Sonya Yoncheva: An Artist Who Dares

Sonya Yoncheva started in music at the age of six. Her mother was a lover of music—not only classical, but other styles as well. She encouraged her daughter to try for a career in the arts from an early age, starting with piano studies.

Years later, at 15, she heard someone singing opera. With her musical tastes already built from years of study, she asked the singer where she learned to sing like that and came home inspired, thinking she could do the same. Yoncheva’s mother suggested she seek out someone who could really guide her. “It wasn’t really love at first sight; I had to convince myself,” Yoncheva says. “It took me a couple of years to decide if I really wanted to do this or not.

“It’s important for young singers to do some competitions, and this is what I did. My first confirmations in my classical singer life were from competitions.” She is careful to point out that the verbal encouragement, not the prize money, in these smaller competitions in Bulgaria provided the fortitude to keep going. Many of them told her to go out of her country and live somewhere else. “Even with a great tradition of classical voices in Bulgaria, it was too small for a young person like me at that time.”

She began her career in the Geneva Opera House as a chorister. “I could actually have stayed there forever, till retirement—I had a fantastic contract,” she says. “It was really comfortable, and I was already living there, so it made sense for me. But somehow I had the ambition to want more, to be onstage as a soloist and also as an actress—that was really exciting for me.”

She was offered a debut in Rossini’s one-act opera L’inganno felice. It was one of Rossini’s early works, and Yoncheva had never heard of it. “So, what I did,” she recalls, “I said, yes, of course! How much time do I have? They said three days.”

At 22, she did not “have the same perception of time as I do now. It was a great risk, and I really loved it. That was my very first main part onstage in Geneva for a very small opera house. It was something I will always remember because it gave me the taste of being a soloist and this kind of sensation that you can really do it. It was encouraging.”

Rossini’s music is not easy. “It was a big test for my musicianship and my abilities as a professional,” she says. This same scenario repeated itself many times afterward, even in bigger houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, and the Wiener Staatsoper—sometimes with only a few days’ notice for roles she had not tried before. Her self-described “adrenaline spirit” helped her to take these risks.

“I think it’s important for young singers to take risks,” she says. “For me, it was a risk that was totally understood and studied and calculated, but this is because I had a really stable musical background. I could really understand the risk I was taking, even in learning it in four or five days.”

She was discovered by Baroque specialist William Christie. He brought her everywhere with him: New York, London, Brussels, and Milan at La Scala. He promoted her talent, and it was the beginning of her growing career. After touring with him, she thought she needed to find an agency.

She wrote to everyone and received responses ranging from “You’re a Baroque singer, and we need Romantic or verismo singers—this is our business” to “We have no time for you, thank you very much.” Only a few of them would offer to meet and hear her. “It’s really funny because three to four years later all these agencies started to call me and ask me to come to their agency,” she says. “It was really strange for me to hear from those same people with exactly the opposite words. That’s a phenomenon that is normal—those agencies are not taking any risks, or very few of them.

“Some smaller agencies, which are much more private, would take the time to build a new career. But, still, you have to have a lot of recommendations in the sense of experience and talent. You have to show some real courage as an artist so they can understand that you’re also someone who works and who dares.”

Today, her situation is totally different. “I don’t really need an agent,” she says. “I need someone who can put in order all the things I’m doing.”

Being an artist who dares is still important in her career. “If you are an artist and you can call yourself an artist, you should totally dare to show your colors and who you are to the world—and not only that, but to provoke yourself and reinvent yourself. You need to see yourself in a different light, every time.” For Yoncheva, this is a necessity to prevent boredom from the same.

Another daring move for Yoncheva was changing repertory. “I had to do that,” she says, “it was a necessity.” The approach to this move took a lot of thought on her part. “Theaters would propose a huge number of things. When you get there, when you have this great exposure and become someone important, the industry would just send you whatever.

“I think I accepted just 50 percent of what they proposed to me. Some of the proposals were completely insane. Others, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a good idea.’ Sometimes it was on short notice, but I was feeling like I could say something new.

“In order to build your career, you need experience and you need to learn how, and the best way to do that is being onstage with great musicians and learning together. I had the chance because my instinct didn’t betray me—99 percent of what I chose to do worked. What I learned by doing this was much more important and had a huge impact on my career today.”

Her early experiences as a chorister combined with her work with Christie developed her musical acuity. She regularly feels the influence of the numerous conductors with whom she collaborates and the tenors with whom she sings onstage, “even the completely crazy ones! We need this because opera is a world that we need to feel free to feel whatever we want. We have limits because it is an authentic art, it’s not a modern art.

“Living in 2019, we have to know how to be contemporary in a completely authentic field. This is the doubt I have now and the dilemma I’m working on all the time: how to approach this art in a way that people from today can get closer to without feeling the distance of the centuries.” Imbuing the work with something to say even in a different time is a challenge she constantly faces.

“Singers have to have a contemporary attitude so that we can really be closer to people, especially young people,” she says. “We can be closer as actors and not project distance with the idea of a great, untouchable diva. We have to be a diva at the same time, but more in the sense of divine—we have to be a divine creator. But in terms of our abilities as singers and as actors and as human beings, we need to be much more contemporary.”

Yoncheva’s son already loves opera at the age of four. It was easier for him because “he was basically born onstage!” She works together often with husband, Domingo Hindoyan, whose conducting career is as internationally acclaimed as Yoncheva’s. With these high-performing parents, it was easy for her son to be closer to the art form. She sees how important the art is to her son because “he can be at the opera house every night and never get bored.”

Balancing work with the travel needed for her career is a challenge. At the time of this interview, Yoncheva was in New York while her husband was between Stockholm and Luxembourg and her son was in Geneva. “The three of us are completely separated,” she says.

“When you have this type of life and this type of family, you have to accept from the beginning that it’s not going to be a normal life. I’m used to travel and my husband is as well, and it’s hard for our son to understand that this is how it’s going to be. It’s important to give him love—whatever happens, we know that we are united. It’s hard, but we find a way to be united physically as much as possible. In our industry, I think it’s not very often seen to have husband and wife performing all the time.”

She draws attention to the expectation that one spouse compromises their career for the other’s. Again, she dares to confront that norm. “I don’t like this idea,” she says. Together with her husband, they set a precedent for other musicians and singers that both can have full careers. “It’s not easy but I think it’s really important for every human being. For us as artists, the family gives us a totally different dimension of life.

“Having children helps us disconnect from the crazy world we are living in and to disconnect from the stage. This is a heavy part of us. Many characters are living in us, and we have to deal with the psychology of so many people. Family is really the structure that helps us.”

She also feels it adds to the palette of her work as a singer and as an actress. “I could understand so many things being a mother and being a wife,” she says. “Human beings were made for this—we can’t be alone and we can’t really sacrifice our life. Not being a mother because I want to marry my voice would be egoistic.”

When she was young, she was told she could not have a career as a singer with a family, as many young singers are often cautioned. “I was told this by many, many people inside the classical music field and also outside of it,” she says. “I couldn’t live like that.”

She points out that change is happening in the industry. “I always had the chance to collaborate with directors and artistic directors,” she says. “In the past, there were many examples of divas being guided by people in the industry and influenced by them.

“Today opera directors are much more human and they understand the necessity of a woman to be a mother.” This shift is an important one, and Yoncheva and her husband are a big part of that change, given the level of their work. What that means for the next generation of singers is only beginning to be apparent.

Family life “doesn’t really bother our passion for the music,” she says. “We are so devoted to it, totally into it 24 hours a day. Nothing changed in our work, it even got better because all of a sudden we can really imagine what we can do for young people, for new generations—how we can approach our art in different ways in a modern way.”

Does her passion for music ever wane? “What surprises me every day is that I go onstage, and sometimes it happens when you sing 60 performances of an opera per year, it can happen that you really don’t want to go there,” she says. “You want to stay in bed with a cup of tea and watch a movie, and you don’t really want to get undressed or killed by your crazy tenor or whatever.

“It happens, but every time what amazes me is that I put my feet onstage and I become an animal. This light, this music, this duty to perform—it takes you so strongly that for two to three hours you’re not able to think about anything else. You’re completely transformed, you’re totally out of your skin, you’re someone else.”

This state is difficult for Yoncheva to describe. “This, for me, is a very particular cloud. It’s like being in a coma and coming back. It’s very interesting for me because in this state of ‘coma,’ or let’s call it ‘dream,’ you’re able to do so many things that you thought three hours before that you were not able to do. This is the adrenaline as well.”

Comparing what singers do to professional sports, she mentions tennis player Roger Federer, “who always seems so calm but he’s always playing under adrenaline and stress, waiting for the ball to come, and is hugely concentrated. This is something I bring along in my job. All of a sudden, 200 people around you plus the audience, they get involved in a huge concentration cloud. This is something I find totally everlasting. It can never die. It’s amazing.”

This “concentration cloud” is what brings pieces of music that are generations old to life. “Classical music is a really hard thing because it has existed a long time and many people have sung, played, and recorded it, and we have hundreds of versions of everything we do,” she says. “Yesterday I was talking to some people at the Met, and when we get together and the music is happening right now, this is where the music is unbeatable. It’s insuperable; you can’t get better.”

If she were to give advice to herself at 22 when she first sang that Rossini role, she would tell herself “to never have fear of doing this.” She sees “many of my colleagues even today, and even well-known people, and they’re too scared sometimes. Our nerves can’t sustain the stress and all the power of our job.

“Never have fear to do what you want, to be who you want, and to show who you are. This is where people in the industry get concerned. They like to see personality. It doesn’t mean that you have to invent it. You have to be yourself—that’s it.

“I knew who I was and I started to see people around me and started to think, ‘Oh, probably who I am is not going to be interesting for them,’ and it was actually exactly the opposite. Little by little, year by year, I understood that being myself is the best thing. This is where you become a name, and people can really understand and see who you are.

“Sometimes, when I was a child, I was listening to some singers and I could always distinguish the style and the voice and the color of someone. This is priceless, really.” Yoncheva has achieved this priceless achievement and, in daring to be herself, is paving the way for the next generation of singers to follow her to find their own.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.