Riga Should Have Become Capital of Culture a Long Time Ago – Antoņenko

Riga Should Have Become Capital of Culture a Long Time Ago – Antoņenko
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014 . Tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko
This is what the outstanding Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko said in an interview with the “Figaro” magazine at the beginning of this year. In the evening of the 6th of July, he and many other Latvian stars will perform in the “Born in Riga” concert at the Latvian National Opera. But in the meantime Aleksandrs has been performing at the most famous European and American opera houses, and he is the only non-Swedish singer to receive the Jussi Björling Award, named after the legendary Swedish tenor.

This year, Riga is the European Capital of Culture. I believe you are someone who can look at the phenomenon from an international perspective.

I first learned about the European Capital of Culture when I was working in Graz a few years ago. My friends told me that Graz, which had the second largest opera house in Austria, would host exhibitions, concerts and other events during the Capital of Culture year. As for Riga – we deserved to be awarded this status a long time ago! I wonder why it is happening just one year before Latvia takes the European Union’s Presidency, it should have happened much earlier. Because what is happening in our cultural life is nearly unmatched. Even with the limited funds for culture, we still are…

I don’t even know how to put it. I would say that, when culture is concerned, we have been doing it, since the Soviet rule, for the sake of art, not because of money or because we have to. That’s why our culture is at such a high level.

Our cultural heritage is also alive and well, and keeps developing, we continue to care for it all.


Can you explain why?

I think we must have been blessed by God – there are different denominations in Latvia, and many people often pray for the country and their fellow men. We have multi-cultural environment, there are multiple ethnicities living here that each, with their different mentalities, contribute to the cultural confluence. And there is, of course, what we have inherited from the past generations: the contribution by the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, the fact that Jāzeps Vītols was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, and after his death Vītols continued to teach composition and work with Rimsky-Korsakov’s students. Of course, I’m talking about the musical aspect as I know very little about Latvian visual arts – I can only name a few artists, so I’d rather not talk or opine about it. (Smiles) I’m not an expert at all.

But when it comes to what Latvia can offer in music – it is fascinating! So I do believe that people should come here to see and listen for themselves how beautiful the city is, what great people live here, appreciate our culture and artists.

Of course, all of that is based in our education system that has created such artists.

You also studied in Latvia, and started your career at the Opera as a chorister. Did you work very purposefully to become an internationally-acclaimed soloist?

No, not in my case! I did not covet it at all, it just so happened. I joined the choir because I was a young man and I had to earn a living. Because – what else could I do for a living? I simply accepted it all, I was open to change, and so it went. I didn’t even have time for parties! (Laughs)

In parallel to working at the Opera, I worked with our congregation where I was in charge of the choirs and had to prepare compositions to be performed during a church service on any given Sunday. So I was simply living my life.

Now you are an elite opera singer. Is it easy to be part of such an elite company, or not quite so?

If we are talking of conductors, for example, the Covent Garden Opera’s Music Director Antonio Pappano, the Rome Opera Theatre’s Head Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and other great conductors, and their efforts to have me in their productions – yes indeed, I am part of the opera elite.


But if you mean that elite which we can read about in the press every day – I have nothing to do with it. That world is of no interest to me, and what’s happening there is something I don’t quite like. (Thinks) I am often reproached for being a proud man. I don’t know, I would consider myself a humble person. I know what’s in my heart, and that God is watching my heart every minute, and I have been taught since my childhood that God opposes proud people. (Falls silent)

Of course, I have self-respect. I respect myself for all the hard work I have been doing. But I have never done anything just to make friends in high places… I hope I will never have to – because I have no time for such things, and because there are things in life that are far more important.

I believe that a clear conscience is much more important than arranging the things around you to make life more comfortable. If, deep in your heart, you are unhappy about what is happening to you, how can you be happy about what’s happening around you?!

Stuff yourself with chocolate? All right, you will have the hormone of happiness for ten minutes, but then it will be lost again through the kidneys, that’s it! You have to produce that hormone yourself!

Can you say of yourself that you are happy and live in harmony with yourself?

I’m on a quest for it. I’m happy that I can see my path forward. Someone told me, try to get closer to God every day, at least five millimetres closer, be open-minded, and you’ll be on the right track. But it has to happen on a daily basis, without stopping. Interestingly enough, when I was looking for answers, a priest told me – you must not get stuck in the past! Make your conclusions, and move on. We’re making a mistake when we think about the future upon drawing conclusions. But we do not live in the future, our lives are here and now. Here and now must we make that step forward, and it is very important to be aware of this. To me though, this is still at the verbal level. Let me read out an e-mail a priest sent me, for everyone to hear. Maybe somebody will realise that these three things are also meant for him or her. First: “Learn to accept and love thyself.” Second: “Trust and open up for God.” Third: “We have to be patient.”

You have received the Jussi Björling Award, including for advising singers at the Stockholm Opera. It seems a logical question to ask: will there be a time you will become a teacher for young singers?

I had an offer from the Michigan University to take over a class and teach young singers. I would pay taxes in America, and I could even “write out bills” for education, for spending such and such amount of money on preparing for a role or working with my vocal teacher for five or six hours.

They consider all of it to be part of education, including my work and performances on the stages that I am paid for. In America, being an active, practicing musician means your development and education is continuing, that you become increasingly more experienced and can share more of your skills. That is why they are offering me a professorship and students to teach at their university – all I have to do is to work and share what I know.

But at the moment I don’t have time for that either, although it may happen sometime in the future. (Falls silent) Perhaps I can share my knowledge, teach a master class – but to take responsibility for somebody, teach him one method after another and be in charge of their musical development, maturity and phrasings is a different life altogether. That’s why my pedagogical work at the Royal Swedish Opera was only happening when I was singing there and when I was approached by colleagues who told me: look, I’d like to consult you about something. I would watch and listen, and say: good, now why don’t we try this method, and now let’s try this phrase… And, by the way, it was the first time the Jussi Björling Award was presented to a non-Swedish singer.


You also work at the Inese Galante Foundation, one of the main functions of which is to find and teach young talents. Have you found such a young talent yet?

We are looking for talents, so we will certainly have a young, talented tenor in a few years. I believe there are many potential tenors, but they are still learning. Working with tenors is like walking on thin ice, you never known what will come of it... I also hope that our opera singers Andris Ludvigs and Raimonds Bramanis will become good tenors in the course of time. The main thing is to give them the opportunity to sing, because they also learn on the stage. And we do have to look for tenors. Much like Diogenes was carrying a lantern in full daylight, looking for a human. (Smiles)

You can read a full interview with Aleksandrs Antoņenko (in Latvian) in the January 2014 issue of the magazine “Figaro”.


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