Remembering my Teacher 2 -Lessons in Moscow with Professor Evgenia Sheveliova

Professor Evgenia Sheveliova was the second of the two teachers I’ve studied with whose ideas about voice have made the biggest impact on the way I sing and teach. 

We met in Moscow, during the summer of 2008, and our association came about rather unexpectedly. I was not looking for a singing teacher at the time, but rather a language coach to help me with some Shostakovich songs I wanted to learn. I asked a pianist friend in Moscow if he knew of anyone who might be able to help me. He only knew a proper singing teacher, he said, but thought it would be interesting for me to meet her. During the course of that first meeting, it became clear there was much I could learn from her and for the next three years, I travelled to Moscow three or four times a year for a tranche of lessons. 

Evgenia was around 70 when we met and was a Professor at the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow. She was also a People’s Artist of the USSR – an honorary title awarded to artists of the Soviet Union for exceptional achievements in their particular field. We met at her flat in a tall Soviet-era block, set in a pleasant leafy district to the south of Moscow, close to the Orekhovo Metro station. My first impressions were of a rather formidable lady, small and slight in build and stern in aspect, but with a brightness in her eyes which burned with curiosity and interest. Her voice was firm, resonant and clear in quality. 

I had been working on Schubet’s Winterreise that summer and took two songs from the cycle to sing to her. Evgenia had trained as a pianist before becoming a singer and played well, accompanying me herself on an upright Blüthner piano. After I’d sung, she walked across to a table by the window and picked up a large anatomy text book from a pile and opened it at a page showing some photographs of a cadaver in various stages of disection. She said she hoped I would not mind looking at such photographs, but it was necessary if we were going to be able to work together and she went on to show me a photograph of the abdominal muscles explaining how engaging more with these muscles when I sang, would give me the extra support and power she felt I needed for my voice.

What particularly interested me about Evgenia’s teaching was the fact that she approached singing from an anatomical viewpoint, which was the approach I had begun to take with Esther Salaman. I understood from my pianist friend, who had worked with her at the Gnessin Academy, that this approach was unusual in Russia. She saw the voice as being essentially a musical instrument, which teacher and student both have to build whilst the student learns to ‘play’ it at the same time. And being constructed of muscle and tissue, it is also a ‘human’ instrument with the sound produced by a coordination of breath and muscle. Because of this, the voice is essentially an instrument that is alive, and the possibilities it holds for emotional expression, are endless. 

For this first meeting, a Russian friend had accompanied me in order to translate, but a few days later, I made my own way to Orekhovo by Metro and nervously pressed the intercom button at the entrance to Evgenia’s building. I was always struck by the brightness of her voice when she answered, telling me to come up. During one of our conversations, she told me she ‘spoke as she sang and sang as she spoke’ and we agreed that fundamentally, there is very little difference between singing and speaking. The sound is produced in exactly the same way, but in singing, a wider pitch range is needed and the voice is sustained for longer periods than in speech. The singer also has to work within a tighter frame of pitch and rhythm. Resonance, however, is used in the same way and the brightness and projection that results from a well resonated singing voice is also pleasing and desirable in speech. It is not such a difficult idea to grasp, but in reality, not quite as easy to achieve, and this thought occupied me more and more as I began to teach spoken voice as well as singing and draw parallels between the two disciplines. 

My pianist friend had accompanied Evgenia in concerts at the Gnessin Academy and played me a recording of a recital of Prokofiev songs they had given together a few years earlier. Evgenia would have been around 68, but her singing was firm and strong and still very beautiful with no hint of shrillness at the top or tremor in the sound – both of which can appear as a singer gets older. Evgenia felt I had more stretch available in my vocal folds which would offer me some more notes at the top of my voice and I was glad to work on this along with the deepening of support she suggested. 

During the rest of that summer I worked with Evgenia on the whole of the Winterreise cycle using the music to work on technical points as we went along. My Russian friend came to help with translating on occasions when he was available, but for the most of the time we managed to communicate with the smattering we each had of the other’s mother tongue. I had been discussing with my pianist friend, the possibilities of performing Winterreise in Russia, but understood it was not a work that would particularly draw a Russian audience unless it was sung in Russian. I was interested to see Evgenia produce a score in which the original German had been translated into a singing Russian text and I found similar editions of Schubert and other composers in the music department of the huge Dom Knigi bookshop on New Arbat Street, but decided not to venture into re-learning the work in Russian.

