Since I was a child, the world of Opera has conquered a very particular place in my imagination. There is something magical about this kind of show, where characters sing instead of speaking. As a matter of fact, the audience may be driven to believe that they are not humans and by consequence much closer to divine beings.
Mozart’s Idomeneo is a very dear Opera to me. Last March, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation at our national theatre in Lisbon. I have heard this piece countless times, but never as a live performance. This was the night I listened to Sophie Gordeladze’s voice for the first time. In the skin of Elletra, she gave me a much different perspective on the character herself. At the end of the performance, I had the privilege to greet Sophie backstage. At that moment, I believed the complexity of layers involving an Opera stage career was somehow distant from our generation, therefore a worth-telling life story.
An artistic life must be driven by a strong sense of passion in order to overcome adversities. I found in Sonder Minds the right place to tell Sophie’s story, and in Marta Egídio Pereira (MEP) the perfect partner for this storytelling adventure. So, on March 23rd, the three of us sat down at the beautiful Palácio Seia to get to know Miss Gordeladze a little better. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
MEP: I would like you to start by introducing yourself in the way you feel best describes you as a person – as Sophie – apart from the repertoire and the awards. Tell us who you are.
Well, something I don’t like to talk about is myself, but I guess that’s why I’m here, so… (laughs)
Besides an opera singer, I am a person who grew up in the countryside, so I love being outside, I love nature, I love being in the countryside, I love animals… everything that is related to the country lifestyle. When I have a chance, when I’m in Georgia, we have a countryside house and I love going out there. I think it’s also because I spend so much time in the big city, inside theaters and closed spaces, so when I have the possibility I like to be outside.
What I also love – and it’s good because my job includes a lot of this – is to travel. I love it, I love being in different places and, thanks to my profession, I happen to be in the places where probably without singing I wouldn’t happen to be, like Beirut or Mexico or Korea.
I feel so privileged and I like that part of my life and job… Getting to know completely different cultures and different people.
MEP: Growing up in the countryside in Georgia, how did you get in contact with the Opera?
My mother is a pianist, so I kind of grew up with music.
I used to fall asleep with my mom playing the piano, Beethoven sonatas or something…
She also had lots of students at home, so classical music was often heard in our house. My mom also taught me how to sing and l knew quite a lot of songs at a very young age. I used to live there but my parents are very cosmopolitan people. My father was a pediatrician and he had studied in Saint Petersburg, so he was a person who had seen and heard live Del Monaco and he loved music in every expression – jazz, pop, classical music… although he was not playing any instrument, he had a very good ear and we always had the most recent records from San Petersburg and Moscow, where he went very often.
MEP: Why the Opera? Do you remember the first Opera you saw?
I heard Elena Obraztsova singing Carmen and I was very impressed, it was marvelous! When I was singing, I never sang with a pop voice, because my mother used to work with opera singers as an accompanist and she taught me how to produce the right, cultivated sound. It was all very, very natural.
She taught me everything and then, strangely, she didn’t want me to become a musician, because she knows how much work and devotion and sacrifice it takes.
MEP: She told you “Be a doctor like your dad”, no?
Exactly, how did you guess? And then my dad “no, no, anything but a doctor”.
MEP: Did you feel that being an opera singer was an unusual choice and that people thought you were rare?
Yes. I started to feel it later… When I entered the conservatory, I didn’t think about it, but later – because I have a very, very big family in Georgia, with a lot of cousins, and none of them is a musician, and I spent a lot of time with them – so, many times, I felt a little bit different.
Also, because as a pianist you have to work a lot, you have to play 5 or 6 hours a day, so all the other young people are having fun and, after class, you come back home, and you play… I was happy to do so, but I felt weird because I was not spending as much time with the others as they were with each other, and I was different.
I felt different.
I realize it now – back then I was not very open to sharing this with people – but now I realize that I had different interests. I was interested in making sounds sound like I imagined it, while other teenage girls were like “oh did you see that guy coming out of the University yesterday” and I thought “what’s wrong with me?”.
MEP: What would you say as advice to someone that is feeling out of place, like you felt growing up? If someone is in a conflict between their truth and passion, and the feeling that they are different and should instead adapt to the crowd?
First of all, we all should live in peace with ourselves.
The most important basis for this is to follow your truth, follow your instincts – you are never wrong if you follow them!
On the contrary, if you reject them and try to act differently, to do what you think is right, after a while you will definitely regret not having followed what your heart was telling you.
It might not be the most successful thing to do – you never know, it might turn out wrong, you might not be successful or be defeated – but you will always have the feeling that, at that moment, it was the right thing to do, because you felt you had to do it. If it didn’t work out, okay, who cares? You can do something else. But, absolutely, be yourself and follow your true self, it’s always the right thing to do!
