Katerina Mina is tall, blonde and chic. She is also a much lauded spinto soprano who has appeared on countless stages and concert halls worldwide.
Her slim figure and vibrant energy are the result of healthy eating, physical activity, the discipline of vocal gymnastics but most of all of her extraordinary ability to focus on her goals by constructing a citadel of inner strength.
I had the pleasure of co-hosting Katerina at a New Year’s event at the British Embassy Residence in Athens where we cut the “pitta” cake to celebrate the New Year in January 2012.
I hushed the rather disobedient and boisterous crowd who were then enthralled by her recitals. Katerina has updated me frequently about her career highlights hence this interview which has happily reunited us.
EC - Growing up in Cyprus. Give me a few “snapshot” details of your childhood
KM - My father, a famous Greek portrait photographer from Xanthi in Thrace whose parents were refugees from Smyrna, met my mother in Athens while she was studying there and eventually they both moved to Cyprus in 1968. I was born in Limassol way after then, purely because of my mother’s gynecologist...she had three miscarriages before me, so her doctor played a very important role in her life! My mother comes from Larnaca, but we were always based in Nicosia. I visited my grandparents and I remember how we bonded, travelling all over Greece to Athens, Thessaloniki, Avdira.
I was a very athletic girl! I remember I was always playing with my brother and his friends. Instead of playing with dolls or watching cartoons I would sit by the fire watching the Greek TV series “Kravgi two Lykwn” with Maria Aliferi playing a blind woman! I will never forget this…
EC - How much did your parents influence your early choice to pursue music?
KM - I think that my artistic influence comes from Dad, though I must admit that Mom has a very powerful speaking and singing voice! So, the influence comes indirectly from both my parents. My father used to sing in a choir as a boy and teenager but never trained his voice professionally.
EC - Did you sing when you were small? You started piano first and continued on that path til you were sixteen. Then you changed to singing. Tell me about that please.
KM - From a very early stage in my life I knew what I wanted to relate to classical music. At the age of four I asked Mom to attend ballet classes and then I asked her to buy a piano. But the singing came later. My initial passion was ballet and I studied dance for ten years but that regimen plus five hours of piano in addition to school work was too much.
EC- I sense that all the years of ballet gave you your majestic stance and upright posture which is so evident and so impressive.
KM – It must have given me my presence, yes. When I was 16 I joined the choir of Ehtnikon Odeion Kyprou and studied singing. Eventually I auditioned to enter two music colleges in London but as a pianist! I remember arriving at my piano auditions at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama wearing a beautiful, long orange dress and a scarf around my neck and as I was going down the stairs two people stopped me and asked if I was a singer... Little did I know at that moment that I would eventually graduate from the GSMD as a singer!
I was accepted by both the Royal College of Music and the GSMD but I chose the Guildhall because in the back of my mind I knew it was better for singers ... I was a very good pianist, but at the end of my second year at the Guildhall, my singing teacher at the time said: “Katerina, you have a very good voice. Perhaps it is time to consider joining the singing department.” My passion for singing took over at that moment! From then on, I was first-studying singing and second-studying piano.
EC - Did the piano clash with the singing?
KM – No. It was a matter of making up my mind which one of the two I would pursue for a career. My passion for singing was so immense, that eventually it took over. Actually the fact that i can play the piano so well is a blessing to this day for many reasons.
EC - So does playing piano really help with pacing, phrasing in opera?
KM - Playing the piano helps me to learn new scores very quickly and on my own, without the assistance of a pianist or a repetiteur. Then, because I am physically able to play the piano part of my scores, I am learning the roles from a different perspective as well, which is related to the harmonies, how fast or slow they move and what emotional impact and phrasing they give to the singing line. As a singer though, I had to learn how to let go of looking at a singing melody as a pianist would see it. A pianist in hitting the keys moves up and down from C to F for instance, on a fourth interval up. For singers there are no intervals, only the flow of air between the notes that creates the legato line… a singer is looking at a melody in a horizontal way, as opposed to the way it’s literally written on the score... The pianist’s tools are his fingers that tap the keys, the singer uses his vocal folds (chords) that vibrate.
