Tamar Iveri: Dying to Sing

With Talent and Determination a Georgian Singer Begins a Promising Career at the Staatsoper; An Exclusive Interview

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili | February 2008

The International Mozart Competition is a kind of Olympics of music, held once every four years in Salzburg. There will only be one chance for many young performers, two at the most, and for the winner, the entrée to a major career.

For Tamar Iveri, a Georgian soprano, it was a dream come true when she won first prize in 1999, starting her long route to fame.

We met on a cold evening in December, when the weather in Vienna is exceptionally unfriendly and looking out the window makes you want to postpone every single meeting. It was 19:00 when I entered Café Europe on the Graben and found a free table in the crowded café, pulled out my notebook and nervously looked through the notes I had made in advance. Busy, jotting additional thoughts, I did not notice her approach.

Suddenly Tamar Iveri was right beside me, in tight black silk pants with a matching top, a very elegant cashmere white jacket with black flowers on it and black stilettos with a matching purse. It was a striking impression. In addition to being a good-looking woman, tall and slender, with catlike eyes alive with character, full red lips, cut-glass cheekbones and dark black hair falling on her shoulders, the power and elegance of her persona was obvious. To me she looked like Carmen.

Tamar set her phone on silent mode, apologizing that she could not turn it off. It was a nice gesture; I knew how busy she was. We started talking about Austria. She loves it here, and is grateful for the way the country has treated her.

"It’s impossible to fool the Austrian audience," said Iveri with a laugh, as she settled in her seat and a waiter appeared at the table.  But she loves the atmosphere of the Staatsoper; just as there are professional singers, there are professional audiences, and Austrians are exactly that. An unprofessional audience is very distracting, people "who always clap loudly, no matter if the singer performed well or badly."

At the Wiener Staatsoper she has never witnessed musical illiteracy.

So the September day in Graz six years ago will be one she will long remember as the beginning of a relationship with a musical public that has changed her life, she said as the coffee arrived. She was working in the Grazer Opernhaus when she received the phone call from the director of the Wiener Staatsoper, Ioan Holender who had attended her performance there as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.

Had she had ever sung Mimi in La Boheme on the big stage, Holender wanted to know. Tamar hesitated only a split second…

But then as if some kind of power took hold of her and made her lie, she said,  "Yes." It was a once in a lifetime opportunity she could not bring herself to pass up.

"So, you will sing one performance in November," Holender concluded.

Iveri only had one month to prepare her debut as Mimi at the Wiener Staatsoper.  She knew she could do it technically, and after only a few rehearsals with her vocal coach, she went on stage and sang La Boheme, one of the most famous and popular operas in the repertoire in front of the un-foolable Viennese audience. It was a huge success, and not a single soul, including Holender, realized she had never performed this opera on stage before. He was thrilled by her skill.

Later though, when he found out the truth, he was shocked at her bravado, daring to perform an opera – and particularly Boheme – for the first time at the Staatsoper. Since that day she has become the "permanent Mimi of the Staatsoper."

Breaking into the Vienna music scene as a Georgian was difficult, Iveri admitted, as she stirred the coffee.

"When you, as a girl from an unknown country, arrive in Europe, everyone looks at you skeptically," she said. "You have to prove that your vocal school and abilities are not worse than the Europeans or might even be better." However, even though the demands were higher, there were no barriers she could not cross. "Here, in Europe, authorities help the musicians from their countries. In Georgia, you are invited to the charity concerts to sing for free, and the videos of what you have done in Europe are broadcast on TV."

Mostly, it is a question of will and courage. If you are good enough to "create weather," to stir things up enough, she says, you won’t stay unnoticed.

On Jan. 14, Iveri made her debut in Mozart’s Don Giovanni performing the role for the first time in the Staatsoper, even though she had sung Donna Anna’s part all over the world, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, 2003-2004, Sachsische Staatsoper Dresden, 2004, and the New York Metropoliten Opera, 2005.

She sees singing Mozart at the Staatsoper both as an honor and a responsibility.

"You have to be a real master to impress them" Iveri said.  "When you are singing Verdi and Puccini it’s different. The connoisseurs of those are Italians; whoever has the combination of hot blood rushing in their veins, voice and emotions will somehow sing. The Viennese audience is not as demanding [for these composers] as with Mozart and Strauss. Mozart needs intellect and reasoning.’’

She adores Mozart; she likes to think about every movement, every word, gesture, phrase and during this reasoning she feels she grows.

"My favorite roles are when the whole performance belongs to a woman," she said, her eyes shining. There was a glow of self-confidence and harmony in her face; I could see a strong woman who wanted to be the leader on stage. The part of Adriana Lecouvreur in Francesco Cilea’s opera is one of her favorite roles; it’s a very difficult part psychologically, since the heroine Adriana Lecouvreur was a real person, the very famous actress of the dramatic theater who made revolutionary changes in the history of the theater. This opera is a story of her life, and this part is known as a role of the divas, staged only for primadonnas.

"There is a fifteen minute monologue, called Fedra’s monologue in this opera, during which the music stops and you have to transform yourself into the actress and read this dramatic monologue," she said. Iveri relished the challenge; the experience opened her and gave deeper insight into herself as an actress.

"You have to carry to the audience all the depth and the beauty of this woman who, despite being one of the most intelligent, famous and respected women of her time, was an ill-fated lady who died for love, Tamar said. In order to make the audience pity her at the end of the opera during her death, you have to make them fall in love with her in the beginning, portraying her not as an arrogant actress, but a tragic woman who suffers a lot.

Iveri will be performing Boheme again in March (4, 7, 10), in the Wiener Staatsoper production by Franco Zeffirelli, which she says is the most beautiful, and the only one that is never restaged, because of its immortality.

It is one of her favorite roles.

"I am always high spirited while performing," she said. "The decorations of Rudolph’s house, the poor poet who lives in the attic, reminds me of my grandmother’s house, which was located in one of those ‘Italian Yards’ (patio) where the houses are standing tight up against each other, creating the atmosphere of coziness and closeness to the neighbors."

In the tradition of Grand Opera, Iveri prefers parts where her character dies, a dramatic climax to which she builds over the several acts and tells her story until the moment of death.  Every performance transmits episodes of the lives of the characters from the happiest to the saddest ones, from triumph to tragedy.

"It is a whole life that you are living on the stage," Iveri said. When Mimi appears in Act I of La Boheme, she is a poor sick woman with tuberculosis, living in poverty. When she finds love, her life changes. Despite her illness, Mimi is full of energy and life, but after her Rudolpho abandons her, she starts to fade, and finally in the fourth act she dies quietly, as if falling into a deep sleep.

"No performance is worth doing if nobody dies," she said laughing. She is not a fan of happy endings.

Suddenly, her phone started vibrating; she apologized, saying this was an important call that she had to answer. Iveri pressed the button and started speaking in Italian. Her laughter sounded like music, her words a caress of velvet. But that is just the beginning I realized.

"A voice is not enough in becoming a professional singer," she had told me earlier. "It’s like having a Steinway at home; you also have to know how to play it."

Knowing how to make music is a long, difficult path, learned in the European tradition. Tamar Iveri compares this talent to a rough diamond, one that needs to be cut and then polished gently in order to mold it into a jewel of real value. She is grateful to have been given the chance, and is still molding herself on the way to perfection.

It takes a lifetime, as she well knows.



Tamar Iveri’s Next Performance:

Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci

By Giacomo Puccini

Feb. 17, 20, 23, 27, 18:30

Wiener Staatsoper

1, Opernring 2

(01) 513 1 513



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