By GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press
VIENNA (AP) — Vesselina Kasarova's repertoire ranges from Donizetti to Wagner. Critics rave over her voice and her character depictions are the gold standard for young singers aspiring to opera stardom.
Asked recently if she would again become a singer from her present perspective at the top, she shrugged.
"Maybe not," she said. "Maybe I would have become an actress."
The opera stage would be a poorer place without Kasarova — but with the path to success rocky and the fight to stay the best exhausting, the famed mezzo-soprano is ambivalent about whether the pros of the profession outweigh the cons.
Such doubts might appear puzzling to opera goers who have experienced the versatile 46-year old Bulgarian on stage.
Her singing appears effortless, burnished and warm in the lower registers and as clearly textured and free-flowing as clover honey up top — a voice New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini described in 1999 as "unforgettable and deeply affecting." Her dramatic skills are superb, letting her master even pathos-ridden roles without being maudlin. She owns the stage — and seems to do so naturally.
Trained as a concert pianist before she opted to study voice, Kasarova, who now lives in Zurich, Switzerland, gained attention in the late 1990s, first with the bel canto works of Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.
She debuted internationally at the 1991 Salzburg Festival in Austria as Annio in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito." Since then, she has appeared on many of the world's major opera stages and expanded her repertoire to the point where she is equally at home with the works of Wagner and Richard Strauss, French opera, lieder and oratorios both live and in the recording studio.
But Kasarova says the ease she projects is hard work. The road to success, she says, is paved with sacrifices that can be as minor as doing without ice cubes in her drink to save her voice and as emotionally tasking as missing out on birthdays and other family occasions while on the road.
"Sometimes when I think of all that I do for my voice, I think I don't want to go on," she said, during a stop in Vienna, where she will perform works by Mozart, Donizetti, Tchaikovsky and Verdi with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova at the Austrian capital's gilt Musikverein concert hall April 30.
She says that after 10 years on stage, most singers develop common cold-like symptoms year-round, "because we breathe in dirt, dust and odors" while performing. Ailments affecting the breathing passages occur as frequently for singers as joint problems for professional tennis players, Kasarova explains.
And like athletes in a fiercely competitive environment, some singers turn to drugs to perform instead of opting for a rest. But the gain is only short term.
Overuse of steroids in the form of cortisone is common, say singers and doctors treating them. The treatment masks problems with inflamed vocal cords but the problem worsens to the point where operations may become necessary. That, in turn can change a voice — and even ruin it.
Tenor Endrik Wottrich first outed the pressure and resulting abuses behind the opera curtain in 2007 after harsh criticism for canceling a performance of the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Germany, because of a cold.
"We are faced with the choice of performing and being attacked because we sing one false note, or being attacked because we are taking care of ourselves," he told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
To deal with their tensions, "soloists are taking beta blockers to control their angst, some tenors take cortisone to push their voice high, and alcohol is everywhere," he said.
"The real pressure is no longer good old stage fright but comes from a new dimension that has penetrated opera — it now lives from glamour, and normal human mistakes are a disruption in such an environment."
Kasarova describes cortisone use as "an infernal circle" that sometimes becomes an addiction. Others, she says, abuse sleeping pills to try to escape stresses of performing that have grown in the past decades as stages get bigger, orchestras louder and opera seasons longer than ever.