For 2013 winner Kristina Mkhitaryan, The Queen Sonja International Music Competition was an important stepping stone in her burgeoning career as a professional opera singer. She talked to us about conquering nerves, her love of Norway, and the importance of a good meal.
Friday 23rd August 2013. A young Russian soprano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, is standing in the wings of the main stage at the Norwegian National Opera, waiting for her turn to sing in front of an audience of opera experts and enthusiasts, including HM Queen Sonja herself, in the final of The Queen Sonja International Music Competition. The room is dotted with TV cameras, broadcasting live on national television.
- I was really nervous, says Kristina, but when I got on stage and sang, the audience responded with such emotion, standing and cheering, that I knew I had done a good job. Nevertheless, winning still came as a shock.
- I didn’t believe it. It was my first big competition so winning first prize was really something special.
Since then, Kristina has performed on stages across Norway, in Bergen, Kristiansand and Trondheim, before returning to Oslo to sing the role of Violetta in La Traviata this spring. She says that winning QSIMC opened doors for her, particularly in Scandinavia.
- It’s great singing where people know you and are so appreciative. Norwegian people love me and I love Norwegians! she says, arms opened wide to the tourists milling around the roof of the opera house. Returning to Oslo from a recent trip to Moscow, where Kristina is part of the Young Artists Opera Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre, felt like “coming home.”
We will be seeing more of her too. In addition to two new productions at the Bolshoi in the autumn, Kristina will later be returning to Scandinavia as Lauretta in Gianni Schicci in Copenhagen. In autumn 2016 she will sing Juliet in Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues in Bergen.
The prestigious accolade of QSIMC winner gave a boost to her career back in Russia as well, where the biannual singing competition is well respected.
- After the competition I went back home and people said ‘You are a queen in Russia now!’
With her flowing hair and high heels, Kristina is certainly glamourous enough to be opera royalty. But despite recent success, the nerves are never quite left behind.
- Of course I am always a little bit nervous before a performance, says Kristina, but when I get on the stage I am so happy. I love that moment. I’m not scared and I know that I can do it. I love being on the stage!
A new challenge
The role of Violetta however, has been a particular challenge.
- There are so many little details and a lot of emotion. It’s very difficult but it’s helped to develop my performance.
The fantastic acoustic and what Kristina describes as the “very professional” orchestra at the Norwegian National Opera have helped.
- Of course I was scared because it’s my first La Traviata, but once I came here and tried, I understood that I could do it. Then I relaxed and just did my job. It’s a really very interesting production.
Opera for beginners
La Traviata is a classic, and a milestone for many singers, but would she recommend it to the uninitiated? We asked Kristina for her recommendations for those new to the opera experience. The most important thing, she says, is to understand.
- Russian people for example, must start with Russian opera. If you don’t understand anything, it’s difficult to engage.
She also advises watching stars like Plácido Domingo on youtube as a good introduction to the genre.
But most importantly, before visiting the opera, you must eat well!
- If you are sitting there and want to eat you will just get up and go home! I do it myself when I go to see a challenging production. I eat well so I can sit and listen and understand.
As a performer Kristina draws her energy from the audience. The role of spectator therefore also requires investment, engagement and concentration. Not an easy task on an empty stomach!
A formative experience
Kristina’s own first encounter with live opera was seeing legendary Russian opera star Makvala Kasrashvili in Tosca at the Bolshoi. It was a formative experience for her, which she speaks of in glowing terms.
- I thought, ‘Maybe someday I could sing here.’ And now I’m singing on the same stage!
The story of Kristina’s transition from spectator to performer at the Bolshoi is, by now, a familiar one. Standing in the wings, - I remember my heart was thumping and I was very, very nervous! But, when I had done it many times I began to just think about my role, and the emotion.
For Kristina, the stage, whether in Oslo, Moscow or anywhere else, is her element. Standing in front of an audience, sharing emotion, she is at home.