22 May 2013

ARTIST PROFILE: Nikolai Schukoff, tenor

Austrian tenor NIKOLAI SCHUKOFF [Photo used with the artist's permission]

‘Endowed with a voice which for power, quality, richness and warmth, range and volume, has seldom been equaled, he displayed the highest art in the use of it.  His acting also was artistic, and dignified, and his impersonation was in every respect a regal one.’  It was thus that an unidentified correspondent for the New York Times described the Metropolitan Opera début of Polish tenor Jean de Reszke as Wagner’s Lohengrin in Chicago on 9 November 1891.  De Reszke was an uncommonly versatile artist even by the standards of his time, his repertory including lyric rôles, dramatic Verdi parts, French rôles, and Wagner heroes—even the most daunting of the last of these, Siegfried.  It was for De Reszke that Jules Massenet conceived and composed the title rôle in his opera Le Cid, in which Wagnerian power is combined with the high tessitura typical of French tenor rôles.  The balance of stamina with consistency and proper projection of tone across the entire range made de Reszke an exceptional artist, as effective in the graceful music of Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as in the ‘heavier’ music of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Bizet’s Don José.  Among tenors of the 20th Century, perhaps only Leo Slezak was a fully legitimate heir to de Reszke’s mantle, and it cannot be doubted that the 21st Century has thus far brought no unexpected exodus of brilliant singers in the de Reszke and Slezak mold from artistic hinterlands to the world’s great opera houses.  In recent seasons, however, Austria—that gloriously fertile birthplace of music and musical genius—has given a great gift to opera lovers throughout the world, a young tenor about whom the Times critic’s opinion applies as accurately as it surely did to Jean de Reszke: Nikolai Schukoff.

Voices that combine the strength, beauty, and range on display in Nikolai Schukoff’s singing were rare in previous generations and are almost unknown among singers of his own generation.  It is, in part, this sui generis quality of his vocal gift that sets Mr. Schukoff apart from his contemporaries, but he also possesses another rare distinction, that of having an easily-identifiable timbre.  In this age in which young voices sound much alike, whether by nature or by nurture, Mr. Schukoff’s voice is fantastically different.  At some point in the recent history of music, being described as ‘different’ has assumed a misleadingly negative connotation, as though difference is somehow equated with deficiency.  The only deficiency in Mr. Schukoff’s career to date is a paucity of engagements in the United States, where his uniquely pleasing voice and ebulliently youthful but deeply-considered stage presence have been too little offered to audiences.  American audiences are notoriously fickle in choosing their favorites, of course, and their darlings are not always those singers whose performances most merit the accolades.  In that regard, Mr. Schukoff remains to many American opera lovers an undiscovered treasure.  Celebrated in Europe as, to quote Alexandra Coghlan’s New Statesman review of his Florestan in Opéra de Lyon’s Fidelio, a ‘stand-out’ artist, Mr. Schukoff is a gem of extraordinary worth who cannot long go unnoticed.

Born in Graz, the native city of Karl Böhm, Mr. Schukoff is keenly aware of Austria’s importance to Classical Music but was not greatly influenced by opera in his youth.  ‘Yes, I grew up in Austria,’ he recalls, ‘but in the countryside.  Until I start singing, I had maybe seen three opera performances.  My love of opera came through the love of music.’  Though opera was not an early influence on his musical upbringing, Mr. Schukoff was exposed to music from an early age.  ‘My father was a passionate listener [to] Classical Music, though he never listened to vocal music,’ Mr. Schukoff says.  ‘I grew up with the entire symphonic repertoire.  Later, when I did my studies in Salzburg, I realized that music—and in particular opera—are nearly vital to the Austrians.’  Even in music-mad Österreich, times have changed somewhat, he suggests.  ‘Let’s say [that] in this time music was vital to the Austrians,’ he reflects.  He recognizes, though, that Austria remains a nation unlike any other in terms of national pride in music.  ‘I am proud to come from a country in which an operatic event still can land on the front page of a daily newspaper.  Austria not so long ago was a big empire that united so many peoples, religions, and languages, and in a way I feel like a musical ambassador to this former Austria.’

Having mentioned his studies in Salzburg, it is perhaps inevitable to note that many of the finest traditions of Austrian music, musicians, and music-making became evident to Mr. Schukoff during his tenure at the Mozarteum Salzburg, where he studied with Professor Boris Bakow.  Remembering Professor Bakow as a man ‘who has a beautiful bass voice,’ Mr. Schukoff also credits him with having supervised the crucial transition of Fach that launched Mr. Schukoff’s career as a tenor.  ‘[It was he] with whom I made the change from baritone to tenor,’ he says of Professor Bakow.  ‘He always tried to make singing easy and not difficult, and his way of motivating [his students] helped me a lot in following my inner urges to musical and dramatic expression.’  Before encountering Professor Bakow at the Mozarteum, it was a piano teacher who turned Mr. Schukoff’s attention away from popular music and towards ‘serious’ vocal music.  By which artists was he most influenced as a young man?  ‘Until I started singing,’ he recollects with humor, ‘the Beatles, I think.  Then, my piano teacher planted the idea that I could have a voice, and of course my father was not against my wish to become a singer.’  Having left the Beatles to their hard days’ nights and yellow submarines, Mr. Schukoff started to explore vocal music, particularly gravitating, as he recollects, to ‘the CDs of Franco Corelli—one of [his] opera gods.’  There are, in fact, a number of similarities between Mr. Schukoff and Corelli, not least their virile tones, unmistakably masculine timbres, and matinée-idol visages and physiques.