MEP: Did you know from an early age who that true-self was?
As a singer, you have to go to many auditions and you get rejected… every person who hears you has different ears, you know? And when he or she hears you, they can say completely different things from one audition to the other, you can get feedback that is completely different from the others, so you really get confused. So, I lived this difficult period when I believed what I was told, and I changed the way I sang according to the feedback I got.
It took me years to realize that it shouldn’t be like that.
My singing is not perfect, absolutely not – but then, whose is?
MEP: Or, what is perfect? Is there such a thing?
Exactly. My voice is my voice. Now I have this confidence that my voice is as it is because it is authentic, it is mine. Some people may like it, some people may not like it… It’s what I was given, so, if some people like it that’s already good! If I try to change it and sound like someone else, it won’t work, because the world has already seen Callas, Scotto, Tebaldi, and Pavarotti…
MEP: So many people are just following the herd and not doing what they’re passionate about – and, one day, when they realize it, it’s too late. That’s why I love interviewing people like you and telling these stories.
It takes a great deal of courage to follow your passion because you don’t know what awaits you, and you also have to think about your survival – the world is not such an easy place to live in.
Some people are lucky to have a family to support them, but if you have to live from what you’re doing, it’s dangerous and it’s hard to follow your dream. It’s very difficult for many people, but it’s worth trying!
It’s really about not giving up.
And as I said before, it’s when you cannot do without it, that you can’t give up. I don’t imagine myself sitting behind a computer the whole day and having a fixed salary every month. But if you can imagine yourself doing some other job, then it’s not an urge for you, this passion. Then maybe you should do something else.
Passionate people are very fascinating.
It’s different when people do their jobs – whatever job it is – with passion. It so inspiring to see. For example, my hairdresser here, she’s so passionate! Every day she comes and she’s like “oh, today I’m going to do this and this” and it’s fascinating! Because she’s doing her job with passion.
MEP: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and starred in the musical Hamilton, said that the only two tools an Artist needs are research and empathy. Do you agree?
Yes, of course. Research is very, very important. Then again, your honesty to the author, trying to figure out what he wanted, not pushing your ego into it… Of course, through your qualities and abilities but… there are many singers who come up the stage and you feel it, the audience feels it, that they want to show, first of all, themselves. First of all, their Ego, and then the rest. And that’s not my way of singing.
MEP: You try to leave the Ego outside the stage…
I try to be the character which I am in that moment.
I try to be in the moment when I’m creating it – it might be different from one evening to the other, depending on how I feel emotionally, physically, everything… But I try to be as honest to the score and to the author as possible.
ABP: On last March the 10th, when attending your premiere in the role of Elletra, in Mozart’s Idomeneo, at São Carlos National Theatre, I had an immense experience of the power of music and emotions.
Before her last aria in the opera, Elletra has lost all hope – she sees her loved one choose her rival, and she is now a mere spectator of their joy. She then has a moment of deranging and starts to sing, asking for serpents to eat her heart.
You sang your part in quite an astonishing way, putting into it not only both your voice and technic, but also drama and truth. I witnessed it and I thought “This is true! This is not only acting.” How did you manage to do that? How was that moment for you?
Well, thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed Idomeneo and this last aria, which is indeed very powerful, and also a very difficult one.
After the research, the moment comes when you have to be truthful. You have to be truthful to the audience, you have to be honest with yourself and your emotion at the moment.
I guess the art of acting means you should be able to imagine that you are in this situation.
To imagine what is happening to this woman at this moment. I have experienced something similar, something heartbreaking, and it’s a very strong emotion, it’s a terrible moment for a woman. This was the only hope for her, the only light at the end of the tunnel. She’s so emotionally unbalanced, she’s extreme in everything…
ABP: She even laughs during the aria, like a crazy person…
Yes, she is crazy, and of course, the music helps a lot! When the orchestra starts this “trrran, trrrran” you’re like… UH! Immediately you feel the emotion. You have to imagine all this and then tell this story, tell what you’re feeling to the people who are listening to you.
One thing I like about myself is that once I go into the performance, I think only about expressing what I feel at the moment.
It’s only the character and the music. I follow the music, I follow the character, and I follow the emotions.
I think Opera is not about being perfect – live performance is not about being perfect. The public does not come to the opera to hear perfect singing. It’s good if you can also be perfect, but the main thing for me is to be loaded emotionally and to deliver this emotion because this is why we go to the theater. I also go to the theater and I go for this. Otherwise, you can buy the CD and listen to it at home.