EC - For all of us, your uneducated audience, firstly how many different kinds of sopranos are there? Coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto and dramatic. Correct?
KM - Yes, these are the five generally recognized subcategories within the soprano voice type category. However that they may blur, the coloratura soprano may be a lyric coloratura or a dramatic coloratura soprano. Equally, the lyric soprano may be a light lyric or a heavy lyric soprano. Also, there are some intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo-soprano voice type.
EC - You are a spinto, a dramatic soprano, can you define that? The spinto sings heavier roles? You can go from spinto to dramatic. How easy is that? Please expand on this. On the contrary for men the categories are countertenor, tenor and baritone.
KM - I started out as lyric and dramatic coloratura soprano and I am a spinto soprano at the moment, developing into a more dramatic voice with the guidance of my voice consultant in London, Australian Raymond Connell. My temperament, and also the timbre of my voice are suited to the heavier roles. As a younger singer, i started off with performing roles for the lyric and the dramatic coloratura soprano. As a spinto soprano now, I still have some brightness in my sound, but I can be “pushed” to dramatic climaxes without strain. Having said this, with the everyday training towards this direction, my voice is becoming more powerful and rich throughout the whole range or tessitura, including the lower one, with a much darker timbre closer to that of the dramatic soprano.
Any vocal transition is difficult. It requires a lot of hard vocal work, as well as discipline. But when established, it is fantastic for the singer, because it feels like the vocal, emotional and intellectual parameters finally meet together!
The voice categories for men are indeed countertenor , tenor, baritone AND bass. But we also have several subcategories within these voice types, as we have for the sopranos.
EC - Let us talk about your most recent roles. Would you say that they fall into two older categories of your lyrical roles – lighter vocals for Violetta (Traviata), Fiordiligi (Cosi San Futte) and Mimi (La Boheme) and “heavier” roles for Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Kupava in the Snow Maiden or have I got it all completely wrong…
KM - Yes, my recent roles like Santuzza from Cavalleria Rusticana, Giorgetta from Il Tabarro, Kupava from Snegurochka , even a role like Elle in La Voix Humaine , are “heavier” roles than the lyric ones I performed in earlier years , like Mimi, Fiordiligi Cosi fan tutte, Nedda from I Pagliacci or Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. Violetta from La Traviata is a very unique and difficult role that requires a big vocal range and dramatic ability. I sang Violetta earlier on in my career in three different productions but I no longer sing this role because the voice has gone a lot bigger and heavier and therefore it is difficult to sustain Act 1.
I miss Violetta a lot … she is a heroine who dies in such a tragic way...very different than Mimi’s death…
EC - Which of your upcoming roles excites you most, Tosca, Desdemona or Maddalena with the American National Opera Company?? and why? Where will the company be based?
KM – They will be housed next to the Met in New York. European tours will be announced shortly.
All three of these opera heroines are very special to me and portray different parts of my character that I love using when becoming someone else on stage. However, Tosca is the role that excites me the most… It is the title role that I wanted to perform for a while now, and I am so happy that I am in the process of getting it ‘into my voice’ and ‘under my skin’. Tosca is a character that offers incredible vocal and dramatic possibilities to the singer. It is my dream role and is sitting comfortably on my voice like wearing a glove. Tosca is a combination of temperament and character. Feminine and flirtatious. In Act 1 she becomes a tigress afterwards. She goes through so much emotional overload. She is jealous, angry, in love, shocked and sad and bereft. When you play her you transcend reality.
EC - You are singing Elizabetta from Don Carlo on film – how different an experience will that be? This is your first film?
KM - Yes, this is my first performance in a film production! I am so excited about it, not only because it’s new territory for me, but also because it will be a big production by Enzo Sisti, with Plácido Domingo conducting.
EC - What do you prefer theatrical performance or giving concerts?
KM - Hard question to answer. I love giving concert performances, performing oratorio, symphonic pieces or chamber music concerts, or recitals where I perform mainly lieder. But yes, i prefer to be part of an opera production, to interpret a role, to ‘become’ someone else and interact in this way with my colleagues.
