FOR acclaimed Moldovan soprano, Maria Tsonina, performing opera all over Europe is a passion and an all-consuming way of life. She stars as Violetta in Ellen Kent’s touring productions of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Cork Opera House on Apr 3 and as Muzetta in Puccini’s La Boheme at the venue on Apr 4-5. These productions feature the Ukrainian National Opera of Kharki with international soloists, a chorus and a full orchestra.
La Traviata, based on a true story, tells the tragic and passionate tale of the consumptive Violetta. One of its highlights is Brindisi, the best known drinking song in opera.
Tsonina became interested in opera while attending university in Moldova. She won a scholarship to the Vienna State Opera, where she has since performed. She has also toured Ireland, the UK, Germany, France, Portugal and Holland and has appeared in numerous Ellen Kent productions including Rigolletto, where she made her debut as Gilda.
Tsonina enjoys combining her acting talents with singing. She is also adept at languages. “I speak Italian, French, Russian and English. Musicians and singers find learning languages easy because we have a talent for it.”
La Traviata is one of Tsonina’s favourite operas. “Violetta is a woman with a big heart. She falls in love with Alfredo. But she sacrifices her love for him to save his future. She was a courtesan in Paris and moved to the country with Alfredo. But his father says the relationship is giving his family a bad name. She has to part from Alfredo. The role of Violetta is very difficult, but I like it. Muzetta is a smaller role but it’s quite funny and beautiful.”
Kent has been one of the main suppliers of opera in the UK and Ireland since 1994. In 2009, She stopped touring to focus on her role as an artistic director of large-scale arena productions. But after being invited to join forces with impresario, Derek Block, she returned to touring last year, mounting Madama Butterfly and La Traviata at the Cork Opera House last autumn. Her productions are renowned for their lavishness. The set of La Traviata includes fountains and chandeliers, specially constructed for the show. However, Kent is unsure whether all of the set will fit into the Cork Opera House.
Described as ‘the Las Vegas of opera,’ Kent’s productions have attracted an element of ‘snootiness’ in the press. “But that seems to be dying off. There was a reaction to me bringing in Eastern Europeans, what some of the press called ‘foreigners.’ But this is a xenophobic attitude.”
It was also suggested in the press that Kent was able to hire performers and crews from Eastern Europe cheaply. “But as I told The Times, we pay a damned sight more than the English touring opera companies ever paid. The payment to our choruses is commensurate with the Welsh National Opera. Some of our soloists are paid £1,000 per show.”
Kent says that it’s necessary to be “mad or obsessive to do what I’m doing. It’s very labour intensive. There are very few people doing the same thing as me. You have to jump through so many hoops to bring performers in from abroad. I think the world is going back to being xenophobic. If you’re involved in anything outside of the EU you’re considered to be persona non grata. We human beings have a habit of shutting the doors on people. It’s a very poor human philosophy that unfortunately, leads to suspiciousness and ultimately the killing of each other. I believe in a free market. Obviously, you don’t want bandits trundling around but I think free trade really improves the quality of what is on offer. It gives people choice.”
Cork audiences have always been very receptive to Kent’s productions.
Kent studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic and won the John Gielgud Scholarship. She trained as an opera singer, but she decided to mix her talents and become an actor, singer and dancer. “I trained and acted in repertory and did a lot of classical work including Shakespeare and Chekov. I also did TV work. Being an all rounder has always been very useful.”
Kent and her now former husband set up a theatre company. Eventually, touring opera took over and became a fulfilling career. Kent, aged 63, has no plans to retire but sometimes regrets that she can’t spend more time enjoying her country house and 15-acre estate in Kent which used to belong to the writer Joseph Conrad. It’s the only downside to a stellar career.