Natalia Gaida: I like open-hearted and smiling people

[b]So much has been written about her that it is difficult not to repeat what has already been said of actress Natalia Victorovna over her fifty years of creativity by her enthusiastic fans, colleagues and critics. She is a stage goddess, an operetta star, a diva, a CSARDAS Princess and the life and soul of the theatre… [/b]The compliments are not groundless, being filled with sympathy and love for this wonderful woman and actress who unites the best natural gifts: singing, dancing and an ability to convey the feelings of Silva, Bayadere, Roxana, Karambolina and Julia… Opera tenor Ivan Kozlovsky once compared her to champagne — a compliment which drew approval from the public. Knowing the roles she has played, and her own personality, the comparison seems perfect. She is filled with joy: sparkling, shining, gladdening the eye and pleasing the heart.From where does her energy come?
So much has been written about her that it is difficult not to repeat what has already been said of actress Natalia Victorovna over her fifty years of creativity by her enthusiastic fans, colleagues and critics. She is a stage goddess, an operetta star, a diva, a CSARDAS Princess and the life and soul of the theatre…

The compliments are not groundless, being filled with sympathy and love for this wonderful woman and actress who unites the best natural gifts: singing, dancing and an ability to convey the feelings of Silva, Bayadere, Roxana, Karambolina and Julia…
Opera tenor Ivan Kozlovsky once compared her to champagne — a compliment which drew approval from the public. Knowing the roles she has played, and her own personality, the comparison seems perfect. She is filled with joy: sparkling, shining, gladdening the eye and pleasing the heart.
From where does her energy come? Perhaps, she inherited it from her father-geologist, who used to love poetry and operetta and could also sing and dance. Her mother boasted a dramatic soprano voice and we know that much can be explained by genes, education and our surroundings.
Ms. Gaida tells me about living with her grandparents. Her grandfather was Hungarian Ferents Johan Gaida — a virtuoso shoemaker. He was taken prisoner by the Russian army during World War I and later changed his name to Frants Ivanovich. I vividly imagine the remote past of a small Siberian girl with freckles. She automatically straightens her back, stretching to proudly hold up her head as patent shoes are put on her tiny feet by her grandfather. I don’t know whether she imagines herself as an actress, or perhaps, Cinderella at the ball, but I understand her feelings: my first patent shoes had bows. They were real Coco Chanel shoes, brought from France; my mother gave them to me in Kyiv, after my
admittance to university…
Later, Natalia’s grandfather gave her shoes every year… but she never forgot her first pair, which seemed even more gorgeous against the background of post-war poverty. They fascinated her, making her think of her future as a grown woman. Natalia Gaida’s whole life is filled with music — wonderful and exciting music like the operetta genre.
In September, during the new season opening at the Belarusian State Academic Music Theatre, she’ll be singing in Italian at her native theatre, in the Susanna Tsiryuk stage version of Hits of the Neapolitan Quarter. Of course, there will be Silva and Little Red Riding Hood: Generation NEXT. Other performances will surely follow; it can’t be otherwise.
Known as the symbol of Belarusian musical comedy, she is full of creative energy, passionate about her profession and earnest in her desire to bring joy to people. What could be better! As one wise man said, joy is the secret: if you learn to experience joy, you learn the secret of life. She learns this from her four-year-old grandson Daniil, who always tells her, “Grandma, you are so beautiful!” These words fill her heart with love, she confesses.
Her eyes, huge against her smoothly combed hair, become moist and her round face shines with marvellous freckles. I almost feel that small Natasha, with her straight back, rejoicing over her grandfather’s present, sits before me. I can’t help thinking that perhaps the secret is in those wonderful shoes.

Natalia, if you were today told not to sing, what would you do?
I would start teaching. If I were forbidden to sing for other reasons, but kept my voice, I’d find a chance to sing.

How long have you been singing?
Since I was three years old; I remember that time well — during the war. My father was in the army, so I lived with my mother in Sverdlovsk. She had to abandon her studies at the Ural Conservatoire to start working as a soloist with the Philharmonic Society. Although I was still very young, she often left me at home with a family evacuated from Moscow, who were living in our flat. They fed and dressed me but I entertained myself. I remember singing Yablochko and dancing.
After the war, we lived in Semi-palatinsk [Kazakhstan] where my mother attended the Teacher’s House for intelligentsia meetings. There was a choir, where my mother sang arias. I sang there initially, then later in the kindergarten and continued in school. I loved performing mother’s arias and Ukrainian songs. I can only imagine how funny it must have been to hear a child innocently singing ‘Onegin, I was younger then, and a better person, I think!’ I also attended a ballet studio and drama society.
When I reached high school, one of my teachers told me that I should sing professionally, so I decided to go to Moscow to apply to the Gnesin Music School. I didn’t manage to impress them though; for two years, I simply returned with nothing to show for my efforts except some new life experience. Later, I chose the Law Institute and left Irkutsk, where we were living at that time, returning to my native Sverdlovsk. Entering my third year, I gained a place at the Ural Conservatoire part time, studying simultaneously at two schools. I even worked as a lawyer for a while. Later, in my fourth year at the Conservatoire, I began working for the Sverdlovsk Opera Theatre. It was a great school. Over a period of four and a half years, I sang 15 opera roles, although vocally and technically I was very ‘green’.
In one interview, you mentioned that you don’t like your voice...
Absolutely true; I have what’s known as a light voice. It’s lyrical but difficult to convey deep passion. I often used to say to my mother, who had a solid dramatic soprano, that I wished I had a voice like hers...

Was that why you chose operetta?
Yes — in musical theatre, you can convey deep feelings and the dramatic nature of characters through dialogue, dance and gesture. I wanted it all but I realised that I wasn’t good enough for opera. If I’d had my mother’s soprano voice, I might still be singing in my native town with my husband — who had a wonderful baritone [Yury Bastrikov, People’s Artiste of Belarus]. Sverdlovsk Theatre is wonderful and I was happy to work there. Such stars as Ivan Kozlovsky, Sergey Lemeshev and Irina Arkhipova began their careers there.

Have you ever regretted not becoming a lawyer?
Never. I think I used my opportunities wisely in choosing operetta. Otherwise, I might have never established myself as an actress or singer.

How did you get to Minsk operetta?
Through opera. The Sverdlovsk Opera Theatre’s chief conductor, Kirill Tikhonov, went to Minsk. On returning, he told us that the Belarusian Opera Theatre was having a ‘baritone contest’. My husband’s Rigoletto aria won the competition and I was accepted as a ‘bonus’ in addition to my husband. I worked there for almost a year, before going to Sverdlovsk for four months to film an operetta. At that time, the State Musical Comedy Theatre was being created and I received a job there, upon Tikhonov’s recommendation.

Was it your destiny?
Most likely! Back in Sverdlovsk, I was twice invited to sing in operetta. So, I was transferred to the new theatre. However, I also insisted on auditioning alongside the other candidates. I sang Tony’s arioso from Dunaevsky’s White Acacia and danced Karambolina from Montmartre Violin.

We often hear that operetta isn’t serious and is less demanding that opera…
It’s absurd to say so. A libretto or play may go out of fashion but music stays wonderful forever. Sergey Rakhmaninov, for instance, used to say that he had never heard anything better than The Merry Widow. In the Soviet period, when many musical masterpieces were created, operetta bloomed! It’s a democratic genre embracing all aspects of life — from love to hatred and betrayal. Perhaps, those who think badly of operetta had an unfortunate first acquaintance, seeing poor staging or bad performance. Musicals are much in fashion today, paying tribute to western culture. I saw Chicago, Philipp Kirkorov’s musical flop; the singing and dancing were quite good but there was nothing resembling the expression or mentality of black Americans. The strings of my soul remained untouched. Perhaps, we shouldn’t try to copy an alien way of thinking but rather try to add something of our own. I can’t say that the musical genre is bad though.

You have played many roles: Bayadere, Silva, Moritza… Which is your favourite?
Some roles embrace the entire universe of human feelings — from joy to deep suffering. They give an actor the opportunity to show themselves fully. Such roles can be played for many years, as they never bore you. In classical works, women’s roles tend to be quite similar: some are more dramatic, some have more of a story, others have more vocal scope. Perhaps, among them, Silva is the most significant for me, as it has a strong social aspect which I think is still relevant. In Soviet operetta, every role is interesting in its own way: a girl might have to show strength during the war years or, for instance, lives in Odessa. There are many interesting roles in Belarusian operetta too.

Was Pavlinka one of your first roles in Minsk?
I played Irina first: a female intelligence agent in Belarusian composer Yury Semenyaka’s operetta Skylarks Singing. This performance marked the opening of our theatre on 17th January 1971. Then, I took the lead in Pavlinka, which Semenyaka wrote especially for me. I was very proud to play this role. Pavlinka was also shown at the Yanka Kupala Theatre, becoming its trademark. When we moved to Minsk, we first went to see this play. The roles of Irina and Pavlinka gave me enough space to grow as an actress and as a singer.

How did you manage with the Belarusian language?
Wonderfully! I was even praised by one of Yanka Kupala’s relatives on the opening night for my flawless literary Belarusian. She was surprised I could learn so quickly, being a Russian by birth. In fact, my mother’s family has some Ukrainian roots, so I inherited a good feeling for languages.

Are you satisfied with your creative life?
A human being, perhaps, can never be fully satisfied. I’m no exception. Looking at my life from a wider perspective, of course, I’ve achieved a lot. I have a profession which I love and can’t imagine my life without. Naturally, I regret some past choices and wish I hadn’t made some mistakes but, thank God, I’ve managed not to make any drastic errors. Nevertheless, no matter how much we want to learn from others’ mistakes, in reality, we only learn from our own. I regret that I missed out on learning to play the piano — it would be very useful. Sometimes, I wish I could both play and sing myself. At the Conservatoire I, naturally, could have learnt to play. Perhaps, I failed to do so because of my busy schedule, or perhaps I was just lazy!

Maybe, you could get down to it now?
Probably not: I now have a personal concertmaster. I’m planning to learn German though; my granddaughter is getting married in Germany, so speaking the language would be useful. Now I’m no longer teaching, I have more spare time, which I can devote to learning new languages. Currently, I’m studying Italian.

Did you enjoy teaching?
My diploma says: opera and concert singer, teacher of solo singing. The qualification was given only to those who demonstrated certain capabilities for teaching while studying. I taught for twenty years. Back in Sverdlovsk, after graduation from the Conservatoire, I lectured in vocals at the conductor-choir faculty. During my first years in operetta, there was no time for lessons. Then, from the 1990s, I began teaching a special course for musical theatre at the Academy of Arts. At the Conservatoire, I led the chamber class; I took the vocal class, later, at the Culture University. Teaching gave me great pleasure and I can say in all modesty that I can easily identify the vocal potential of a student and I know how best to develop it. However, I am lacking patience! I always want everybody to understand me instantly. If you are emotional by nature, patience and self-control require a great deal of emotional effort. I eventually decided to save my precious energy for my work in the theatre. Moreover, the theatre management put me in charge of our young singers. In my view, it’s a new way of teaching, which I’m really enjoying.

Do you experience any spiritual feelings during a performance?
A state of inspiration comes to me when my emotional mood coincides with that of my stage partners and the audience. When this happens, the play becomes extraordinary; it’s a rather rare phenomenon. I recall, during our St. Petersburg tour in 1982, we were performing Silva. It’s one of those plays which everybody remembers. It gained a reputation from the very start, so I was confident that our Silva would be a total success. In my entire career, I’ve never experienced such ovations and praise from an audience; it was remarkable even after the first act.

Have you realised all your plans as a singer?
I’d like to find a play where I can play a woman of my own age. Drama has a lot of such roles but there are few in operetta, unfortunately. I’m endlessly grateful to composer Vladimir Kondrusevich who, with his plays, has prolonged the life of my aged heroines. Today, unfortunately, not many new operettas are written.

What brought you to drama? How successful was your parallel work in musical roles?
I think it was a huge gift from fate that I tried out as a dramatic actress. Maria Zakharevich, my friend and a fellow Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre actress, received a role in Simon’s Old Lady’s Survival Manual, translated into Russian, and needed a partner. She asked me to recommend somebody so I suggested myself as the understudy. Thus I came to the dramatic stage. Later, there were more performances. The combination wasn’t harmful at all. In fact, it enriched my creativity. In the future, I wouldn’t rule out similar proposals.

How do you treat other gifts from fate?
I always welcome them! Any creative proposal is considered as a gift, be it dramatic, musical theatre or a concert. In the Soviet times, I gave many solo concerts, touring Belarus and Russia. Today, I work in close liaison with the creative manager on Tatiana Starchenko’s Musical Room, taking part in her programmes.

Who, of your children and grandchildren, has inherited your passion and talent for singing?
Neither my daughter nor my grandchildren; they sing, of course, but only for themselves.

Is it easy for two People’s Artistes to live together?
When I was young, I thought that I’d never marry. I’d quickly become disappointed with men, noticing even the smallest flaw of character. Later, like many other girls of my age, I began to seek reliability and consistency. That’s when Yury came into my life. I feel very comfortable with him and believe I was very lucky to meet him. He’s a caring husband, a thoughtful father and wonderful grandfather.
I’m a good friend to him but perhaps not such a good wife. I’m a bad housewife, as I don’t like cooking. I don’t mind cleaning or washing clothes but not cooking. Having married, I warned him that I wouldn’t cook, so he took on the job. I eat whatever is served as I’m not too picky, although I like tasty food. His main sacrifice has been leaving the Sverdlovsk Opera Theatre for me, although his position there was very solid. Our titles don’t hinder our everyday lives. We feel proud of each other’s achievements.

Recently, you were awarded the Francisk Skorina order.
Yes, it was a delightful moment in my life. Such recognition is very important. Actors need not only an audience’s applause but praise from the authorities. I’m very thankful that our cultural leaders of the highest rank, representatives of state power, are taking part in our creative work. We’re always glad to see them at premieres. Their presence in the house and their evaluation of plays is also important for them; it shows their competence in judging cultural life. Nations are judged by their level of cultural development.

As far as I know, you’re a very sincere and open-hearted person. What would you say about your theatre colleagues?
I must recollect the past. Sincerity and openness was the norm at the Sverdlovsk Theatre. It was usual for us to pay compliments to each other after a successful play, with the theatre management praising our efforts. Actors worried about their colleagues, attended each other’s performances during their spare time and never gloated over failure.
The atmosphere wasn’t quite the same at the Minsk Opera Theatre but that wasn’t the best period for the theatre: the building was under renovation, with part of the troupe on tour, so people were very disconnected. I remember well, after Il Trovatore, I entered the dressing room of a singer who had sung brilliantly, to express my admiration. She was surprised but thanked me, saying, “Such compliments are unusual here. Oh, I forgot you’re a newcomer.” I was, naturally, perplexed. In the operetta, everything was different. It was like a family; we were all young and obsessed with the idea of creating a new theatre. The atmosphere was very friendly.

And today?
I like everything in my theatre. With age, I’ve begun to appreciate my stage partners more. I love everybody who performs with me and who directs. Of course, there are some people who I treat with more sympathy. I love open-hearted and smiling people but I realise that not everyone is like this. Those who don’t smile have the right to remain more reserved: it’s their choice. I’ve learnt how to accept people as they are. However, I still believe that a smile makes our world brighter — even when you don’t want to smile. Besides, we are social creatures, so we have no right to burden others with our cheerless, depressed appearance. Once, I didn’t smile at a colleague and he immediately asked if something was wrong.

How do you keep strong?
By spending some time in solitude. When I’m alone, I rest spiritually and physically. Solitude gives me the chance to take a detached view of myself and to think over some deeds and moods. I like to go to the theatre and cinema alone. Perhaps, this taste for loneliness comes from my youth, when I had the rare chance to be alone. It lasted until I moved to Irkutsk, with my parents, to our own house. After some time spent in solitude, I always start missing people. Then, I realise that my strength has been restored and that I’m ready to smile at everyone I meet that day. When I’m feeling sad, I don’t show it.

Do you wish to further perfect yourself?
I like that, in growing old, I’ve begun to better understand those matters which puzzled me in my youth. I’m no longer too categorical and have learnt to forgive people’s weaknesses. Nor am I as explosive as I used to be; I’ve encouraged myself to be patient. I’ve learnt how to simply be myself, regardless of others’ expectations. I think that, with age, we begin using our strengths more reasonably. Today, I’m totally different. I like myself more now and am open to new experiences. Also, I believe that people can change, unless they’re guided by false confidence in their own perfection, which is usually fed by awful egocentrism.

Femininity and coquetry — how important are they for you?
Femininity is given to us by nature — unlike coquetry, which is more of an ability to show off your womanhood. A sensible degree of coquetry can work miracles — in life and in acting. However, it’s important not to cross the fine line between flirtation and predatory behaviour, which kills natural femininity and is very unattractive — even repulsive.

How have you changed from being young to today, when you have two grandchildren?
When you’re young, you have light wings, needing to think only about yourself. With years, these wings gain weight. You become responsible for a family, for children and grandchildren, as well for your job, and no longer have the right to make foolish mistakes.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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