EC - To give us a little more detail your concert performances vary widely. Tippet’s “Negro Spirituals”, the work “African Sanctus”, Haydn’s Scena di Berenice and the oratorio “Liturgy Beneath the Acropolis” of A. Sakali. Is this cross over singing? You also made a digital recording of the Unesco song “Anthem of Light” at the end of 2015 and with iconic rock musician Rick Wakeman
KM - The African Sanctus is a 1972 choral Mass and is the best-known work of British composer and ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe. It consists of 13 movements and follows the journey of the composer through Africa. It is written for live chorus, soprano solo, instrumental ensemble and features taped music from Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya that was recorded by the composer during his travels. All of these are not cross-over pieces. They are classical pieces requiring soprano voice.
I remember how thrilled David Fanshawe was with my voice and interpretation… so much so, that he started composing new material for the Lord’s Prayer for me on the spot! Sadly, a week after that performance, David suffered a stroke and died at the age of 68.
In 2017, One of the new symphonic pieces I will perform is Andromache’s Farewell by Samuel Barber, which is a very dramatic piece suitable for heavier soprano voices.
The cross over singing I actually did was the recording of the Rainbow of Light Anthem written by Linda Lamon and produced by Nigel Stonier, which served as the anthem for UNESCO’s International Year of Light 2015! I am still using my soprano voice, it is mixed though with a pop arrangement which is very well suited to the song.
EC - Let us get personal now. You emphasize in another interview that you guide and mentor yourself in this heavily competitive sphere of opera by being totally focused and applying yourself to long hours of practice with ferocious discipline.
How do you “zone in” to that self-control? Is singing a kind of meditation for you as well as the actual meditation you practice?
KM - I love this question... Yes! For me, singing itself is a form of meditation and a spiritual experience which I practice daily and want to explore further. This is the first time I speak openly about this in an interview, but I am ready now to do so: I have experienced and still experience immense fulfillment and inner happiness while singing… to such an extent, that it can be positively overwhelming at times, when my soul becomes completely ‘one’ with the sound which reaches out into the Universal Life Energy. It is a unique feeling that is difficult to put into words …but I have experienced it during my practice and on stage; and the audience and critics have noticed it also. An opera critic at the end of a performance in London two months ago said: “It feels like the sound you produce has an almost disembodied quality, as though you are not so much producing it but as if it is flowing through you or out of you. It is magical”
This flow allows me to release my control mania, my voice becomes freed and this is what I am working with my teacher in London. The light I feel within me seems to flow out of me through my voice, flow out to others.
EC – That sounds deeply spiritual.
KM – it actually makes me look at why I am here. I am a natural healer and I have cured people with my hands. In July 2016 I was on a plane where a man appeared to be dying and had turned white. I placed my hand on his head and his whole body went into spasms … he then regained his colour and all his faculties. This was a pivotal point for me – my energy peaked after that.
EC – Wow! Let me get back to the personal relationship issue and try and get an answer.
KM – Look, I am to longing to be truly loved. I was married for nine years and divorced and am still getting over that. Then I fell madly in love but it did not last. I am sick of transient, ephemeral relationships. I would like to look at a man and see the truth behind his eyes. I am open to love and having children, either myself or by adoption.
EC - It is hard to have a relationship while traveling. Your trips are back to back yet you always seem radiant and attractively dressed. Any tips to fellow travelers for packing, fitness and beauty on the road?
KM - Thank you! I am really very flattered… I’ve developed a packing technique over the years, where I take with me only the absolute necessary things in relation to clothes for instance, except if I have to pack a long dress for singing , in that case I go even lighter with everything else…the one thing that I go crazy with is my facial creams and moisturizes. My biggest struggle when packing is shoes… as far jewelry is concerned, I have the most amazing pouch which was designed especially for me… I can put tons of jewelry in it but it remains small.
Brisk walks are a really great workout for me and my legs, as well as walking up flights of stairs and escalators. Adding to this the intense abdominal work that is required daily for the diaphragmatic breathing during singing, I manage to keep very fit and slim. Also, I am careful with my intake of food and alcohol; I eat everything in moderation and drink sensibly!