ABP: This opera is often seen as a turning point in Mozart’s career. He left his former employer, Archbishop Colloredo, and his father, and went off to Munich. He loosened up and became free. This was a great transformation for him and for his work – we see a big difference from that moment on, especially in the Operas. We all need this freedom at some point, to find ourselves, do you agree?
There are some people that are born with this freedom inside and know from a very early age who they are, and they want to be like that and don’t care. But there are others – and I see myself as one of these people – that have a turning point after which they think, “This is me, and I want to do it my way, and this is my way.”.
Lots of people have a turning point that is a huge step toward their true self, their better self…
This sounds a little ridiculous regarding Mozart, I’m talking about regular people…
ABP: For someone who has never been to the Opera: Opera is about story, language, stage, acting… if you take any of these elements away, it’s not an Opera anymore.
In Idomeneo, we have, in an after-war scenery, kings, princes, warriors, mighty gods. At the time, this story was already very distant from the public, nowadays even the music itself is distant. We may say that time cannot enslave beauty.
How can people like something that is so distant from their reality?
I think that’s exactly why people go to the Opera. To be distant from their reality.
Sometimes people ask me if I think the Opera will survive – yes, it will survive because it has survived until now because it is a way of experiencing a different reality, something different from everyday life, something so elevated… These stories about Gods are about human emotions told in a different way.
This is why the live theater will always survive – as long as we are called humans, we will have this need for live performances.
Otherwise, it would have ended by now. Even though, as you mentioned, the Opera is not so easy to understand. It is very important to start introducing Art to children, to bring them sometimes to listen to the “easier” Operas, like “The Magic Flute”, or seeing a ballet for New Year’s Eve.
ABP: Can we understand an Opera without knowing the meaning of the words? Is language a barrier?
You can definitely understand the beauty and the emotions of the character without knowing the language or the exact meaning of the words. As we were speaking before, musical education is important. For example, in German countries, there is a tradition of choral singing, where the children sing in the churches. Many of them don’t become musicians when they grow up, but they are very good listeners, their musical taste is very good – they can go to the opera and understand it better than someone who didn’t have any musical background in their childhood.
So, in order to better “get” the Opera, it’s important to have the basis of some kind of musical education.
Or have gone to the Opera as a kid.
ABP: Opera has always been there in my life. I was probably six or seven years old when my grandfather first took me to the Opera – I don’t remember which Opera it was, but I remember the feeling… The small doors of the box, at São Carlos, they opened, and I saw this huge theatre, with all the lights, the people chatting before the performance, the orchestra in the pit tuning… I remember this very clearly.
There is something magical about the Opera! What do you think?
It is magical. That is why the Opera still exists. Otherwise, with the 21st-century computers and all the problems of the world nowadays… The Opera remains a magical place where you can go and you can still see people dying for love, people dying for being faithful… these emotions that nowadays have faded a little bit, you know?
The Opera is magic.
For me, even after rehearsing for weeks and going on stage every day singing the same thing, once you go there with your audience, with this huge black hole where you don’t see anyone, and you just throw yourself in there and the magic happens. Every time.
MEP: In this age of Social Media and Technology, we are always seeing the world through a screen – even at live performances, sometimes, you see people watching the whole show through their phone’s screen while filming it. I think that, in this context, live shows are even more important because just like a performer needs to be present to deliver, you need to be present and paying attention to receive, and to feel the emotions you cannot feel through a TV screen.
Yes, absolutely. For example, the live transmissions of Operas, I think it’s great and very educative, but it’s different. For me, as a singer, it’s also different when I’m performing live and when I’m recording.
With the live audience, there’s an exchange of energy – it’s all about that.
I get so much energy back! Why is it that after a show the performers cannot sleep for 5 hours? It’s not only because of the adrenaline… it’s also because of this huge amount of energy you get back from the audience in a live performance, it’s amazing!
ABP: We still have Opera composers nowadays – the worldwide known Philipp Glass, for example. One year ago, I went to the premiere of Vasco Mendonça’s new opera “Bosch Beach”, that was commissioned by the Hieronymus Bosh foundation. The opera was based on the “Seven Deadly Sins”, his famous work, but also included a reflection on the Mediterranean refugee crisis.
Can the Opera still send a message about important things, like politics? Do you think there is still a gap to be filled with Opera in modern society?
Yes, I think so. A couple of weeks ago was the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s “Miseria e nobilità” in Teatro Carlo Felice. I watched some parts of it and it’s new, it’s fresh, it sounds great… Even though the story is from the 20th century, about Italian immigrants in the States… but it’s wonderful!
ABP: I listen to a lot of composers, but listening to Mozart, for me, is like returning home from a long journey…
For me too!
