Back in Helsinki

Andrea Rost was the first winner of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition to return as a member of the jury. Victory in 1989 raised her to the lyric soprano elite, but she has never felt there was no more to learn. And as she emphatically puts it, this calls for self-discipline.

Twenty-five years ago Andrea Rost was nervously seated in the front row of Finlandia Hall. The great moment had come in the II Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition: it was time to announce the winners. “It was fantastic sitting there, waiting, and then to realise that I am the winner, because all the other names had been mentioned,” she dreamily recalls. As we speak, the boiling hot August day is giving way to evening, and tomorrow is the Final of the 2014 Mirjam Helin Competition.

As in this year’s competition, the jury for 1989 was distinguished to say the least: such stars as Tom Krause, Birgit Nilsson, Carlo Cosutta and Yevgeny Nesterenko. It was because of the jury that Andrea Rost came to Helsinki to take part in the competition. “These singers were my idols. It was wonderful singing to them, and the fact that they liked my singing was the best feedback of all. I never expected to win the first prize.”

The Jury of 2014, Ben Heppner, Nathalie Stutzmann, Franz Grundheber, Andrea Rost, Robert Holl, Maria Guleghina, Deborah Voigt, Jorma Silvasti.

Now Andrea Rost is back in Helsinki. She is the first winner of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition to return as a member of the jury. The moment means a lot to her, especially in the company of fellow-adjudicators Franz Grundheber, Maria Guleghina, Ben Heppner, Robert Holl, Nathalie Stutzmann and Deborah Voigt. The Chairman of the Jury is Jorma Silvasti. What is most difficult about serving on a jury? “You mustn’t look ahead. You have to make your decision solely on that moment in the competition. That isn’t easy.”

Charisma is the singer’s soul

Andrea Rost is in such great demand as a singer that she has not really had time for jury work until now. This is the second time in her career that she has been on the jury of a singing competition, and she says that from now on she intends to devote more and more time to jobs like this. The day before the interview she held her very first masterclass in connection with the competition. “I had only 20 minutes for each singer, so maybe I should have been sharper,” she laughs. “But I wanted to add to the good feeling and to be encouraging, because they’re such good singers! I have got so much feeling inside me and a need to express myself that now I want to share them with young singers.” