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Soul Sister

SONYA YONCHEVA sings the great diva roles with deeply personal expression.
By Fred Cohn.

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Photographed in Paris by FE Pinheiro
Fashion Styling by Stefanie Miano
Hair & Makeup by Camille Arnaud
© Fe Pinheiro
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Violetta, at the Met in 2015
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
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As Desdemona in Act IV of Bartlett Sher’s Met production of Otello, 2015
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

“I’M A VERY NATURAL PERSON,” says Sonya Yoncheva. “I don’t have many things to hide.” Anyone who has ever seen the Bulgarian soprano onstage or listened to her recordings might well agree. Her lush lyric voice calls to mind the young Mirella Freni: you don’t hear her vocal mechanism—only a golden nimbus of sound. She is also a striking beauty, with dark eyes that project to the farthest reaches of the house. But when Yoncheva is in action, you’re aware less of her extraordinary gifts than of her humanity: it’s like you’re catching her in the act of being herself.

“Yes, your voice can be beautiful or technically prepared,” Yoncheva says in a phone conversation from her Geneva apartment. “But what comes out of your mouth should be connected to your personality. The voice is the expression of your soul. You allow people to go into yourself very deeply. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up and say, ‘Oh, my God! I gave too much. I should be colder.’ But I can’t be. I’m just like this.”

Yoncheva’s Mimì, caught in an aircheck of a 2014 Met/Sirius Bohème broadcast, bears her words out. Her “Mi chiamano Mimì” is full of subtext. We hear in the seamstress’s catalogue of her quotidian existence an extraordinary emotional receptivity; the details matter less than the sense that she’s truly saying to Rodolfo, “Here I am.” As an utterly convincing Desdemona, in the Bartlett Sher production of Otello that opened the 2015–16 Met season, she seemed to be withholding nothing: this was a woman so guileless that her very presence proclaimed her innocence. 

She projects the same kind of openness in conversation that she does onstage. Her voice is girlish and vivacious; an incipient giggle animates her words. She is unfailingly gracious, acting as if the interviewer were doing her the favor, rather than the other way around. But there’s nothing artificial about her solicitude: this is a woman who seeks to connect 

Significantly, Yoncheva first became famous—at age fifteen—not for her voice but for her personality, as the host of a Bulgarian television show, Music. “The producers thought, ‘Oh, she has a nice face, and she’s very free talking with people, so I think it’s good if she stars on TV,’” she says. “It was really incredible for me, because I was a shy teenager, but I talked very easily. The cameras gave me this possibility of knowing myself better—physically and also spiritually, if you want. This actually helps me now in my job.”

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that Yoncheva landed in the public eye: from the time she was a little girl, her mother, Temenuga, was determined to make it happen. “She told me when I was six that I had to be the greatest pianist in the world—and I thought, ‘Oh, what is a piano?’” she says. “I was constantly in a war with my mother. We were living in poor conditions, one little room for the four of us—my father, my mother, my brother and me. These were the most difficult years for my country, politically speaking and culturally speaking, and my mother was buying pianos and scores. She was in sort of a dream—she wanted something, and she was giving all of the family’s money for this. I couldn’t understand this craziness, but I think she had some sixth sense.”

Temenuga ended up raising two stars: Yoncheva’s younger brother, Marin, at age seventeen, got top prize in the first edition of Star Academy, the Bulgarian version of American Idol, and went on to become a teenage heartthrob. “It was impossible to walk with him in the streets,” Yoncheva says. “But a few years after, he said, ‘Okay, this is not for me anymore. I would like to go on to serious stuff.’” He is now an operatic tenor who sometimes performs with his sister in concert.

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Dresses and shoes by Azzedine Alaïa; necklaces and earrings by Bulgari.
© Fe Pinheiro

LEAVING TV BEHIND, Yoncheva attended Geneva Conservatory; Switzerland has been her home base ever since. “I established myself there—I even found my man there!” she says. (Her husband is conductor Domingo Hindoyan. They are parents of a two-year-old boy, Mateo.) Surprisingly, her first big career step, in 2007, came not on the opera-house circuit but as a member of Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants’s academy for young singers, under the direction of William Christie. Yoncheva had been inspired by Renée Fleming’s sumptuous performance of the title role of Alcina in Christie’s recording of Handel’s opera. At her audition, she bowled over an Arts Florissants panel—Christie, associate music director Paul Agnew and director of programming Jacqui Howard—with an Alcina aria and Dido’s lament.

