Interview: “I do not want to waste this treasure”
Cypriot soprano, Theodora Raftis, talks about her vast musical experience which led to her career as a classical singer, which forms the basis of her profession even today.
After studying in Birmingham and Weimar, Theodora continued her studies in Budapest, supported by the Weingarten Scholarship. In the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, she came across her most inspiring singing teacher so far, Ms Andrea Meláth. As a consequence of the fruitful cooperation with Ms Meláth and her piano accompanist Ms Katalin Alter, she prolonged her stay here by one year. In the beginning of April this year, she won the Second Prize in the first category of the International József Simándy Singing Competition held in Szeged, Hungary.
Fanni Eckhardt: When did music appear in your life? Is there any other musician in your family?
Theodora Raftis: I am the first musician in my family which is wonderful. This way I feel myself free, because I do not have to compete with anybody else. I deal with music simply because I like doing it. As for my family, they are happy that I chose singing, I enjoy their strong support, and my father is my most enthusiastic fan. My parents used to record family videos when we were young, and we have a video of me singing a nursery song at the age of one, yet I could not even speak. So we can say music has always been present in my life.
Fanni Eckhardt: As a child, you appeared on stage many times and in the frame of various genres, both as a soloist and as a member of a choir. Would you tell us something of your initial experiences and of the way in which they influenced your career later?
Theodora Raftis: At the age of seven I was selected to join the Children’s Choir ‘Diastasis’ . The eleven year period I spent in this choir is an important part of my career as a singer. In fact, this was my only possibility in Cyprus to perform regularly in front of a significant audience. We performed Greek music from the period between the 1920’s and 1940’s as well as many musical productions. As a member of the choir, I was also given soloist roles regularly. As a rule, we had two rehearsals weekly, but nearer the date of the performance, we had daily rehearsals. I usually went to rehearsals straight after school and many times I arrived home at midnight to go to school the next morning. I am grateful that I learned from an early age, as early as a schoolgirl, what a great deal of devotion, humility and endurance is required to be a musician in the performing arts. In ‘Diastasis’ I even learned how one is to cooperate with costume designers and directors. I remember an episode from my childhood. Contrary to our director’s instructions, I once curled my hair before one of our performances; because I was firmly convinced that it suited my role (I still think so, by the way). However, ten minutes prior to my entering the stage, I found myself face to face with the director who, in his turn, told me off so badly that I could not help crying. It was difficult for me to fight down my emotions in ten minutes and then to appear on stage as if nothing had happened, but fortunately I succeeded in doing so. Therefore, I vowed not to contradict a director ever again. This was a good lesson for me.
Fanni Eckhardt: You represented Cyprus in the First Junior Eurovision Song Contest at the age of eleven. How did this possibility come about? What memories do you have of this event?
Theodora Raftis: As usual, the national selecting audition was announced. In the beginning, I was not at all interested in this competition, except for the doll’s house my father promised me as a present, provided I take part in the audition. Of course, I also declared that I will not take part in the final contest, even if I was selected. One day, my father came to take me by car and told me that the audition was to be held that day, so we went. Even though I was not particularly interested, I finally won the national audition. I burst into tears with joy; it was touching and uplifting when I learned that I would be the one to represent our country in this huge competition. Obviously, I attended the final in Copenhagen, all my family came with me. During the preparations of the contest in Denmark, I gained experience from within, about how the music industry works. For example, there were eleven-year-old competitors who already had managers of their own.
Fanni Eckhardt: After so much musical experience of various types, when did you decide to concentrate on classical music?
Theodora Raftis: I remember when I was fourteen years old, I took part in an opera production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, as a member of the children’s choir. Being up on stage, I could see and hear the soprano soloist singing the part of Gretel. I was completely captivated by the experience. After the performance, I went up to my mother and I told her that I will be opera singer. Even before this decision, I was sure I would deal with music in general – I had tried all kinds of genres, from musicals to Greek folk songs to classical music, with the only exception of jazz, because I never planned to deal with it.
