“I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria 28 years ago. I have always been surrounded by music: my mother was a singer, a dramatic soprano…” So begins our interview with Bozhidar Bozkilov, bass-baritone in the 2019-2021 program at La Scala Opera Academy. It opens a series of chats with our soloists who are due to receive their diplomas on November 8 during the annual concert.
We met Bozhidar near the Milanese theatre where rehearsals have recently begun for the opera La Cenerentola per i bambini, a favorite La Scala production for a younger audience, part of the Big Shows for Little People initiative to acquaint children with musical theatre by means of famous titles in the opera repertoire specially adapted to them.
When did you begin studying voice and where did you get your love for music?
I have always been surrounded by music and took an interest in it as a boy, thanks to my mother, who sang opera for many years. My voice changed when I was 13. Many, hearing my timbre, asked me why I didn’t dedicate myself to studying voice. I was already used to being in theatres and was taking solfège and piano lessons. And so when I was 14 or 15 years old I decided to study voice seriously and enrolled in the Conservatory in Sofia. After that, thanks again to my mother, my first competition, the Maria Caniglia International Singing Competition in Sulmona.
So you were in Italy. How did it go?
Quite well. I told myself that if I didn’t make it past the first phase I would give up voice, that if I reached the semifinal round I would think about it, but that if I reached the finals I had no choice but to continue. And that’s what happened. I have won a number of prizes but that one marks the beginning of my career. I entered other competitions because I have always believed in putting myself constantly to the test and I also sang some major roles. I remember my debut as Don Basilio and the Notary in Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia in 2013 in theatres in L’Aquila and Sulmona with the Abruzzo Symphonic Orchestra. A great way to start.
And what brought you to Accademia della Scala? Were you already familiar with it?
I knew something about the Academy thanks to two dear friends who studied there, at different times: Valeri Turmanov and Deyan Vatchkov. I have to admit that I was a little unsure because the Mariinsky Theatre had invited me to study at their Opera Academy in Saint Petersburg. I had some doubts about being admitted to the La Scala Academy. It seemed like a remote dream. But my girlfriend, who had recently moved to Milan to study fashion, convinced me to enroll in the auditions. I was so thrilled to reach the finals, and especially to sing on the La Scala stage.
Tell us about it.
I have to say that I was quaking at the idea of performing on that stage before the panel of judges. It was my first time in the theatre! I still remember my amazement at seeing the hall from the stage. It seemed enormous. And I wondered how my voice could possibly carry in a space like that. I sang Banquo’s aria “Come dal ciel precipita” from Macbeth. I was thinking, If I can sing the E maybe I’ll survive the audition. If I sing it badly, at least I will have had the satisfaction of singing in this hall. But I nailed it and was admitted. What a feeling!
What is the most important thing you have learned?
Maestra D’Intino and the opera coaches taught me principles above all. They never stopped at superficial judgments but always went into things deeply to show me how to correct my errors. Maestra D’Intino has always been strict, but in a way that any good teacher has to be: to push you to always give your best. A few years ago I lost my voice teacher. It was a great blow to me, but I have to say that I find much of his method in that of D’Intino.
We saw you in the lesson with Ms D’Intino singing the same aria that you used for the Academy audition. What changes have you noted since then?
I should say, first of all, that I was not entirely well during that lesson… For a singer, the voice is not like any other musical instrument, an object you can touch, it is something that vibrates inside of you. And sometimes it is like a wild horse that has to be tamed. Having said that, I think my interpretation of that aria has developed. I think I have grown both in terms of technique and interpretation. I think I have refined my vowels, which used to be too open. I feel I have improved in terms of the fuller sound demanded of a singer in my voice register.
Is there a particular artist who inspires you?
At the beginning I only listened to Nicolai Ghiaurov, perhaps the most beautiful, most powerful bass voice ever. Then I also discovered Boris Christoff, another great Bulgarian singer. I actually lived in his house in Rome, the one that he donated to the Bulgarian Institute of Culture as a residence for young artists from my country. I admire all the roles interpreted by Christoff, especially his Filippo II, stupendous!
What is your favorite role and which would you like to sing?
I don’t mean to be repetitive, but I would say Filippo II from Don Carlo. And one day Boris Godunov. And Attila.
What venues other than Teatro alla Scala attract you?
I would very much like to return to sing in Sofia, in my country, before my people. And then certainly the Metropolitan, Covent Garden, and also the Mariinsky, Bolshoi, and Zürich. But I do have to say that, more than the prestige and importance of a theatre, the thing that really counts is how you present yourself to the audience, your interpretation, which always has to aim for perfection. No matter where you are, you always have to give your best.
Tell me about your relationship with the audience and what they represent for you.
All singers seek to transmit emotions to the audience and elicit a response from them. Opera has always been about human affairs: joy, pain, love, betrayal. And it is wonderful to be able to share all this with the audience.
Do you have any good-luck rites before you go on stage?
Actually not although when I am very agitated and my heart is thumping there is only one way to calm down: singing the Bulgarian national anthem to myself. It is one of the very few composed in a minor key. It helps me a great deal.
What is music to you? What is singing?
For me it is the language of the soul. You feel the vibrations in your body and it is beautiful. Music allows me to express a whole range of feelings.
And what does opera represent for you?
I see opera as the “super art”, the most complete art form because it unites music, singing, painting and sculpture, makeup, costumes, and dance. An opera performance contains many different arts. And I think that opera singing is the most refined and complete genre. The opera singer sings without a microphone and so any errors are immediately heard.
If you had a child who wanted to embark on this career, what would you say?
Goodness! A child … too soon to think about that…
But if I should ever become a voice instructor, the first thing I would ask my students is: are you really sure you want to undertake this career? The path is difficult, and the soul of a true artist is fragile. This is a profession that you have to put your heart into, but it is not simple, especially today.
And what would you like to say to the new Opera Academy students who are about to begin the two-year program?
First and foremost I would tell them the importance of continuing to study and of believing strongly in themselves and in this beautiful art.
How important have meetings with other artists been for you?
I have had the fortune of gaining the support and respect of some great artists. Years ago I took part in a master class in Zaragoza with Montserrat Caballé. She was quite generous with me, selecting me for the final concert, which was an enormous satisfaction since not everyone was able to participate. It was also my birthday around that time and she sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Incredible. After the master class I went to visit her in her home in Barcelona and she asked if I wanted to study with her. But how could I have afforded it? She told me not to worry about those things. Unfortunately, that dream didn’t come true, but I will never forget what did happen.
Another important encounter was with the Italian bass Bonaldo Giaiotti. When I went to him he asked me if I had a scholarship and I told him I had the fortune of support and help from my mother. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for those just starting their careers. You have to invest a lot in your future.
How important has your family been to you in your career?
Absolutely fundamental, my mother especially, an exceptional woman. My father died many years ago, in 1999. And I have a brother with a serious disability. Our mother has dedicated herself completely to taking care of us. She concluded her opera career years ago and is now a magistrate (actually, I too also have a law degree). In 2008 she won a prize for her work, an important recognition. But I had my first concert on the day she was to receive the honor. She didn’t think twice, she wanted to be there for me.
And we sincerely hope to find her in the audience on November 8!
Good luck to you, Bozhidar!