You started your career as a pianist. What made you change course and start singing instead?
As a pianist I realised how much the hands sing when they play. My piano teacher sent me to listen to bel canto and Mozart operas, so I could play better. I was amazed when listening to Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe, Freni, Pavarotti, Domingo by the depth of what the human voice can express. Listening to their beautiful singing ignited my soul and my heart has burned passionately since about singing. I feel that a human voice has immence power to touch the depth of emotions and feelings. When I sing I am tapping into my inner courage, surrender and honesty. I find it very liberating and healing too. But it was a long journey, as at that time I was studying forensic science, as well as piano.
What is your favourite soprano role?
The one I am learning or singing at a given moment. I have dream roles and I have roles that I loved singing, that have changed my life. Yet I love starting a new role, I am curious to discover everything about my heroine. It is like an investigation, the fingerprints and the DNA of a woman who I sing. Besides, in every opera there is always huge drama and crime involved. The only difference is that I am giving my heroine a new life and for a short time she is able to live her life fully through me.
Most recently, you sang the role of Mimì to great acclaim in ETO’s production of La bohème. What was your experience of touring this work?
I loved every minute, discovering the role with James [Conway – ETO General Director] and Michael [Rosewell – ETO’s Music Director] and wonderful collegues and performing so many times for very welcoming audiences. I was worried in the beginning that there is not enough music for the intensity of my Mimì and her journey, but the more I sang, the more I realised that it is all in Puccini’s music and in the Italian language. He is a genius. Every single performance was different and I found something new about my Mimì and her relationships with other bohemians.
Traditional productions or modern adaptations?
I like both. What matters for me is finding the soul of my character and following her emotional journey. Opera for me is about building up and releasing the tension, digging into the female underworld and finding the balance between the light and the darkness, so directors are free to create this by any possible means. I like clear, not overwhelming productions, so people can see themselves in our characters, can be touched deeply. I also like productions full of imagination, unexpected surprises.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
Of course! I like dancing to pop music getting my energy flowing and then a quiet time to centre myself in order to fully focus on the performance.
This autumn you will sing in our new production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. What can you tell us about the piece and the (three!) characters that you play?
I am hugely excited and honored to be given such chance. It has been very rare in soprano history that one soprano sang all three. I am taking the challenge because I feel ready, mature enough and I would like to experience it. I will play a beautiful mechanical doll, a poorly singer and a provocative prostitute. It won’t be easy and I know I will enjoy it!
Last year you were chosen by Opera Now as one of their Top 10 High Flyers, “sopranos who are destined to have impressive careers”. What other artists had the biggest influence on you musically?
It was wonderful to be chosen. The magazine has also followed the release of my CD ‘Surrender’ on Signum Records, with a 4 star review and an article as ‘Artist of the month’ which I am so thrilled about. I have many influences, all my teachers and coaches, many inspiring collegues… Amongst them are Caballe, with whom I had a master class; Leo Nucci- with whom I recorded the duets from Rigoletto; Domingo – who I am dreaming to meet; and Natalie Dessay – my greatest inspiration with her fearless singing and incredible feminine confidence and natural beauty. I am inspired by theatre, movie actors, by cartoon characters, by jazz and pop musicians.
How do you learn a new role?
On the go, between concerts and playing football with my son (amongst other mother/son activities). I learn through text and by creating associations. I enjoy the investigation sometimes too much and often leave the memorising for later. I often secretly wish that rehearsing an opera would be as actors rehearse their roles – reading the text and music together and creating it from scratch!
In the July 2015 edition of Prospect magazine, opera and theatre director Fiona Shaw said that if she ruled the world she would make sure that every child was given a musical instrument. What would you do?
I agree with her, learning a musical instrument gives children confidence from a very young age. The moment a child manages to play a few notes, he feels that he can do something special, which is the most magical feeling, and translates later to other spheres of the child’s life. It also teaches a child to concentrate on one activity for longer. I would also take children to an opera from a young age. Opera is full of wonderful stories and it opens the world of feelings, something that we need to teach our kids early. So if I could influence the world I would send children to see operas, just as they go to movies or football.
Finally, what would you say to a young person considering a career in opera?
Breathe through the ups and downs, be patient, work hard, be hungry for learning and listen to your deep inner voice.
Ilona sings the triple role of the Three Heroines in ETO’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Friday 9 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann