Life with my Voice: Ilona Domnich2:15, 23rd August 2016
For Russian-born Ilona Domnich, singing encompasses everything it means to be human, providing a channel for her emotional, visceral and spiritual needs. She tells Opera Now how her international upbringing and sometimes painful life experiences have shaped her profound artistry.
Was music an important part of your childhood? What are your earliest memories of singing?
According to my mother I used to smile a lot when I heard music as a baby and at three years old I repeated a song sung to me by my grandmother after hearing it just once. Over the years music has been my escape, my healer, my love and I can admit it finally – it is my life.
You studied to be a forensic scientist at one time. Do you have a very methodical mind, and does this help you in your musical career?
I notice things that a lot of people don’t. I often ask myself why do I need to notice so many details? I also remember things visually and through sensations. I enjoy analysing everything. I am curious about the human mind. So I might have the mind of a detective! These days I prefer to investigate the lives and journeys of women through my operatic heroines and their musical interpretations.
You were taught by the legendary teacher Vera Rózsa, whose pupils include Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Karita Mattila and Ileana Cotrubas. Tell us something about her – what for you, were the most important elements of her teaching?
Vera taught through the imagination and she demanded that I trust it. She gave me several lifelong gifts and much wisdom about music, singing and life, that I treasure. She used to say in her strong Hungarian accent: ‘Take care, my darling, of yourself and your beautiful voice, and all will be good.’ After her death I continued to study with her pupil Enid Hartle who added yet another dimension to my singing. Vocal teachers and coaches are crucial. I have learnt so much from all of them: Janis Kelly, Joan Rogers, Yvonne Kenny, Della Jones, Valerie Masterson. Now I work with Susan Roberts in London and Montserrat Caballé in Barcelona.
In your debut recital CD Surrender [from Signum Records] you explore many philosophical ideas about women and their transition through life. How much does your own life experience influence the characters you portray in opera?
My voice is my soul, my body, my heart, my mind: all my life’s experiences. I am fascinated by people and the choices they make and journeys they go through. I have lived in St Petersburg, Jerusalem and London and my life has gone through significant periods of transition. I have lost and found friends and relatives. For example, I re-established my relationship with my father after not seeing him for 18 years. There are many more experiences from my life that I bring on stage. The voice for me is the most expressive instrument. My ambition is to discover everything that my voice is capable of doing. I feel it’s all just beginning.
You have said that you like the idea of mystery. How much of the singing voice and its impact on people is ‘knowable’ – can you really control it, or does it control you?
I like to uncover mysteries, to discover what lies in the depths of a human heart, what hides behind the social masks, what makes us behave in a certain way. I like to watch different journeys of change. More important still are the healing powers of art and music. I sing using my body and I need to be fully connected to my feelings. I know that honesty touches people and that music has incredible powers to influence and transform people.
Last autumn, you sang all three soprano roles in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, to great critical acclaim. Many singers regard this undertaking as a ‘voice killer’ but you made it sound effortless! How do you keep the voice healthy and stress-free?
Leo Nucci once told me: ‘Sing everything with your own voice and you can sing a lot of roles that people will tell you not to.’ I find great truth in this. I also found great strength in the challenge of singing all of Hoffmann’s loves – and I enjoyed every minute. I keep a healthy lifestyle, running with my dog in the mornings, dancing, training in tai chi and trying to get a good night’s sleep to keep my mind balanced and my body connected. I have also learned tools to help myself when things get out of balance. I work with the unique therapist Aviva Wiser, a true artist in her field, with whom I have learned the life-transforming courage to face my inner self.
Are there any roles that you would particularly like to sing, and why?
Every soprano will tell you that she dreams of singing Violetta. I am no exception, especially as Montserrat Caballé tells me it is my role. I feel blessed to learn her art from her: bel canto is the hardest style to sing. I would love to perform the roles I’ve already sung on big stages around the world, especially Mimì, Mélisande, Antonia and Elle (La voix humaine); and I’d like to tackle roles such as Mozart’s Susanna, Contessa, Constanze and Donna Anna; then there’s Adina from L’elisir d’amore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden, Faust’s Marguerite, Anna Bolena… I love singing French repertoire and of course Russian.
You have a young son. Has motherhood changed your approach to your career – and even influenced the way you sing?
My son has changed my life. I have become an adult in my responsibilities and priorities – and yet I feel so young and childlike when we play all his lovely games together. I am fascinated by his imagination; his inner world is so rich. He takes an active interest in my singing, coming to rehearsals and performances with me. He sings in the New London Children’s Choir and plays different instruments. He is my sunshine.
You have been doing a lot of recital and oratorio work this year, but not so much opera. Do you have any plans to be on the opera stage again soon?
So far, this has been a great year for recitals and I have also recorded three new CDs and sung orchestral concerts with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia and RPO. In fact, I planned this year without too much opera work, as I wanted to dedicate lots of time to my son and myself following my divorce from my husband. Now that things are settling down again, I’ve been auditioning and already have few exciting opera roles coming up, including Glauche in Cherubini’s Médée; and, wonderfully, Puccini’s Mimì – one of my dream roles.
Ilona Domnich will give a solo recital to launch Rhinegold LIVE’s 2016/17 concert season at the Conway Hall, London, on 6 September. Register for free tickets here.