Maestro Plamen Kartaloff: I am in constant search of roads less travelled

Given our unbridled imagination and self-inflicted crazy challenges, we are permanently in Outer Space

My confidence that Bulgarian singers can perform anything, provided they are intelligent, well-trained vocally and have the ability to choose their roles in Wagner and Strauss operas with the right sense of tonality, expanded their horizons and gave a chance to dozens of new voices, says maestro Plamen Kartaloff in interview to Monitor.

Maestro Kartaloff, you recently sat on the jury of an opera competition in Italy, the first after the coronavirus lockdown (and as it turned out, sandwiched between two lockdowns). Did the artistic life there seem changed to you because of the pandemic? How did the jury members communicate with each other? Was there a feeling of fear and uncertainty?

Viterbo, or City of Popes as it used to be referred to, is the setting of an international competition named after one of the legendary tenors of Italy and the world, Fausto Ricci. The jury panel included some of the brightest stars of the contemporary opera scene, music critics, talent agencies, theatre managers, opera artists and teachers, conductors and directors. The chairman, Jose Carreras, participated virtually. He was forced to isolate at home after learning that he had been in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19. Some 180 young opera artists entered the competition programme. That is an impressive number. Obviously, the fear of travelling, renting a place or staying at a hotel, and getting into close proximity with a large number of people during the competition did not deter any of them. Everyone, and that includes members of the jury and young opera singers eager to shine, was in high spirits and dedicated to serving the opera art at large. The pandemic meant that organisers had to implement strict safety protocols. Giuliano Nisi, the soul of the competition, did a great job of setting it up. He is an example of daring and success in these difficult times for opera managers. Once again his competition became a stepping stone for new opera voices.

Have you heard from colleagues commenting on what the Sofia Opera and Ballet has done so far during the coronavirus crisis?

All our colleagues know about our hot artistic summer, with the Sofia Opera presenting a flurry of activities in July, August and September. In Italy, theatres closed; major, prestigious summer festivals cancelled their programmes, keep in mind that they exist mainly because of the summer tourist season, which is usually built around opera events. During the summer, the Sofia Opera focuses on new spaces “appropriated” for opera and ballet productions. Using natural settings to complete a new take on opera and ballet works has always made an impression on the audience and our colleagues. It also garners global recognition for Sofia Opera.

We are on the eve of the Bulgarian premiere of the innovative opera Elektra by Richard Strauss. For years, you have been able to plan and deal with a wide array of ambitious projects. What is your secret?

Elektra was first performed on 25 January 1909 in Dresden. Its Bulgarian debut will be on 26 November 2020 in Sofia. Why the delay, you might ask? The answer is in the vision and the innovative projections of the artistic management team. Self-satisfaction in taking well-trodden paths of repertoire tradition that includes the same Italian authors and titles, singers and directors demanding for years that familiar works best suited to star voices are performed, and steering clear of contemporary international trends, have all conspired to deprive Bulgarian opera theatres of many gems of the world's opera treasure trove, which have meanwhile been a constant in the repertoires of major and smaller opera companies around the world. My confidence that Bulgarian singers can perform anything, provided they are intelligent, well-trained vocally and have the ability to choose their roles in Wagner and Strauss operas with the right sense of tonality, expanded their horizons and gave a chance to dozens of new voices. You can hear them all in the diverse repertoire of Sofia Opera. I continue to look for and find paths less travelled in the name of my vision for helping Sofia Opera gain global recognition as a worthy and equal member of Opera Europe. This aspiration was appreciated during the organisation's world conference held in Sofia in the spring of 2018.

Has the pandemic changed the way work is done in the Sofia Opera? Are the artists fearful or itching to perform? What are they saying?

As with everyone else, there is a sense of trepidation because of the clear and present danger posed by the pandemic. We are being extremely careful with every single member of our seven teams - soloists, orchestra, choir, ballet, backstage personnel, workshop staff and administration. Each of them also has a duty to be responsible for their personal and professional wellbeing. We have relaxed, but not reduced, the artistic and production processes. We have complex and daring tasks before us in maintaining a high level of results expected of the preeminent opera house in Bulgaria. Yes, artists are always best motivated by the idea of going out on stage in front of an audience. They share how grateful they are to be able to work and have a schedule of rehearsals and shows, and to have audience. But that is not enough because - with attendance being limited to a third of capacity - this situation is economically unsustainable, especially when we get zero subsidies while remaining operational. The Ministry of Culture has provided us some security with keeping the monthly salary payments regular and promising to cover some other expenses. With the crisis we are in, this is far from nothing, even though making maximum artistic and investment commitments towards developing new projects is a huge risk in the long run.

This past summer, you performed shows on eight new outdoor stages. What other spaces do you plan on conquering next year? Outer Space perhaps?

Indeed, we are already working on our programme for the summer of 2021. The current season has been fragmented due to the obvious constraints, uncertainty and obstacles created by the pandemic. However, we are still fighting to not allow doubt or fear of the unknown creep in. We fight for what we have planned by moving dates, because the audience and opera theatre form one whole. We are adding a new and very intriguing place to our list of newly discovered settings from this past summer. As for setting up a stage in Outer Space? Given our unbridled imagination and self-inflicted crazy challenges, we are permanently out there!

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Plamen Kartaloff is a director, opera manager and educator. He was born on 15 September 1948 in Dobrich. An alumnus of the National Academy of Music in Sofia, he specialised opera directing in Berlin and film directing at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. Since the early 1970s, he has realised over 180 productions. He served as director of the Musical Theatre from 1990 until 1994. He also managed the Sofia Opera and Ballet from 1994 until 2000, where he also directed, and again from 2008 until now. He has launched a number of festivals held at unconventional outdoor locations. Between 2010 and 2013, he brought to fruition the first staging in Bulgaria and on the Balkans of Wagner's ambitious tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, using an entirely Bulgarian cast.

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