Victoria Ivleva-Yorke

Issue: June 2017

Mister Big

2:51, 26th July 2017

With his large, earthy baritone voice and a powerful stage presence, George Gagnidze is one of today’s leading dramatic baritones who has taken the world’s major opera stages by storm. He talks to Victoria Ivleva-Yorke about his unusual musical upbringing in war-torn Soviet Georgia and some of the roles that have come to define his career so far

When people of my (venerable) generation were growing up in the days of the Soviet Union, there was a general belief that people from the Caucasus, especially Georgia, were exceptionally good singers. I’ve always wondered if this were true, so the opportunity to put the question to a Georgian singer whose talents are indisputable was not to be missed: ‘Yes, it is,’ comes the unequivocal answer from George Gagnidze, the Georgian baritone who is taking the world’s opera stages by storm with singing that combines raw, earthy power with beautifully nuanced emotional truth: a big man with a very big voice. Gagnidze, typical of a Soviet intellectual pedigree, comes from a family of scientists: his mother is a chemist, and his father, a physicist and a mathematician. However, unlike so many of his peers, he wasn’t a hot-housed child, forced into a rigorous regime of music, chess or figure-skating lessons. ‘We just sang at home, with my dad and sister,’ he says, disarmingly. ‘She played the guitar, and I sang along. With my friends, we always sang all sorts of Georgian songs. My father performed in his trade union ensemble and was even laureate of one of Georgia’s amateur music festivals. I have a photo of my dad wearing the traditional Georgian men’s dress, called a chokha, holding a dagger!’

Criminal mind: Puccini’s Scarpia in Tosca at the Vienna State Opera. Image credit: MICHAEL PÖHN
Criminal mind: Puccini’s Scarpia in Tosca at the Vienna State Opera (Image credit: MICHAEL PÖHN)

One sort of music that is close to Gagnidze’s heart is the extraordinary polyphonic choral singing that is such a distinctive part of Georgia’s popular musical culture – an exuberant cross between Orthodox church music, Eastern chant, folk music and yodelling, it’s an ancient secular tradition that lies at the heart of Georgian identity: ‘It’s in the blood of any Georgian,’ Gagnidze says. ‘But I never planned on being a singer. I liked theatre. I used to go to a drama club, and I really liked acting. My parents and I would often go to the theatre – there were three of them near our house. When it came to choosing a life path when I was 12 or 13, I dreamt of becoming a lawyer.

That, I suggested, seems a surprisingly boring ambition for teenager: ‘No,’ he says emphatically. ‘I wanted to become a barrister or a detective, to solve crimes and deal with the psychology of criminals… In the end, though, I went to study at institute of automotive engineering!’ he laughs.

When it came to a career in opera, as is so often the case, life took a series of accidental turns, starting with the visit of a friend of George’s father: ‘He was a footballer and a self-taught musician who played all kinds of folk instruments. When he heard me singing, he said I should become a singer. I laughed it off – after all, we all have voices here in Georgia! But he kept on insisting, and my parents supported him. So I went to audition in front of Olimpo Helashvili, a professor at the Tbilisi Conservatoire, to find out whether I have a voice or not. This was some time around 1988. The professor asked whether I knew solfeggio and could read music. I knew nothing about either.’

It was an unpromising start. ‘I remember my dad asking, “Can George achieve anything?”,’ Gagnidze recalls. Fortunately, Professor Helashvili recognised raw talent when he heard it and insisted that Gagnidze commence intensive studies in music theory and vocal technique. Two years later, the singer was admitted to the Tbilisi Conservatoire.

It wasn’t the easiest time to be living in Tbilisi. The Georgian civil war was in full swing, and tracer bullets flew all around the Conservatoire while Gagnidze was trying to focus on his scales and arpeggios. ‘We started studying at our teachers’ homes – this was safer. Soon after, I started taking chamber singing lessons from Professor Tamaz Laperashvili, who taught me a lot. It is even written in my Tbilisi Conservatoire graduation diploma that I’m a teacher and a chamber singer.’

By the time he was in his third year, Gagnidze began performing at the Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, making his debut as Renato in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Once again, fate intervened when the veteran Georgian tenor Zurab Sotkilava came from Moscow to sing the role of Riccardo in that same production. ‘I know it’s not very modest of me to say so, but it’s true – Sotkilava was delighted with me and said: “You, young man, will go far!”.’

Encouraging words like this inspired Gagnidze to set his sights on an international career. In 2001, he left Georgia and took part in the Leyla Gencer Voice Competition in Istanbul, where he received a special prize. Further success in Elena Obraztsova’s Young Opera Singers’ Competition in St Petersburg helped him raise his profile. He soon found himself on contract at the opera company in the Germany city of Weimar.

‘I left Tbilisi forever. The theatre didn’t want to let me go, but then Jansug Kakhidze, the chief conductor, passed away. I had no desire left to stay – it wasn’t clear who would come in his place, and how things would be. Jansug really loved me, he always looked out for me, gave me the good roles. He truly believed in me, and hoped I would succeed.’

