is true enough, yet Elena Tsallagova is so much more. A Russian singer who has already graced all the great opera stages of the world, Tsallagova spent five years singing in a jazz band and has lived in multiple countries. So she is no stranger to hotel rooms – which is convenient, seeing as the action of the next premiere to be staged at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, on 15th June, takes place in precisely such a setting. For his opera “Il viaggio a Reims” (Dir.: Jan Bosse) Gioacchino Rossini assembles a crowd of people in a spa hotel in the French countryside, where they proceed to enjoy themselves, partying, falling in love etc. Doesn’t sound too bad at all. And what does Elena Tsallagova like about hotels?
One thing I like about hotels is that every place I get to crash in is a clean room. I don’t have to bother my head. It’s a godsend when I’m back late and everything’s clean and tidy. But spending too long in one place is not for me, because I like change, too. Maybe because I’m a Gemini and would describe myself as totally transformation-friendly. One week in the same hotel is fine, but that’s about it.

In Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims” you’re acting and singing the part of Corinna, an improv artist who rounds off the motley group in “The Golden Lily”. You’re all trying to get to Reims for the coronation party of Charles X, but for one reason or another there are no horses available and the decision is taken to party it up then and there.
We’re only in the second week of rehearsals, but I can already say this much: it’s going to be a blast. And it has to be. I think the audience is going to like it because all the party action onstage is pretty familiar stuff for a modern crowd and doesn’t smack much of a 200-year-old story. A few young people have a great time together, nothing more, but nothing less either. The nice thing about it is that the ensemble members are very young. We’re all bringing our own stories, our own life experiences to the production. We’re sharing our lives and our experiences with the audience.

Sounds like what’s happening onstage isn’t that far removed from reality. With one minor difference, of course – that nationality and place of origin meant something quite different 200 years ago to what it means today. The Europe we know today didn’t exist back then. And today a lot of people have come round to question the concept again. You’re from Russia - or Ossetia, to be precise.
Yup, I’m from Vladikavkas in northern Ossetia. And like all small nations, the Ossetians like to accentuate their boundaries and not be subsumed into our big neighbour, Russia. It’s not a huge thing for me personally. I’m proud of being an Ossetian, but I’m also proud of being a Russian and now of being a Berliner.

Are you saying you identify with a bunch of different cultures and feel at home in a variety of places?
Totally. That’s one thing I like about Rossini’s “Il viaggio”. Europe, with all that that involves in terms of heterogeneity, is thrown together, with everyone set on celebrating a new king. Back then, 200 years ago, this was a notion that didn’t go down particularly well with audiences.

Today it’s a notion that’s even more important, if you ask me. We’re lucky, of course, that borders today are no barrier to the dissemination of music. We sing together, maybe even in a language we don’t understand, and we’re all on a par with each other. We want to show people how lovely that can be.

A propos singing: Corinna is a famous improvisation artist from Rome. One of the high points in the opera comes when she improvises on a subject designated by the group. Did that kind of singer exist back then? And what’s the deal with the improvisation anyway?
Rossini’s works are hard to pigeonhole. They’re not bel canto like the operas of Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi. The interesting thing about Rossini is the variations. You can see from the score that a line is never just repeated; it’s improvised according to whatever is going on at that moment in the storyline or however the setting is changing. I learned that at the Accademia Rossiniana, when I was singing Corinna for the first time at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 2011. Before then Rossini was just a rather strange composer in my eyes, because I hadn’t ‘got’ his improvisation thing. I didn’t understand when and how something or other had to be improvised. Now I get it. The first line lays down the base structure which is then subjected to more and more variation. It’s actually a lot like jazz, and I love jazz. I’ve sung a lot of jazz. Obviously there’s a big difference: with Rossini everything is set down in notation; you don’t do your own improvisation like you do in jazz. But sometimes I try one or other of my tricks. When I’m really inspired and feel totally at home with orchestra and conductor, then I stretch my wings a little and push the envelope, going further than Rossini maybe intended. But that only works if you’re kind of bathing in trust from all sides.

So do you prefer this kind of humorous opera or do you also like singing the serious, heavy works?
I don’t distinguish. I especially like peculiar dramatic gems, little musical oddities. And I do prefer it when there’s not too much high drama onstage and in the music. One dramatic production per year is fine, but if I’m honest, I like the lighter stuff. It should be entertainment for the audience and also for us. If there’s too much doom and gloom going on onstage, hmm, not sure about that…

That kind of opera is aiming at something else entirely, right?
The more serious works want to get the audience thinking, want to explore themes from a different perspective. The lighter pieces just want to amuse the audience and give people a merry evening.
Yes, but the lighter pieces still mean something. They still have a message that can be reflected on. Sometimes a piece has more of an impact on people if they can laugh at something sad.

So are there sad moments in “Il viaggio a Reims”?
Oh, I don’t think so. This evening is all about having fun.

The interview was conducted by Renske Steen in mid-May 2018