Fanni Eckhardt: Do you exclusively sing classical music now?
Theodora Raftis: Not quite. For one thing, I have my classically trained voice, besides I often use another voice training technique, i.e. my Greek folk song voice. It is a natural phonation method I have been using since my childhood. It is a tone colour which comes from deep within, it is powerful, hides a great deal of sorrow and it is mine in an absolutely natural way. This voice training technique often helps me steal back relief and artlessness into my classical voice. Quite often, all I have to do is to sing the difficult phrase in my Greek tone and I immediately find the appropriate position or content best suited to the given music.
Fanni Eckhardt: With regards to classical singing, which branch of it do you prefer, opera singing or singing of classical songs?
Theodora Raftis: I enjoy both and wish to retain both. Fortunately, the type of my voice makes it possible. I have an emotional and very sensitive personality; therefore the genre of opera in itself is not satisfactory for me in every respect. In the classical songs I feel more free to shape a character in the manner I find it best, it is easier for me to put in an appearance. Whereas in operas, characters are given in advance, the personality is more specifically determined. I think it is easier to create direct contact with the audience in the genre of songs, on the other hand, operas try to convey the aesthetic content by affecting several sense organs of the audience at a time. It is extremely intriguing that emotions belonging to the character are part of the text and the text forms part of the emotions; the two items achieve a common purpose by organically merging in the melody, they are inseparable. I do not really like the oratorio-like interpretation of the operas, I am not free enough if I am supposed to split off the emotions, the “acting-out” part from an operatic role.
Fanni Eckhardt: How do you generally build up a character?
Theodora Raftis: Character building is relatively going well for me; I have a method to do it. I learned a lot about this process from Michael Barry, Director of the Theatrical Department of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, who, by the way, was a director of the Royal Opera House and the Welsh National Opera. He left it to me, to discover and work out for myself the given character, intervening only when it was absolutely necessary. When I start to work on a role, first I sit down and thoroughly scrutinize the libretto of the opera, I collect every tiny bit of information about my character: her feelings, the stage directions or anything else, such as descriptions about her from other characters. Thereupon, I summarize all the features of the character by writing an essay. For example, it was easy for me to analyse the role of Despina (Così fan tutte), but I had tremendous work in connection with the role of Blanche de la Force (Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites), for she is a person who does not know her own self. In this period, I was fighting for months with sleep disorder and panic disorder. I dived too deep into this complex series of questions, I was constantly working on how to explore Blanche’s character more and more, but I felt that it wouldn’t work. I remember when I complained about this to Michael Barry, he reassured me by saying it was good that I still did not exactly feel the borders of the personality, of the character, for it is impossible to grasp or understand her. This was the learning curve. Ever since, I try to preserve equilibrium between the immersion into the character’s personality and my own psychic poise.
Fanni Eckhardt: What is your own character like?
Theodora Raftis: I have two different sides with a relatively great distance in between them. They reflect different characters and I can switch between them easily enough. I can turn this to my advantage in many ways in the field of performing arts. If, for example, I find myself nervous back-stage during an opera performance, then, as soon as I give myself the instruction “switch”, I can immediately shift into another state of mind. For the other part, it is not hard for me in a song recital to quickly change from one song into another which has quite a different character. Differences are exciting anyway. In order to grasp and maintain the audience’s attention, it is important to come forward with a differentiated, varied programme during the concert. When it comes to drawing up the programme of my own concert, the type of pieces, the kind of music I choose and the sequence in which they follow, depend on the country the concert is to be held in. Every nation and every audience has different composition and preferences of its own, and we as performing artists have to take into consideration these factors.
Fanni Eckhardt: Besides elaborating your character, what else helps you to properly prepare a composition?
