Zoryana Kushpler was born and got her musical education in Lviv, Ukraine. She gained her experience in Europe as a soloist at the Zurich Opera House, Switzerland. Her crowning success came at the Vienna State Opera. For the last 13 years, Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano) has been the prima donna there, singing dozens of parts. She has appeared in hundreds of productions by the Vienna State Opera, New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s Albert Hall, and other world-renowned theatres and concert halls. She has sung with all of today’s stars. Zoryana also counts among her friends' such legendary performers as Plácido Domingo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Anna Netrebko. It was only the lockdown that prevented her new performance with Domingo. However now the audience is returning to the opera, and Zoryana recently appeared in her first performances of this theatrical season. In this interview, the Vienna Opera soloist talked about her way from the music school to one of the world’s premier stages, jealousy, and the most dramatic episode in her career.
In showbiz, you don’t need need to have a voice or a good ear—you can be popular as long as you have enough money. But what if someone had an average voice and a lot of money—could they have a career in opera? For example, by buying themselves a duet with Andrea Bocelli? Marketing and PR have progressed to the point where you can accomplish a lot of things. Does this also apply to opera?
You can’t keep buying everyone forever. You can pay an artist to join them on stage. You can make arrangements with some opera director to get a part. Although you still need to sing well, or you’ll be booed off the stage. No director will ever allow this, because it would be an embarrassment to both the singer and the director. In other words, if you have no voice, you won’t make it in opera, no matter how much money you have. Everything we do is live. In showbiz, you just put a mic, add a rear fill, and then you can play a prerecorded track. In operatic arts, you either fill the Vienna Opera auditorium or you don’t.
By the way, there’s one more thing about voice. It needs to be not only good but also strong. With a weak voice, you might as well perform in a fish tank, since nobody’s coming to listen to you. This is where directors often make mistakes: the voice is lovely, everything’s fine—as long as it’s singing in a small theatre, such as the An der Wien in Vienna or the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. But once this singer gets up on the stage at the Paris or Vienna opera, it becomes obvious their voice lacks the necessary strength. And there’s nothing you can do about that.
Let’s imagine a scenario: a young singer who has just graduated from the conservatory. How does she go about starting a career in Europe? What should she do?
The best way is to take part in an international contest that has world-class theatre directors on the jury. Belvedere, for example. Or the German ARD, the most prestigious competition in the country—I won it once. I’d also advise newcomer singers to join programs for young artists at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Vienna Opera. Another crucial thing, of course, is to have an agent and to turn up at auditions from time to time.
It used to be that singers would start at a small theatre, stay there for ten years, and then ride into the first-rate opera on a white horse. It’s not that way anymore: now soloists join operas through various competitions. They can be music school graduates or even students who are still studying. Only time will tell whether it’s good or bad. But becoming a soloist is only half the battle; it’s also important to maintain that level. The repertoire at the Vienna Opera is 54 operas a year. It ranges from baroque to modern. Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, Puccini—you must be ready to perform anything. And you have to learn a lot. I spent the first three years learning parts almost all the time.
Could you tell us a bit about the competition in your sphere? What happens backstage? For example, a ballerina could have broken glass put in her shoes (which is certainly an extreme example). What about opera singers?
Those are just some bizarre post-Soviet things, I’ve heard of them too. In Europe, you’re protected by law. If someone did that kind of thing here, they could lose their entire career. There are sixty soloists at our opera, and we’re all very busy. So we’re always happy to shift some of that workload to someone else. Honestly, there are no evil plots. Plus, as an opera singer’s daughter (Zoryana’s father, Igor Kushpler (1949–2012), was a Ukrainian opera singer, soloist at the Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet), I follow my father’s advice. Such as never stay at the opera longer than your work requires. No hanging around, no gossiping in the cafeteria. Sometimes people ask me, “Have you heard about this thing at the theatre?” And I’m always clueless. I’m not interested in backstage drama.
What was the most difficult moment of your career? When you felt like crying but still went on stage?
We had a live broadcast planned at Mezzo-TV (French classical music TV channel). I was getting ready for the part of Adelaide in Strauss’s Arabella. My dad and mom were going to watch the broadcast in Lviv. Dad was so happy for me—great opera, great part! But he never saw it: my father died in a car crash. I was sitting all made up before the performance and I couldn’t sing. My father’s portrait was in front of me. And I asked him, “Dad, what am I supposed to do?” And suddenly it was as if I heard his voice, “Come on now, go out there and sing!” So I got a grip on myself. I realized I had to do it for his sake. And I did.
What are opera singers most afraid of? Losing your voice?
Of course. But you know, fears aside, your priorities change over time. For me, it used to be all about singing. But when I became a mom (Zoryana Kushpler’s son, Mark-Igor, 5 years old), my priorities changed dramatically. I stopped being scared of losing my voice or my job. I view life philosophically, like a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t get stuck on just one piece. And then once it’s gone, the whole picture changes. It shouldn’t be that way.
You are successful and popular. Does your husband get jealous?
No! Singers’ marriages, especially female singers’ marriages, often fall apart over jealousy. Because the wife is on stage every night, someone could hug her or, God forbid, kiss her. I don’t have a jealousy problem. My husband is a very confident man.
How does your son describe his mother? What does he say you do?
He says his mom is an opera singer. He follows my career, goes to the opera. Now I want him to see Carmen for the first time. Except I’m not sure about the finale, where the mother is killed. I think the second act will be just fine. And then I’m sending him home. My son has a funny way of describing his father’s job (Zoryana’s husband is a well-known businessman, he owns one of the largest jewelry stores in Vienna and Moscow): “Daddy bakes cookies.” Probably he made this conclusion because employees at his father’s office always give him some cookies. It’s become our inside joke: “Mommy sings at the opera while Daddy bakes cookies.”