My Modest Art: Vladimir Chernov

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

As one of the preeminent, and much adored, baritones in the world of Opera, Vladimir Chernov’s luxuriously refined voice, and outstanding musicianship, has mesmerized theatregoers across the hemispheres for the past 30 years. Having sung in many of the great operas of the nineteenth century, he is particularly respected for his performances in La traviata, Don Carlos, Luisa Miller, Il trovatore, La forza del destino, Stiffelio, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La bohème, Eugene Onegin, and Pique Dame. Chernov’s recordings include collaborations with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri te Kanawa, Cheryl Studer, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Kirov Opera and Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, and the Welsh National Opera and Chorus. His pedagogical and interpretative skills are frequently in demand as a facilitator of vocal Master Classes. Chernov is currently Professor of Vocal Studies at UCLA.

We spoke with him in the midst of his adjudicating duties as Chairman of the jury of the international singing competition, Vissi D'Arte, in Prague. At this stage in the competition he admits to being "very happy" with the quality of competitor, and looks forward to announcing the winner after tonight’s Gala concert.

Born into a southern provincial village outside the city of Krasnodar in Russia, Chernov’s childhood was steeped in music. The family gramaphone delighted the young boy with selections of works from the great canon of classical and operatic repertoire, including native folk music and ballet. His father, a highly educated school principal, taught him German, poetry, and literature, among other subjects. Singing was an everyday part of life in the Chernov household. However, none of the family followed a professional career in music. Vladimir pursued his baccalaureate studies in furniture production and design in Maykop, before embarking on military service. At the age of 21 he enrolled in musical studies with Mikhail Chugunov in Starvropol, and entered the Tchaikovsky State Moscow Conservatory in 1976. Here he studied with Gyorgi Selesnev and Gugo Tiz until 1981. Chernov remembers his time at the Conservatory with great affection:

It was the best time for me! I can find every second of my life in my time there...it was a sad time for me too as I lost my family…my parents died very young. When I graduated, my teacher told me that I should not rush to the opera stage, because I was not yet matured. I was 28 years old and my voice was not strong enough to sing opera. I agreed.”

Following Chernov's graduation, Valery Gergiev, the principal conductor and artistic director of the Mariinksy Theatre in St Petersburg, offered him a place on the Young Artist program, which he happily accepted. He was then afforded a soloist’s position and “jumped at it”. Memories of this time fill the baritone with warmth and nostalgia, as he speaks of the profound influence Gergiev had on his early career. (In fact, Chernov admits to "seeing Valery" in his dreams last night, even though they have not worked together in over 14 years.) Ultimately for Chernov, this time in Russia, which he considers “the centre of one of the most profound classical musical traditions in the world”, served as the catalyst for his illustrious career.

During those formative years at the Mariinsky, Chernov’s talents came to the attention of opera companies in Europe and America. He subsequently received several engagements in Scotland, Boston, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. In 1991 he left Russia for the Metropolitan Opera in New York to embark on an international career, and has never looked back.

When asked if he would ever return to the Mariinsky Theatre, Chernov answers:

Yes! I would definitely, but the situation...as you know...there are human factors involved. I miss it! My heart belongs to Russia. I will die as a Russian singer".

For him, the initial move from Russia to America with his wife Olga, and son Volodya, was not difficult:

The political situation became very friendly and very open-minded. For me the transition to America was easy. It was not emigration; it was just a temporary step. My son enrolled in school in Manhattan, and we then decided to stay in New York.

Since those early years, Chernov has appeared with some of the most prestigious companies in the world including the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, the Royal Opera House, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the LA Opera.

Of the many highlights to date, the dynamic Chernov notes his collaborations with American conductor and pianist James Levine as being of particular significance. He also speaks fondly of his work with Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti, among a plethora of other musical figures. He remembers many “beautiful moments” from his operatic career, and felt happiest when “the world started to appreciate”, what he refers to as his “modest art”. Unfortunately, however, this notoriety did not initially come from Russia, but America and Covent Garden — the latter of which, invites an enthusiastic response: “I love London, and British people, and British culture”.

Having established himself as a Verdian baritone, Chernov has moved seamlessly between the Italian and Russian operatic repertoire throughout his career. When asked about the difficulties in singing in both styles he responds with:

We shouldn’t consider a difference between the vocal productions of both styles as this is the unique language in which we are trying to produce the composer’s voice...in the sound etc... If we think of the character Figaro, for example, which is written in the Italian language and based in Spain...who am I? I’m a Russian boy from a small village, so I’m pretending to illustrate Spanish/Italian culture. It’s extremely difficult, but as you see, lots of other nations...the French, American, and German...all do the same thing, so music is universal, and everybody needs to work hard to speak the language fluently.

"Look at the English baritone Thomas Allen and other British singers; they are amazing in Italian repertoire or in French. He is a genius in the operetta. He was so amazing in La Scala’s production of 'Don Giovanni' that I could not tell the difference between him and an Italian singer.

As opera singers we work hard to accomplish less differences between style, language and of course how we look. Some people only have Russian body language and they are not suitable for singing Italian opera.

For me...Russian opera is about melody, whereas Italian opera contains triple melody...it’s amazing!

As a cherished member of the vocal faculty at UCLA, Chernov shares his thoughts on his teaching ethos:

I have dedicated my last 6/7 years to teaching and I do not regret it. If you prepare for each lesson well then it works very well. If you loose focus on your lessons, then students don’t cooperate as well as they should, so it is important to be mentally well prepared. As teachers we do not allow ourselves to get results in one lesson alone... Lots of teachers do that and it doesn’t work like that. If you respect the process and the student understands the reason behind this process, then success will be achieved!

When asked what advice would he give to students hoping to follow a career in opera, Chernov replies:

Oh darling...there are many advices, but make sure that your intuition is not mistaken. You have to create...you have to build up your own criteria of self-evaluation. You have to develop that capacity. You need to know who you are at this moment, and what you are looking for today, tomorrow, and then after tomorrow. Then it is going to be much easier for you to avoid getting lost, or avoid disappointment etc... This world today is getting extremely hard and competitive due to the number of musical institutions, colleges, schools, technology etc... The microphone poses many problems for opera singers today...they loose breath control. There is a real art behind learning the different techniques involved in using microphones".

"But most of all, singers needs intuition and good luck!

These days the Russian baritone enjoys the freedom he feels from solo recital performances. He finds the interpretative intimacy of being “alone” with his pianist especially enriching. In this medium he can “express” intonation, tempo, and dynamics, of his own choosing. Here, he is free to select the “colour” of his voice, as opposed to opera “where sometimes you are stressed with rigid dynamics and bad feelings etc...”.

Chernov’s wife, Olga Toporkova, is a renowned expert in the technique of Bel-canto singing. Described by her husband as “an amazing vocal teacher”, Olga currently teaches at the Alfred Cortot École Normale de Musique de Paris. The musical pair manages to meet up every 3-4 weeks.

When asked about his philosophy of life, Chernov concludes cheerfully:

I am enjoying every day of my life and I’m trying to build a clear and stable consistency in my approaches. I’m trying to learn how to realize the maximum from my life. I want to increase my level of spirituality, which helps me to live a better and more fulfilling life and in doing so, create a better harmony with my body. So far it has worked very well. I have good people around me who give me lessons and suggestions etc... For me this is extremely important. I want to live the last days of my life as much in the spiritual world, because when my spirit is strong, my body is happier and stronger. I watch my diet, and am very selective with my company. In my free time I enjoy perusing antiques in the flea market and reading books. Working with people can be tiring and requires lots of energy, so being alone sometimes helps me to focus on myself. Then I can help other people.

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