“‘Neue Stimmen’ Launched My Career”

Photos: Arne Weychardt
Vesselina Kasarova at a photo shoot in Cologne. Born in Bulgaria, she shuns media attention and has never allowed herself to be marketed as a product.

For Vesselina Kasarova, “Neue Stimmen” not only marked the beginning of her career, it has also had a profound effect on her life: She learned how important it is to remain true to herself and to say “no” occasionally, for her own sake and for the sake of her passion – music.

When the Bulgarian-Swiss mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova won the first prize in the “Neue Stimmen” competition in 1989, it was the beginning of a brilliant career that would take her to world-renowned opera houses, giving her the opportunity to sing great parts with outstanding colleagues. Yet despite all the fame and attention that followed, she has always stayed true to herself.

change.story: What does the “Neue Stimmen” competition mean to you today?
“Neue Stimmen” launched my career. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

You have said that you learned a lot just from participating.
Yes, for example that not everyone is able to deal with stress and the pressure of performing. Innate talent is one thing, but there’s also the question of how a singer deals with the fact that there are so many others who are equally talented.

Is it a problem when success comes at an early age?
Sometimes we’ll hear that someone is “another Callas” or “another Gruberova” – but there is really no such thing. That’s why I think it’s important to tell young singers that they must be, first and foremost, emotionally stable, disciplined and determined. Singers of my generation needed a lot of vocal ability and talent.

Is it any different today?
I think so. Back then we already thought things were moving quickly. But I think the pace today is even faster. To protect themselves, young singers need to say “no” occasionally.

To protect themselves from what?
A variety of things. You work with many different people. Many of them mean well, but not all of them understand what young singers need. That’s why I always say that you need a certain amount of natural intelligence – or intuition, which I consider a kind of intelligence.

What advice would you give a finalist at the “Neue Stimmen” competition?
For one thing, don’t say “yes” too quickly. You have to think seriously about what you will be singing today, tomorrow and in ten or 15 years.

What has led you to say “no”?
It’s had to do with the repertoire. For example, in 1989 I had contracts to sing Don Carlos. I had just made my debut, and then I decided to cancel everything – thanks to some good advice I was given. If I had gone ahead with those engagements, I might not be giving you this interview today.

Who gave you advice?
Ioan Holender, for one, who was the director of the Vienna State Opera at the time. And August Everding. My interactions with these people were invaluable, and they will always be an important part of my life. They knew what makes a good voice, and they knew what would be important today, tomorrow and beyond.

You mentioned that you were not yet ready for a certain repertoire back then. What do you have today that you didn’t have 20 years ago?

My voice. My voice is much stronger now. A voice must become increasingly powerful over time.

Is singing a craft or an art?
It’s an art. If it were simply a craft, I wouldn’t continue singing. I’m always amazed at how much I’ve been able to learn, and this still motivates me to go on.

What is your hope for the future of “Neue Stimmen”?
I hope it brings us many talented singers. I think there are some fantastic ones today. The professional level of the “Neue Stimmen” competition is very high. They have the right people working with the contestants. This is extremely important, since young singers have a particular need for understanding, honesty, attention and professionalism. I was lucky enough to come into contact with people like August Everding, Gustav Kuhn and Liz Mohn. I hope that the competition will continue on the same path, providing support for singers. For me, having been part of this competition – a small part – has simply been an unforgettable experience.

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This is Vesselina Kasarova:
Vesselina Kasarova grew up in Bulgaria and since 1997 has also had a Swiss passport. Initially she trained as a concert pianist. After completing her voice studies in Sofia in 1989, she joined the Zurich Opera House. She made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1991, where she received acclaim as a sensational new artist. After spending two years as a member of the ensemble at the Vienna State Opera, she began her career as an international guest artist in 1993. With the Zurich Opera as her base, she acquired a repertoire over the years that includes everything from Monteverdi, Händel and Mozart to the bel canto composers Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, as well as Berlioz, Massenet, Bizet, Saint Saëns, Verdi and Wagner. In addition to performing at the world’s great opera houses and concert halls, she has also made numerous recordings. In coming weeks she will be singing in Munich, Graz, Budapest and Bratislava.
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