The move to Weimar opened up a new world of opportunities: ‘When I left Tbilisi, Georgia was in crisis,’ Gagnidze recalls. ‘Performances at the theatre were not very frequent – there were only around 15 or 16 a year. Georgia was without light, without gas, without wages, without heating. The country was deep in poverty and there were consequences of the war with Abkhazia… People didn’t have time for shows. Surprisingly, some still went to the theatre – mostly students.

’In contrast, Weimar must have seemed like paradise to an aspiring young singer. ‘Of course! A full house, ovations, big emotions … After all, the artist’s life is the stage.’ Four years into his contract in Weimar, Gagnidze reached another turning point in his career after entering the Verdi Competition in the Italian town of Busetto, singing arias from Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera. He took away the fi rst prize, awarded by a jury that included José Carreras. ‘I jumped up and cried when I found out I had won,’ Gagnidze recalls. ‘I still remember the words of Carreras. He said my performance made him truly believe that Rigoletto suffers from the death of his daughter.’

'I need to win the audience’s emotional support, to have them on my side, no matter how flawed I seem’ (Image credit: RICHARD TERMINE / METROPOLITAN OPERA)
‘I need to win the audience’s emotional support, to have them on my side, no matter how flawed I seem’ (Image credit: RICHARD TERMINE / METROPOLITAN OPERA)

Rigoletto has since become something of a signature role for Gagnidze that he has performed all over the world, from New York to Tokyo, Milan, Berlin and Seoul: ‘The character is so complex, it chokes you with emotion, which at times really makes the singing very difficult. The role requires tremendous skill and hard work. When I rehearsed for the role in Weimar, my teacher was Elena Shamaeva, and we practiced in the evenings after the performances at the theatre. She really helped me a lot’ For Gagnidze, Rigoletto is a psychological conundrum that needs to be cracked. The role appeals to the forensic detective in him: ‘First and foremost, he’s a father. Just like it does to so many of us, life forces Rigoletto to do things he does not want to do. His jokes have exhausted themselves, so he starts mocking the courtiers, but this is something they will not allow. He does not, and cannot, forgive the Duke. He is blinded by his heart-breaking, almost animalistic, fatherly instinct.

‘No one thinks that the court jester has a soul – he’s considered a nobody. So this is my task – to show that even the most fl awed, unlovely person has honour, dignity and a sense of pride. I’m not just interested in singing beautifully, but I also need to portray the character psychologically. I need to win the audience’s emotional support, to have them on my side, no matter how fl awed I seem, to become the centre of their attention. That is when I forget I am George Gagnidze standing on a stage, and when I become Rigoletto… I believe Rigoletto is the most dramatic role in the whole of Verdi.’

More dramatic than Nabucco, another father who suffers for his daughters? ‘Rigoletto is the tragedy of one person, an individual considered worthless by those around him, who wants to protect his honour. Nabucco, on the other hand, is a tragedy of the people – a political tragedy and a story about destiny in the hands of a powerful man.

Playing the fool: Gagnidze in his signature role as Rigoletto at La Scala (Image credit: BRESCIA E AMISANO)
Playing the fool: Gagnidze in his signature role as Rigoletto at La Scala (Image credit: BRESCIA E AMISANO)

Gagnidze will be singing the role of the Babylonian king at the mighty Roman arena in Verona this summer. His huge voice has no problem coping with the cavernous auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has become something of a fixture since his spectacular house debut as Rigoletto in 2009; but how does he scale up to performing in an outdoor arena that was built to seat 30,000? ‘First of all, you pray for the absence of wind – otherwise it is difficult to sing gently. In 2010, I sang in Traviata there, and the conditions were very difficult due to the wind. ‘Otherwise for me, there is no distinction between large and small stages, I am an artist and always do my work from the heart. I always enjoy singing at the Met: it has rich traditions and I am in love with New York. I think that I will move there in a few years. Georgia is my home country, but New York, with its intertwining of different cultures is like a second motherland. I love traditions – they are crucial for preserving one’s culture. In New York it’s so easy to respect others, while remaining yourself. If I were to be like others, I would turn into a fake.’

Having conquered New York, Milan and Berlin, London is next up for a generous helping of Gagnidze’s impressive baritone singing. He’ll be performing in that most Russian of operas, Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, singing the role of Shaklovity in the Royal Albert Hall. ‘This will be my English debut,’ he points out, even sounding surprised at himself: ‘I’ve given a hundred performances at the Met and not a single one in London, it’s hard to believe that it is finally happening.’

I wonder if George has any qualms about singing such an archetypal Russian work? The sounds of those Russian bullets whizzing past in his days as a student in Tbilisi must have left their mark… ‘Politics does not interfere with my love for Russian music,’ he replies diplomatically, while hinting, ‘especially as I have not yet sung fantastic Russian roles like Mazepa and Eugene Onegin.’

Aug 6

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov
BBC Proms

Sept 22 to Oct 12
Cavalleria rusticana/Alfio
Hamburg State Opera

Jan 8 to 29

Metropolitan Opera

Mar 8 to 24
Teatro Real

May 8 to 12
Metropolitan Opera

June 28 to July 7
La Gioconda/Barnaba
Deutsche Oper Berlin


From Rhinegold Media & Events
Featured products