2052 I's - and their songs: Ema Nikolovska on the fascination of curated programs

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska has been associated with the Heidelberger Frühling Liedzentrum for many years. She is a graduate of the Heidelberger Frühling Liedakademie under Thomas Hampson and took part in the short film project "Lied me!" as part of the year-round, top-class support program.

The Berlin-based singer has now returned to Heidelberg for the Liedfestival with a self-curated programme of songs based on Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando" and focusing on the non-binary concept of life. In this interview, she explains why she is fascinated by the song genre and how important it is to reach new audiences with original song programs.

AC: You are in great demand as an opera and oratorio singer. Nevertheless, the song still plays a central role in your work. What fascinates you so much about the genre?

EN: I am attracted by the ease of transportation. I can take the song to the most diverse places; usually only the voice and an accompanying instrument are involved. Because the song can be modeled in this way, it can be performed in all conceivable settings. It also has a lot of intimacy, just like chamber music. I actually see songs as part of chamber music ...

AC: You are a violinist by training ...

EN: Yes, that's right. However, my vocal training began with song, not opera singing. The song is the basis of my technique and my performance. At first, I understood songs like violin sonatas with lyrics. The confrontation with poetry seemed to me to be something very mysterious, because the words added a whole new dimension to my imagination. And of course songs don't last long! There are so many questions and themes that I can relate to each other in a song program. In a time span of 70 to 80 minutes, the opportunity opens up to work with countless soundscapes, languages and aesthetics. The curatorial aspect plays an important role in a sequence of many small units. All of this offers very interesting potential for the future of the concert as a format and for opening up new audiences. Original programmes facilitate the dissemination of new music and the linking of classical art song with other musical genres and their audiences.

AC: Does this give the song a new cultural meaning?

EN: Definitely. The genre allows us to incorporate a wide range of influences and integrate numerous disciplines into the concert experience. This in turn can make the audience feel more welcome, especially if we make playful and open, less didactic offers. An intimate space of spirituality can be created in which we can be attentive and mindful together - in the midst of a world that is otherwise less encouraging of such impulses. This could be in a hospice, in a library, in a café or in completely different places that we haven't even explored yet.

AC: Doesn't the brevity of songs in such compilations also mean that an enormous mental presence is required to absorb all the layers of meaning of word, music, form, theme?

EN: Yes, certainly. The context determines the relationship that those present develop with the music. Intellectual comprehension doesn't have to play such a big role; people aren't supposed to decipher a secret. Rather, we invite our audience to decide for themselves how they would like to experience the performance. There is no one right way to listen to a concert. It is crucial to encourage people to be aware. Ideally, they will find a genuine presence without having to make a comparison with their learned idea of the matter or their prejudices.

AC: How are your programmes created? Are there works that you want to sing, around which circles then form? Or are they fundamental thoughts that are slowly manifesting themselves in the repertoire?

EN: In a way, my programmes are snapshots of my life situation, whether I'm aware of it or not. When I ask myself what needs to be said at a particular moment, very different ideas come to mind. Sometimes it's a historical or literary figure, sometimes it's a concept. At the end of 2019, Sean Shibe told me about Detlev Glanert's "Orlando-Lieder". The first time we read them together, we realized that they would appeal to us. We then both read Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel "Orlando". In this programme, the inspiration actually came from two sides at once: from a composition and a theme or material. Woolf's "Orlando", a character who lives through several centuries, once as a man, then as a woman, is currently attracting a lot of attention again, especially from a gender perspective. In fact, we have approached the topic less from this side, although that would also be extremely interesting. Towards the end of the novel there is an episode in which Orlando, as a 36-year-old woman in the 1920s, drives through London in a convertible. She feels confused, the world suddenly seems so different. At some point, the city is left behind and she comes out into the countryside. Orlando calls himself and at the same time wonders which of his egos will now appear. We have 2052 selves, she tells herself, and we will never know which one will appear, as they all appear in different times and situations. What I find so impressive is this non-binary concept, not just in relation to gender, but to life in general. Orlando, he and she, go through life without fear and soak up all their experiences. If we can allow such generosity towards ourselves, if we allow ourselves the uncertainty that we are made of so many different components - then perhaps we can extend this openness to others ...

The interview was conducted by Anselm Cybinski, general dramaturge at Heidelberger Frühling.