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Trench coat by Martin Grant; necklaces by Bulgari
© Fe Pinheiro

“We said, ‘Well, we’ll take her!’” Howard says. “She was so moving, so stylistically intuitive. She’s such a magnificent musician that she made it all seem quite natural.” Yoncheva’s lush, vibrant sound isn’t the sort you’d automatically associate with early music, where in the past sopranos have often cultivated a straight, vibrato-less tone. But her capabilities corresponded exactly with Christie’s career-long crusade to expand the coloristic possibilities of Baroque vocal music. 

A 2012 Opéra de Lille video of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea, led by Christie protégée Emmanuelle Haïm, provides a sense of what Yoncheva learned in those years. Her physical presence is as voluptuous a Poppea as can be imagined. Yoncheva’s voice reinforces the impression of sensual abandon. But if you listen closely, you hear the finely gauged control of its deployment. The line is sinuous, seemingly free but rhythmically taut; the verdant vibrato is but one color in an extraordinarily broad palette. 

“You can be free and at the same time respect what the composer wanted,” Yoncheva says of Baroque music. “You have to be strict about ornamentation and trills, but you’ve got the possibility to swingin this music—to show your way of singing it.” As she has pursued her opera-house career, Yoncheva has kept in touch with her Baroque roots: she brings a concert program of Handel and Rameau to Paris, Aix and Munich this spring, and the second CD on her Sony contract, following the 2015 romantic-aria collection Paris, Mon Amour,will be a recital of Handel arias, scheduled for release early next year. 

Yoncheva says the early-music community brings out a “downtown” side to her personality—a refreshing change of pace from the “uptown” culture of the international opera houses where her career is now centered. “The Baroque people in the industry are more cool, more earthy than the bel canto people,” Yoncheva says. “They don’t mind if I don’t wear diamonds, or if I go onstage and sing completely lying down. It’s very, very free. As a person, as an artist, I need to feel that freedom.” 

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Top and skirt by Ellery; shoes by Azzedine Alaïa; necklace by Bulgari; earrings by Jennifer Fisher
© Fe Pinheiro

YONCHEVA GOT THE attention of the mainstream opera world when she won first prize in the 2010 Operalia competition. She made her Met debut in 2013 as Gilda, jumping in unexpectedly when Aleksandra Kurzak became pregnant. The next Met season brought more substitutions—and more acclaim. She had agreed to step in for Marina Poplavskaya for a January Traviata run. But in November, Yoncheva was asked, with only two weeks’ notice, to step in as Mimì. She had given birth to Mateo just three weeks earlier; moreover, she hadn’t yet learned the entire role. But she headed to New York, with her baby in tow. “Everything went in a dream,” she says. “I was not prepared psychologically, but it’s better like that. You have no time to think about it—you just go onstage and show a hundred percent of you.” 

A more recent game of operatic musical chairs propelled Yoncheva’s most audacious move yet. Anna Netrebko had been scheduled to open the 2016–17 Covent Garden season this September with her long-awaited first Norma, in a new production by La Fura dels Baus’s Àlex Ollé, conducted by Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano. But in May the Russian star decided the role was a bad fit for her and withdrew from the production. Yoncheva once again stepped into the breach. (This necessitated withdrawing from a scheduled second Met Bohème run, ceding Mimì to Ailyn Pérez.) 

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Violetta at Opéra de Paris in 2016
© Vincent Pontet

By common consent, Bellini’s Druid priestess is the peak of the Italian dramatic-soprano repertoire, long associated with big-voiced sopranos such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and, currently, Angela Meade and Sondra Radvanovsky. Given the lyrical bent of Yoncheva’s previous work, the assignment was an unexpected—not to say astonishing—development. “The surprise was my goal, actually,” she says. “Of course, we know the traditional sound of Norma as a huge dramatic soprano with a lot of agility. But I believe that it is after all a bel canto part. This leaves plenty of possibilities for interpretation. It can be really light, it can be something in the middle, it can be dramatic. Norma is such a woman—she’s everything. She’s a mother, she’s betrayed, she’s a mature woman, and at the same time she’s a daughter. 

“She’s also the beginning of Medea—she has this thought, ‘I want to kill my children,’” Yoncheva continues.  “I am expecting to do Medea in the future, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I talked to Tony Pappano, who understands singers in such a way that I realized there was no danger for my voice doing it with him. It was a fast decision, but it wasn’t a crazy decision.”

When Yoncheva and I speak, she is grieving the loss of her father, Petko, who died of a stroke only a few weeks before our interview. The tragedy has given her a perspective on her life and her art. “I believe that in our life, we have to distinguish our roles,” she says. “One is the person going to work, who has to be concentrated and professional. At the same time, one is the person who lives in my skin, with my husband and my son. The secret is not to balance it at all—you just have to distinguish it. The one sure thing in life is death, and I saw it with my father. It’s a cliché to say life is too short—but it’s true, it’s true. We just need to take it as it comes.” spacer

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