As far as the having a relationship while travelling and pursuing a career…I don’t think it’s hard to achieve both. When two people love each other truly, they can make things work out under the most difficult conditions!
EC - I was shocked to read that you had cancer as a child and so impressed you made a victorious recovery. That is very moving, please will you share this inspiring story?
KM - I actually had cancer nine months after I graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 1999, Hodgkin’s disease that attacks the lymphatic system. It delayed the development of my career encounters.
Before I knew of the cancer, everything was going well. I won a singing competition in Pamplona, Spain which was under the auspices of Jose Carreras.
Managing directors from specific European Opera Houses approached me asking me to audition for them in a year’s time as a young dramatic soprano. I went back to London, and applied for further competitions. I was the happiest on this earth! Next came the Monserrat Caballe International Singing Competition in Andorra. One week before I flew to Andorra, I started feeling unwell. Medical examinations in London revealed the prognosis was Hodgkin’s disease that was developing quite fast… I will never forget the shock my body went through when the consultant announced this to me. Or how I cancelled the Easy Jet flight to Andorra, and booked a flight to Cyprus to be with my family and undergo intense chemotherapy. My life changed in that split second of realizing that my body had betrayed me. Within two weeks I was already receiving chemotherapy. My aspirations as a talented passionate young singer were shattered. The money I received as a prize from the Competition in Pamplona was frozen (the prize would arrive in two doses). Jose Carreras supported me emotionally with personal letters reassuring me that all will be well but the chemo had side effects.
I didn’t know this at the time, but actually, that was the year that changed my whole life and my perception of life. Within a year, I made a full recovery and I returned back to London with the help of my doctors and my family. Regaining my confidence both as a person and as a singer was the biggest struggle; it took some years to find that…during those years I taught in a secondary school in Maida Vale in London in the music Department. This was to make money but it was another big and inspiring chapter in my Life. My employer was an amazing and empowering headmistress and author, Lady Marie Stubbs.
Marie was taken out of retirement by Westminster City Council, to reform the infamous St. George’s Catholic School in Maida Vale, after the previous headmaster Philip Laurence was stabbed to death outside the school gates. I was employed by Marie to be part of her team to reopen the school and take it out of ‘special measures’. It was a very difficult task, but we all made it! The school is now thriving!! I worked there for five whole years. Every piece of the puzzle came together slowly and it all made sense. After five years of working at St. George’s catholic School, I was ready to embark on my singing career.
EC - You support the role of women… you spoke at the Cyprus Woman conference – can you make a difference there? Will you continue to champion this? Your message in another interview is that woman can offer boundless love, patience and endurance.
KM - In 2016 I was invited to speak in two different Women Conferences, the YinAlithea Cyprus Women Conference and The Creative Women International Conference & Gala in which I also performed. In 2014, I was also invited by the London Metropolitan University during Cyprus Week Conference, to give a speech on ‘Female Opera Singers of Cyprus at the beginning of the 21st century - Their role, their journey, their future’.
In addition to these, during 2015/2016 I launched a series of singing recitals with my German pianist from Hamburg Andrea Benecke promoting music written solely by Women Composers. We performed Lieder by Alma Mahler, Clara Schumann, wives of famous composers, Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, sister of the composer and contemporary composers Rosemary Duxbury and Carlotta Ferrari.
EC - You were recently awarded the Russian Federation’s Medal for ‘Peace and Friendship’ by the president of the Moscow Peace Foundation. You have such an affinity with Russia and they obviously embraced you. Can you tell us about leading female roles in Russian opera.. you seem much closer to those than to traditional Italian operatic characters. Can you expand on this?
KM - Yes, it’s really interesting how much I am loved and embraced in Moscow, not only by my colleagues but also by the members of the audience. I am invited very often to perform in Moscow and a few days before Christmas 2015, an event called ‘Art without Borders’, I was honored to receive this award.
Other than the role of Kupava from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka, I haven’t performed any other complete Russian role. However, I did perform in 2016 parts of the role of Princess Ninette from Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges, which I absolutely adored! I am looking forward though to performing more Russian opera in the future, as indeed it is very well suited to the timbre of my voice.