Evgenia recommended a recording in Russian, however, by a Ukrainian bass called Boris Gmyra (1903-1969) whose interpretation cast quite a different light on the work with faster tempi than those I had chosen along with the fusion of Russian words with Schubert’s music. Evegenia challenged the melancholic approach I had taken towards building the character of the wanderer-poet and thought my singing was often ‘too grave’. He is a sensitive man, yes, she said, but he is brave. This came up when we worked on the last four songs of the cycle towards the end of the summer in Moscow. In Das Wirtshaus, the fourth song from the end, he approaches a graveyard which he likens in his mind to an inn where he might rest for the night. The funeral wreaths appear to him as signs inviting him inside. But there is no room for him there and he must continue. He has already resisted lying down in the snow beneath the linden tree at the beginning of his journey, and now, too, he realises that all he can do is continue. ‘Onward then, still further, my loyal walking staff!’ he says. There is no giving up of life and as Evgenia said, he has survived and will continue to survive. It is not a cycle of despair, but rather a work of resolution and determination. There is a life force at work within him which is much stronger than his sorrow.

Evgenia’s approach to voice was perhaps more philosophical and spiritual than Esther’s – which was more pragmatic and organised. Whilst I learned much about vocal anatomy and physiology with Evgenia – especially the structure and work of the vocal folds and the blending of chest and head voice resonances, we had many conversations about the function of music and art and whether a work added something to the world or diminished it in some way. Music, she believed, is living architecture and in the same way that there are many beautiful buildings in Moscow such as the Kremlin, for example, and ugly ones like the Soviet era apartment blocks in the district where she lived, we have music that either constructs, or deconstructs. Schubert’s music, for example, is of a kind that constructs. It will endure for as long as mankind exists and contribute something to the universe. Many will disagree, but punk-rock or heavy metal, were of a kind that deconstructs, she thought. Winterreise builds us up, bleak as it is, because it reflects so strongly the very depths of human emotions, the precariousness and vulnerability of life. What is more, the emotions expressed in Winterreise are still so relevant, perhaps even more so in our twenty-first century, and they continue to resonate deeply within the human soul. We have all, to some extent, experienced the feelings expressed in Winterreise and this is what keeps the piece alive and relevant. The protagonist has survived and we will survive too.

I returned to Russia a few months later, in December, and worked with Evgenia on the programme for a recital I had coming up at a festival in Tarusa – a town on the banks of the river Oka a few hours drive from Moscow. The programme included a group of songs by the American composer Ned Rorem (b.1923) mostly composed during the 1950’s when he lived in Paris. Evgenia was very taken with his music which whilst remaining tonal, shows a musical language and style and a way of setting words that is totally unique and individual. I was interested to discover Evgenia was a dedicated exponent and champion of modern music and had until fairly recently, been participating in recitals dedicated to works by Russian avant garde composers. Ned Rorem’s music cannot be considered avant garde, but her enthusiasm for the Rorem songs I had chosen for my programme prompted me to give her my music score when I returned to London. On my next trip, a few months later, she asked me if I could stay after my lesson to listen to a young bass from the Gnessin Academy who was coming for a lesson. She had given him Rorem’s song ‘Early in the Morning’ to work on and I coached the young singer on his English-American pronunciation.

During my first lesson with Evgenia, she told she had not been well and was still unwell. I discovered later she was being treated for cancer and over the course of the next three years she became increasingly frail, but stronger, it seemed to me, in spirit. She told me there was still much she wanted to say. My last lesson with her was in September 2011. When I left, I kissed her goodbye and she stepped out onto the landing and made the sign of the cross which was something she often did. I knew that this was probably the last time I would see her and I think she knew that too. A few months later, my Russian friend, unable to get a response from her mobile, called her landline which was answered by her son who told my friend she had died. She was teaching at the Gnessin Academy until the end, he said, and had been very happy to have a student travelling from England to study with her. For my next concert, in February 2012, I chose songs I had worked on with Evgenia and dedicated the concert to her memory speaking about her to the audience in Oxford. I am very happy and grateful to have had the chance to work with her. 

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