ABP: For someone who is starting to know the world of Opera, is Mozart a good starting point?
Absolutely. He’s a genius, he made amazing music but, at the same time, so simple! It comes straight to you.
Mozart is good for starting, for being in the middle… Mozart is always good!
I think he’s an absolute genius. Can you imagine that he wrote this Opera [Idomeneo] when he was only 24 years old?! And he conducted it at 25! I mean, what an absolute cosmic person he might have been! And what might he have written had he lived a little bit longer! I’m astonished every time I hear Mozart, or I sing Mozart, it’s amazing!
MEP: I love that you said cosmic… because whenever I go to the Opera, or I see certain things, like an exhibition I saw about Leonardo Da Vinci… these people – Da Vinci, Mozart – I believe they were put on this planet for this! They were illuminated with these skills.
Absolutely! These are extraordinary people, that means they are out of ordinary. I think these people are… whatever you call it: God, Universe, Cosmos, or whatever – these people are, or have been, so open to this kind of connection that they created extraordinary things. And we, the rest of the ordinary people, are lucky to listen, or enjoy, or perform it. I feel greatly privileged to be able to get in such close touch with this genius’s music, it’s a huge privilege, believe me!
I feel lucky every time I sing Mozart, I realize it very strongly!
I feel really privileged that I had the right opportunities, that I was in the right places at the right times and, also, a huge amount of work and sacrifice, of course. But without luck, it’s not possible. To be able to be in Lisbon in this beautiful theater and sing Mozart? It’s a huge privilege and I feel very lucky for it.
MEP: We are so lucky because we get to choose – we can choose if we do what we love or not. A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t have a choice. So, it’s our responsibility to those who don’t have a choice, to do what we are passionate about and talented at.
That reminds me of what a conductor told me once, when I had VISA issues, and he said: “Oh my God, life would have been so easy for you if you had been born in Italy”. And I said, “yes, but I could also have been born in Afghanistan, and be forced to wear a burka and not go to school, forget about singing…”. We definitely are very lucky.
MEP: Is the life of an opera singer lonely?
Yes, a little bit. You have lots of colleagues, but everybody goes home after the rehearsal, and then you’re alone in your hotel room… Sometimes the family comes to visit, or friends, but mostly you’re on your own.
MEP: As a performer, you also need to preserve your energy a little bit, right?
Absolutely, yes. But there are different countries, different companies, different people…
I was in Mexico for 6 weeks and I had the best time of my life.
It was so wonderful – I had wonderful colleagues and we were literally all the time together and we became like a family. It’s very sad, after these 6 weeks everyone goes their own way and you might not see each other for a couple of years.
Every time it’s like this – spending so much time together, being like a family, and then it just ends. And then something new starts.
MEP: I can relate, because in the last 4 years I have lived in 4 different cities, and I feel the same… When you’re abroad, you need to bond with people because you don’t have your family or friends, so you really need to rely on other people. You create this very intense relationships and then suddenly you go away… And someone that was so important in a place, when you go somewhere else with a totally different context… it’s almost a feeling of depersonalization a little bit. You start to have your life in chapters, and sometimes they’re not very connected. I can imagine it happens a lot in your life…
A lot! A production usually takes from 4 to 6 weeks, and it’s very intense. You spend many hours together and afterward when it finishes…
I am a very emotional and affectionate person, so I suffer a lot.
For example, now, in Lisbon, everyone left after the final performance except me, because I’m still singing Stabat Matter, and it was very sad. That’s why I think it’s so important to have your roots somewhere, where you know your home is. Otherwise, you feel lost, like a tree without roots. That’s in Georgia for me. I feel at home in Italy too, in Milano and in Genova.
ABP: Do you have a favorite theatre to sing at?
Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova is definitely one of them. I also enjoyed singing at São Carlos a lot. It’s so beautiful, it’s an incredibly beautiful theater, and the atmosphere there is very nice – all the people backstage, like the stage directors, managers… they’re so nice and calm, no-stress… and there are several other theatres, where I come back to with pleasure.
MEP: Would you like to leave a final message for our readers?
Come to the Opera! It’s a wonderful experience, I promise!
If you’re lucky to see a good production, it’s a really unique experience, it’s definitely worth it. It’s inspiring, it’s loading and charging… It’s great, the Opera is great, I love it.
MEP: Thank you so much.
It was very interesting talking to you, I would have gone talking for hours…
The interview and photo shoot took place in Lisbon at Palácio Seia, headquarters of Universidade Aberta, the only Higher Education institution in Portugal with distance learning.
All photos were taken by Inês Condeço.