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The music feels like it's in my blood.

Byline: DIANE PARKES What's On Writer

THERE'S high drama taking place in front of us. There's a woman being attacked, two former lovers fighting, a father and son having a serious row, a religious leader creating a scene and a crowd of people commenting on all that is going on.

And, when there are stops for pauses, a man hugging a green folder might step in and have a quick chat with someone.

Welsh National Opera's autumn season rehearsals arer in full swing and the scene we are watching is from early in Musorgsky's political opera Khovanshchina. And the man who has now returned to a chair to watch the scene is the show's language coach John Asquith.

A linguist and musician, John's role is to ensure that all cast members from the chorus to the soloists have mastered their Russian - the language of Musorgsky's opera.

"I'm delighted," he beams. "They've really got it."

Russia is a theme in the autumn season for Welsh National Opera. Alongside Khovanshchina the company is performing Tchaikovsky's great love story Eugene Onegin and Janacek's From the House of the Dead which is based on Russian writer Dostoevsky's prison diaries. While From the House of the Dead is sung in English, the two Russian epics are sung in their original language with English surtitles - which does pose some demands for the singers.

"There are both singing challenges and textual challenges," says John. "If you take the textual challenges, the score is in the Russian alphabet so a transliteration has to be made. We provide singers with a score which has a sheet at the front with the conventions of the language and the score has words which show how the words are to be sung.

"Some singers like a word-for-word translation and that is really difficult in Russian because very often a wordfor-word translation would look like gobbledegook," adds John.

Once the singers have the grasp of the text, they then need to replicate the sounds of the Russian language which brings its own challenges.

John, who studied both Russian and music in St Petersburg when the city was still called Leningrad, says that sometimes his first job is to convince the singers that they can master singing in Russian.

"It's not actually as difficult as people think - so it's often a case of getting over a psychological barrier to begin with."

Soloist Natalya Romaniw shares John's love for Russian opera. This autumn she plays the part of Tatyana, the heroine who falls for Eugene Onegin in Tchaikovsky's opera. Born in Swansea and of Ukrainian descent, Natalya speaks neither Ukrainian nor Russian and yet has a natural inclination towards those languages.

"Strangely I do feel an affiliation with Russian music and the language but maybe it has something to do with my grandfather who would speak Ukrainian to me," she says. "We would play I Spy in Ukrainian and maybe that means the language feels like home to me. It resonates with me in a way that other languages I sing in don't.

"The music feels like it's in my blood and it really does move me - it's so poetic and lyrical."

Natalya has sung a number of key Russian roles including Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and last year she was Tatyana for Garsington Opera. Now she's looking forward to reprising the role of Tatyana in the WNO production.

"I can really relate to Tatyana, that idea of the first time you fall in love, being a young girl and interested in reading and what that brings to her and her relationship with her sister. I found it very easy to live and breathe the role."

?WNO perform Musorgsky's Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Janacek's House of the Dead alongside Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre from Tuesday until Saturday.


Soloist Natalya Romaniw (inset) and (left) as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Oct 27, 2017
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