Marie: Did you know the story of Iolanta growing up?
Sonya Yoncheva (S.Y.): Not at all. I had never heard this story in my life. I completely discovered it with the opera and I was absolutely fascinated. I quickly realized it wasn’t a fairy tale or a utopia, but that there was a lot of depth to explore, sentiment, modesty, unspoken and forbidden things, societal issues… I was absolutely taken by the story.
André: It is often said that Iolanta is Tchaikovsky’s only opera with a happy end, that everything in the story converges towards the positive. Do you agree?
S.Y.: Yes I agree. Iolanta’s life is so dark, the opera opens showing all the doubts which torment the young girl, and a father who sequesters her in that house, who doesn’t want to show her to the world… At the beginning of the story, Iolanta suffers very much, her feelings are blossoming and her life is passing by without her knowing anything about the world. I find the initial situation so tragic that it deserves to be channeled in a happy end!
Timothée: Stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov has announced that Iolanta and The Nut-Cracker would be two parts of one and the same show. Are the singers and the dancers united on stage?
S.Y.: Yes, completely. In one part of the performance we are all on stage. I don’t wish to say more, one really must see the show because it so well done, so well-orchestrated. I think that the transition from Iolanta to the The Nut-Cracker is a stroke of genius.
Hélène: Dear Sonya, what do you think of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production? Do you like it? Do you feel in tune with his interpretation of Iolanta?
S.Y.: Completely. When we started rehearsing I decided to trust him 200%. When he told me about his vision for Iolanta I thought he had a very keen reading of the story and an accurate understanding of what was hidden between the lines: all the doubts, the family and social tensions. Indeed I love this production. I have congratulated Dmitri a thousand times already, I think that he is a man from the future; he sees things that we, in the opera world, aren’t yet able to see.
Sarah: How did the rehearsals go? How would you describe Dmitri Tcherniakov’s cast direction?
Intense. I walked out of each rehearsal, as we say in Bulgarian, “like a
squeezed lemon”! Without energy left but at the same time charged with so much
emotion. I went back home filled with thoughts, I couldn’t sleep. During
certain rehearsals we would all be crying, it was like a therapy. His work
sessions are extremely interesting. I wish for young people interested in
becoming a stage director or a performer to witness a rehearsal with
James: In Iolanta, the eponymous character is blind, and doesn’t know it because her father hid it from her. Did you experience difficulty portraying a blind woman?
Yes, it was very difficult at the start because the challenge doesn’t only
revolve around the fact that she can’t see. Of course, one has to find a particular
angle of the eyes to create a lost gaze but what is most difficult is finding
the body language of a blind person. I observed visually-impaired people. Even
in familiar environments their bodies aren’t exactly like everyone else’s.
Something inside them always stays alert, like fire underneath the ice, which
gives a special quality to their physical presence. I spent some time looking
for that, I convince myself today that I have found the solution, at least my
solution. The difficulty was also for my partners, and even more so once I had
found my adequate body language. My colleagues were rather unsettled by my
glance and the surprising aspect of my facial expressions. It was a little bit
hard for them at the start because their characters have to coexist with a
character incredibly alive and dead at the same time, with whom little
interaction is possible. With Iolanta, one is still alone; and of course
Iolanta remains alone in a certain sense even when accompanied. That is
precisely the tragedy of her blindness, the fact that is coupled with solitude
and ignorance. What we wanted to convey was the disruption of this loneliness
through the shock of love and light. It is all so delicate that it prompted us
to work in opposition with the traditional operatic style. I would say it was
almost cinematographic. Everything had to be very precise and based on genuine
internal feelings. Dmitri’s own way of working was like a filmmaker’s.
Tristan: How do you approach this major work by Tchaikovsky when your principal engagements at the moment are Violetta in La Traviata and Mimi in La Bohème? In your view, do these roles share elements in common?
S.Y.: Yes and no, in my view the only thing these characters have in common is that they are women that live through me and my body. One can say several women live inside of me! Every time that I portray them, I try to be myself. That’s how I can bring freshness to dust off these classic characters. I’m not a fan of traditional operatic performances; subsequently that’s why we found with Dmitri so many similarities in our opinions while working on this creation.
Clément: In the course of your career, which character has moved you the most?
S.Y.: Violetta in La Traviata. But I have to say that as
days go by Iolanta is gaining a big place in my heart. Because, you know, it
all depends on the dramaturgy. If Iolanta is so moving to me, it’s also thanks
to Dmitri’s interpretation. I was completely hooked by his take on the
character. Iolanta is extremely moving because of her faith in love and her
courage. Her eagerness to discover the world is poignant. This young girl is
sequestrated in a gilded cage, l can honestly say. Her father tries to
compensate her handicap by creating a perfect environment around her,
surrounding her with loving people. But her entourage doesn’t really love her
because they’re here to serve her and they’re paid by her father to do so.
Through Vaudémont she discovers true love, and it gives her the strength to
discover the real world even though the unknown terrifies her. I would do the
same if I was in her place. I think only love has the power to change our
lives. It can open our eyes, bring us to life, it can also kill us. Feelings
are powerful weapons, playing with them is dangerous and thrilling at the same
time. Exploring the boundless range of emotions provoked by love is what
interests me most in my work.
Interviewed by Milena Mc Closkey