EC - Looking through your repertory, you have some roles in common with Maria Callas. Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Nedda in Pagliacci, Traviata’s Violetta, and from Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Mimi from La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. Tell me how you think your voice differs from Callas. She was a dramatic soprano like you but she revived all the great belcanto roles that Nellie Melba had made famous. Could you sing from the belcanto repertory?
KM - With Callas, we are dealing with a unique case of a singer whose type of voice and extreme register (covering more than two and a half octaves from a low G sharp to a high E flat) enabled her to study and master the precise technique of bel canto. Not only was she able to execute to perfection all the ornamental figures (trills, appoggiaturas, arpeggios, fast diatonic and chromatic scales), she was also able to give convincing interpretations to many heroines of the lyric repertoire. Her versatility meant she could alternate with ease from the dramatic role of Norma to the lighter soprano of Donizetti’s Lucia, or from the mezzo-soprano of Rosina to the ‘high’ of Verdi’s Violetta!
I don’t have this agility in my voice, and I also don’t have the extension in my register up to the high E Flat, which is absolutely necessary in order to perform most of the bel canto repertoire. My vocal range covers from a low G to a high C Sharp, and my top notes B flat, B, C and C Sharp are very dramatic in tone. Saying this, some heavier roles by Verdi that I am studying at the moment, like Leonora from La Forza del Destino and Amelia from Un Ballo in Maschera are written in the bel-canto style and sit beautifully on my voice. I wouldn’t be performing though roles like Donizetti’s Lucia or Bellini’s Amina, or even Bellini’s Norma. It is a matter also of giving an authentic and convincing interpretation of a role. These roles do not suit my voice and temperament.
EC - How do you want your career to unfold? Where do you see yourself professionally?
KM - I would like within the next five years to perform in the biggest opera houses in the world and to share my voice with as many people as possible. In fact, to be perfectly truthful, I would like to heal all who listen to me singing; to become the ‘vessel’ of good and truth through my own singing voice.
EC – Never heard that before.
KM – this year I shall record my first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London with Maestro Grzegorz Nowak, and then there will be a live performance with the orchestra to launch the album which features my new repertoire of dramatic roles, Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, Leonore’s aria from Fidelio, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and more.. The Album will also feature two pieces by Swiss composer Stephan Hodel based on my poems.
EC – You are also a poet?
KM – I started writing in 2012 after my marriage fell apart. There are 3 collections and all very personal. So far I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of publishing them but now I am.
EC- The field in which Greece & Cyprus has made the most important international contribution is classical music (conductors and soloists, e.g. Dimitris Mitropoulos, Irma Kolassi, Leonidas Kavakos etc). What do you think Greece can do in order to pursue the global reputation of its artists in other fields?
KM - Personally, and still within the classical music field, I would like to see more active support from the already established international Greek-Cypriot stars towards the younger generation of musicians, by becoming their benefactors, by establishing fundamental infrastructure so that , in our case, the young opera singers are able to receive their work experience in their own countries first! Greece has only one opera house. Cyprus has none…
EC - How does your Greek Cypriot identity influence your art? How easy is for an artist like you to work in a global music landscape? What are the challenges?
KM - The passion that I have as a person, which comes from my Greek Cypriot identity is an amazing thing to have as a performer and especially a dramatic voice.
On the other hand, it was difficult growing up in a country with little operatic tradition and no fundamental infrastructure. I always had to compete with singers coming from countries with a huge tradition in music, receiving the best operatic tuition from a very young age and gaining experience in the opera houses of their own countries before auditioning for bigger houses. I had none of this. I built and funded my career myself all these years. And I am proud of it!
After the lengthy interview ended, I felt a sense of upliftment and inspiration. I remember Katerina’s crystal clear voice from the embassy, now I know its spiritual source and the power that engineers it. We spoke on January 6th, the Greek Orthodox festival of the Epiphany, called the Fota in Greek which means the “Lights.” That is no coincidence… the illumination was evident in her voice and in her words.