Lina Tetriani as Norma and Nikolai Schukoff as Pollione in Bellini's NORMA at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris [Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert]  Lina Tetriani as Norma and Nikolai Schukoff as Pollione in Bellini’s Norma at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris [Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert]

Despite his youth, Mr. Schukoff has excelled in some of the most treacherously difficult rôles in the tenor repertory, including Erik in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, Siegmund in Die Walküre, Parsifal, Don José, Sergei in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  He has also garnered acclaim in rôles as diverse as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Pollione in Bellini’s Norma.  Judging in the context of today’s tendency for young singers’ careers to start with one or perhaps two segments of the repertory—Mozart and bel canto, for instance—and gradually build upon that foundation, Mr. Schukoff’s career is exceptional and more like those of his historical forbears than the fledgling careers of his contemporaries.  ‘You never know how a career will develop,’ he shares.  ‘I remember singing with Martha Mödl just before her death, and I asked her during one performance [about the] rôles with which she started.  She said, “You know, they always say that my first role was Hänsel in [Humperdinck’s] Hänsel und Gretel, but this is not true.  It was Azucena [in Verdi’s Il Trovatore].”  That’s often the way it goes when you start singing in smaller opera companies.  The important thing is to sing all the rôles in your own voice and not to force it.’  This gets at one of the most important aspects of Mr. Schukoff’s artistry: control, of both internal and external aspects of singing.  ‘To control the quantity of performances is sometimes more important than to be cautious with more dramatic rôles,’ he says, echoing the strategy of an artist like Plácido Domingo, whose philosophy on preserving the voice centered, at least in part, on closely regulating the numbers of performances of rôles with high tessiture and alternating these with lower-lying parts.  ‘It is also important to know in which house you sing,’ Mr. Schukoff adds.  ‘Some acoustics are so bad that you’d rather refuse even if the rôle were tempting.’  For him, versatility is a key that is absolutely vital to unlocking his full potential as an artist.  ‘I try to stay a “chameleon.”  My new rôle débuts in the next few months include Foresto in Verdi’s Attila, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and Turridu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.  In the summer of 2014, I will also sing Tamino again, so I try to keep a more or less healthy mixture.’

Chameleonic versatility is indeed one of the hallmarks of Mr. Schukoff’s career to date, as exemplified by the wide array of rôles in which he has captured the hearts and minds of audiences.  Asked about what aspects of his career as a singer are most personally gratifying, he responds, ‘The singing itself and the wonderful sensations you feel when everything goes as desired.’  He concedes that there are difficulties and failures, but he maintains a focus ‘to improve with each single step on stage.’  Mr. Schukoff views success as a singer as a very individual process, achieved only through discipline and understanding of one’s own unique voice.  ‘I think [that] each singer has to find his own way of planning the development of the voice, and there are no hard rules,’ he says.  ‘Flexibility is the most important factor, and you have to work on this in each step of your career.  Jon Vickers had a huge voice, but how flexible it stayed until the end!’  Maintaining this flexibility is critical to Mr. Schukoff’s determination ‘to be as true and honest as possible, to be “in the rôle.”’  This inevitably introduces an element of uncertainty into the career, however, and this is a component of the excitement of singing.  ‘Honestly, I cannot say where exactly I will be going [vocally] because sometimes it’s also fate when you get an offer for a new rôle, but there are still rôles which I will conquer soon that will lead the way—like my first Lohengrin, for example.’

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and Nikolai Schukoff as Don José in Bizet's CARMEN at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden [Photo by the Associate Press; photographer uncredited] Rinat Shaham as Carmen and Nikolai Schukoff as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden [Photo courtesy of the Associated Press; photographer uncredited]

