Opera should not survive but evolve
29 Jun 2022forbesbulgaria.com

Opera should not survive but evolve

Driven by his own passion for opera, Acad. Prof. Plamen Kartaloff not only managed to lead the Sofia Opera and Ballet through one of the most difficult periods for the performing arts, but also to look ahead to even greater successes.

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic closed the doors of opera houses from the Metropolitan in New York through Milan's La Scala to Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, posing one of the greatest challenges to the performing arts worldwide. At that time, at the Sofia Opera and Ballet Academician Professor Plamen Kartaloff made several key decisions for the theatre he managed. The first was to make online streamlines of performances from the opera's repertoire, which put him ahead of even the Metropolitan.

The most important decision, however, was to find a way for the Opera to continue its work and for the artists under his direction to be on stage. "I called Prof. Kantardzhiev for advice – Kartaloff says. He told me to run from the indoors, which had a very sobering effect on me." This led Kartaloff to take on the organisation of the most successful summer season in the history of the Sofia Opera and Ballet.

Traditionally, in the summer, the park of the Academy of Defence in Sofia is home to summer performances, but in 2020, Kartaloff found six new stages. Among them are stages in the Cinema Center in Boyana, on the Belogradchik Rocks, at the Tsari Mali Grad Fortress and on Lake Pancharevo. Thus, the artists of the Opera continued to be on stage even in the difficult period for the performing arts. In addition, they enjoyed successfully sold-out performances that attract the audience.

Dealing with this crisis, however, is only one of Plamen Kartaloff's successes. "To discover and continuously attract new and new pilgrims to opera and ballet with new initiatives, and at the same time to make access to them as natural as possible, is a mission," he says. This mission was visible still at the beginning of his career, when he formed a youth opera troupe with which he traveled around the country. Without pretensions to compete with the big opera houses, he managed to impose the troupe with a lot of effort and work. Thus, it received invitations to participate abroad and is the basis of the Chamber Opera in Blagoevgrad, which exists to this day.

His work ethic and unrelenting enthusiasm and passion made the following decades of Kartaloff's career exceptionally rich and varied. He managed and created at the State Opera in Ruse and in the Music Theatre in Sofia, founded the Academy of Vocal Art in Rome and realized dozens of productions on various scales. Between 1994 and 2000 and then from 2008, he was the Director of the Sofia Opera and Ballet, where he achieved his most significant successes.

Beyond touring the Sofia Opera on five continents, perhaps the greatest success in the career of the Maestro, as his colleagues call him, is staging Richard Wagner's tetralogy of operas “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. "Everyone shouted that there would be no audience, that it was not for Bulgarian singers, but I took the big risk, I didn't listen to anyone and I counted on an audience not only in Bulgaria," says Kartaloff. Already with the first premiere of "Das Rheingold", the risk paid off and people came from over 15 countries, and the tetralogy was successfully performed abroad, including in the city of Füssen in Bavaria, special for the history of Richard Wagner, and at the Bolshoi Theatre". The reaction of the audience and the critics have been exceptionally warm and this achievement confirmed the place of the Sofia Opera and Ballet among the important opera theatres around the world.

In addition to his inner passion, the Maestro is driven in his career by the desire to attract as many people as possible to the art of opera. Beyond the ideal goal, it is an important element in supporting the Sofia Opera and running it as a successful business. "Opera cannot be a profitable art," says Kartaloff. He notes that its origins are in the palaces of the kings of four centuries ago, but today the state must support and assist this art out of duty and prestige.

However, he is pragmatic and realizes that one cannot rely solely on state support. "Theatres should take matters into their own hands, directors should not whine and find mechanisms and ways for this art not to survive, but to develop," he says. This includes creating a community of opera lovers to support it through donations, but also management to attract audiences. "A management's greatest success is attendance, and if attendance is poor, then management is poor," he says.

This commercial aspect of the opera need not be in conflict with the creative qualities of the productions. "If done with taste and responsibility, commercialization in these serious cultural institutions can be valid," he says. His example is the production of the musical "Mama Mia!" at the Sofia Opera, the quality of which he compares with the productions of "Broadway" and in London's "West End". Thanks to him, the Sofia Opera gained financial stability, which is of great importance. "It was not this that provoked me so much – says Kartaloff, – as the fact that a new audience would enter the opera, which will not come to opera and ballet, but will come to a musical."

With the same mission – to achieve sustainable interest in opera – Kartaloff also developed the children's programme of the Sofia Opera. This includes both concerts for babies and spectacles for children that include operas, ballets and musicals. Through them, Kartaloff managed to give the youngest artists a chance to perform, and even students who are still studying take part in these performances. Part of the motivation for them is precisely attracting an audience, which is becoming more and more difficult, and on a global scale.

In contrast to the clichéd understanding of the artistic approach to such problems, Kartaloff bets on investments in the development of opera in order to solve the problem. This includes, on the one hand, providing opera artists with better-than-average pay, as well as new musical instruments and quality equipment for the spectacles, no matter where they are staged.

On the other hand, is the development of the various stages that are closer to the audience. "It is quite possible to go to new places and to a new audience, and we do it with conviction – says Kartaloff. "Let the art of the opera theatre be seen and heard, and not be hidden from the eyes and ears of the audience."

Thus, in the summer of 2022, Kartaloff and the Sofia Opera and Ballet will continue to bring their work to open stages in Sofia and around the country. This year the "Opera in the Park" festival in the park of the Academy of Defence will include performances just for kids.

The summer festival "Muses of Water" (сложи линк към него) at Lake Pancharevo will have performances from July to September. Among them will be two premieres – of the opera "Der fliegende Holländer" (сложи линк към него) by Richard Wagner and the ballet "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and the comedy of the same name by William Shakespeare.

In August, the "Opera of the Peaks" festival (сложи линк към него) will be held at the Belogradchik Rocks, where the operas "Nabucco" and "Aida" by Giuseppe Verdi, "Norma" by Vincenzo Bellini, the ballets "La Bayadère" by Ludwig Minkus, "One Thousand and One Nights" by Fikret Amirov and "Le Corsaire" by Adolphe Adam, as well as the musical "Mama Mia!" by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. In addition, the Sofia Opera will also have performances in the Ancient Theatre in Plovdiv.

The success of everything so far, but also of the future plans of Acad. Plamen Kartaloff, is an ambivalent concept. It is in the first place for the artists and the audience. "For the artists to feel on top and happy, and for the audience to be inspired, satisfied and immersed in our art," he says. For himself, the role of stage director and director remains, who is behind the scenes and approaches successes more pragmatically. "I don't know how to enjoy them, but I am always moving on to the next task and step towards to achieving new heights and peaks."