Theodora Raftis: I terribly like improvising and I do it a lot. Music composition and improvisation help me a lot in fully experiencing the given moment while I sing. Even when I am interpreting a written piece, and not my own composition, in the quality of a performing artist, I have to create the impression as if the given music were born that very moment, as if I sang it for the first time. I believe it is very important for every musician to practice improvisation because it helps us to create a feeling in the audience that the singer is in an “intimate relationship” with the piece of music performed in the given moment, that it is her own, that the piece is being heard for the first time.
Fanni Eckhardt: What do you do as a singer to keep your voice in a sound healthy state?
Theodora Raftis: I do yoga, I perform different exercises with my hip, diaphragm and breathing drills. For example, I lie on the ground facing upwards, I put a book on my belly and I inhale and exhale. Or I imagine as if I were a huge paintbrush and I can depict anything, for example a square on the ground or anything else in the air, I experiment this way. I plan my series of exercises, just the same as my singing drills. The best thing is to be your own teacher. Before an appearance, I inhale steam and I adore taking a long bath.
Fanni Eckhardt: What is it like to work with Ms Andrea Meláth?
Theodora Raftis: We understand each other very well, both from the artistic and human point of view. My relationship with her and Ms Katalin Alter, my accompanist, is very personal. In my opinion, it is very important for a teacher to condescend to the pupil’s level in order to lift up the pupil thereafter. Andrea and Katalin did this to me. I am very grateful to them for this.
Fanni Eckhardt: What is your number one motivation for singing?
Theodora Raftis: My voice was given to me by God and I believe my mission in life is to improve my voice. I do not want to waste this treasure; that is why I am so dedicated to singing and enthusiastic about this profession.
Fanni Eckhardt: How do you work on building your singing career?
Theodora Raftis: I have my main principles which I would like to heed: perfect my singing technique (obviously all I can do is to strive for the best as it can never be perfect), I am learning how to work with managers, artists’ agents and I am constantly searching for new repertoire and learning opera roles that I would like to sing in the future. In addition, I am training myself to find ways to improve my auditions, how to produce the maximum from myself, from the situation, and of course I am constantly improving my foreign language skills. I speak Greek, English, I am studying Italian and German, and I would also like to speak French in two years’ time. I have also drawn up a list of the essential factors to take into consideration for a successful recital or concert: simplicity, freedom, poise, to have confidence in my instrument (i.e. my voice), and finally to keep a sound equilibrium between having a free flow of emotions and having them consciously under control.
Fanni Eckhardt: What was it like for you to participate in the Budapest Spring Festival, in the production of Cesti’s opera entitled Orontea?
Theodora Raftis: This was my first production in which I worked with professional singers and musicians. That I could be in the same production with the renowned Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, has revealed a lot to me, even if we did not have a common scene. The mere fact that I could observe her, how she was working during the rehearsals, was an incredible experience for me; for example, I noticed how much energy should be put into singing in a rehearsal, how to wisely use one’s voice without overexerting it. These are things impossible to learn in the frame of singing lessons. The only way to do this is to watch extraordinary singers like Emőke Baráth and how they work. So I am looking forward to the following such occasion, when in May 2016 I will be working with Emőke Baráth again as well as Klára Kolonits.
Fanni Eckhardt: What are your objectives for the near and distant future?
Theodora Raftis: Thanks to conductor György Vashegyi, I will have several concerts next season for which I am most grateful to him. As for this summer, I plan to prepare for international competitions and I will rest, too. I am also planning to draw up a Solo Recital which I would like to present in Greece, Germany, Belgium and Cyprus. I have pianist friends in these countries; I would organize these concerts with their help. One of my future plans is that I would like to become a member of an Opera Studio. I work on everything I possibly can and I let things happen their own way.
The next occasion when Theodora Raftis will appear on stage, will be in Budapest on 27 May 2016 at 19.30 in the Palace of Arts (MÜPA) in the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, performing in the Modern World Premiere of Kaiser Constantin I. Feldzug und Sieg by Michael Haydn together with the renowned Hungarian sopranos Emőke Baráth and Klára Kolonits.