Several of the Wagner productions in which Mr. Schukoff has appeared have inspired debate among audiences and critics.  Like most singers who work in the world’s greatest opera houses, Mr. Schukoff has worked with directors whose ideas stretched the boundaries of the scores at hand.  ‘When we did the production of the MET’s Parsifal at Lyon one year before, François Girard and I struggled [for] a long time over the problem with the bow that Parsifal uses.  [The Girard production of Parsifal premièred at the Metropolitan Opera on 15 February 2013.  The production, with sets by Michael Levine and video projections by Peter Flaherty, débuted at Opéra de Lyon in March 2012, with Mr. Schukoff singing the title rôle to strongly positive reviews.]  François would rather have [had] a gun,’ Mr. Schukoff says, ‘but in the same time we wanted to be as true as possible [to what] Wagner wrote.  At the end, we decided that I [would] have neither a bow nor a gun, and it worked very well.  Here the new element of video projections was added in a perfect way.’  This ‘new element’ is, in Mr. Schukoff’s assessment, indicative of the evolution of opera during the past quarter-century.  ‘Opera has become very visual,’ he explains, ‘and we have to stay very cautious that we don’t distract too much from what opera is about—music and singing!’  The balance between musical and visual elements necessary to engage audiences and ensure the survival of opera is both delicate and elusive, Mr. Schukoff suggests.  He is adamant that the heart of the genre is in a composer’s score, however.  ‘The right way to keep opera alive is not in trying to find new, modern ways to tell the old stories,’ he muses.  ‘There are some operas that you cannot put into different times and places, [but] some work very well even in abstract interpretations.  If each moment of the opera makes sense in a new adaptation, why not?  But it has to make sense!’  For new operas, a significant part of this insurmountable need to make sense begins with the quality of the music.  ‘We have to find composers who can write listenable and bearable music and who have good instincts for drama, dramatic construction, and composition.’  For all the attention that these endeavors receive in 2013, these are not new problems, Mr. Shukoff notes.  ‘Not so many years have passed [since] we could discover new operas like Salome, Peter Grimes, or Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,’ he says, then adding a personal appeal to 21st-Century composers: ‘Please write new operas and not film music!’  All of the efforts of singers, composers, and directors are meaningless if musical education fails to entice the minds of children, Mr. Schukoff intimates.  ‘We have to bring the music to the kids!’ he argues.  ‘It is there, with children, where everything is decided.  In France, where I am living, they made a try in 830 school classrooms in problem areas: each pupil had to learn an instrument and play in the school orchestra.  You won’t believe what miracles they achieved with this!  The concentration of the pupils improved enormously, the school achievement [level] rose, and pupils who had been unable to be integrated found their way back to social life.  It is there, our future of opera!  Make music and opera indispensable for kids, make them love it, and you don’t have to worry about [whether] it is possible to relocate a Trovatore to the Gulf War period.’

In essence, education is perhaps the single most important aspect of Mr. Schukoff’s approach to singing, but there are incredibly important aspects of a singer’s education that cannot be obtained in a conservatory classroom or rehearsal room.  Dedication to educating oneself, on one’s own terms, is vital.  ‘Study, study, study!’ Mr. Schukoff says, adding that singing is ‘hard but satisfying work.  Confucius said, “Try to find work that you love, and when you have found it you will not work one single day of your life.”’  The commitment with which he sings makes it apparent that singing is for Mr. Schukoff far more than a vocation.  ‘I wake up as a singer, and I go to bed as a singer,’ he says.  ‘For me, singing is vital, and I cannot separate being a singer [from] being a private person.  My voice is a medium to transport feelings for me.’  These feelings that he seeks to communicate with audiences define not only Mr. Schukoff’s artistry but also his personality.  ‘Singing is sharing positive energy, love, beauty, hope, wonderful sensations and all that makes life so special and great,’ he says.  ‘It is true: I don’t sing for the money.  Yes, I rehearse for hours, I travel, I stay in suicide-grey hotel rooms, separated from my loved ones, I suffer anxiety, stress, and so on [because] of money, but I sing for taking the audience by the hands and leading them into a wonderful world of magic, making them forget their everyday problems for some hours, and to be rewarded with their applause if they liked it.’  Mr. Schukoff views his career as an endlessly privileged journey on which he has embarked in order to translate the experiences of his own life into musical experiences that will resonate with those who hear him sing.  ‘I keep looking each day for the beauty and harmony in the world [in order] to have something to share with my audience,’ he muses.  ‘Music is about harmony, and harmony is about living peacefully together.  Like the wolves howl together to feel strong and united in their pack, we can achieve the same in “living” music together.’

Despite having already sung several of the most daunting rôles in the tenor repertory, Nikolai Schukoff remains a young artist in the early seasons of a tremendously promising career.  That he displays such uncommon understanding of both the technical and the emotional requirements of pursuing a successful career as a singer hints at an artistic maturity beyond his years that is almost certain to continue to deepen as he takes on new challenges.  Another Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, once wrote that ‘neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius.  Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.’  Though he exhibits lofty degrees of both intelligence and imagination, both on and off stage, Nikolai Schukoff’s passion for singing and the beautifully-sung, thoughtfully-molded characters he creates for audiences fortunate enough to hear him confirm Mozart’s assertion that—for the greatest artists, at least—love is indeed the soul of genius.

Nikolai Schukoff at the curtain call after a 2008 Bayerische Staatsoper PARSIFAL, in which he sang the title rôle [Photo used with the artist's permission; photographer uncredited] Nikolai Schukoff at the curtain call of a 2008 Bayerische Staatsoper Parsifal, in which he sang the title rôle [Photo used with the artist’s permission; photographer uncredited]

The author is deeply indebted to Mr. Schukoff for his time, kindness, and candor.  To learn more about Nikolai Schukoff’s career and upcoming performances, please visit his Official Website.  Mr. Schukoff is represented by Rudolf Balmer of Balmer & Dixon.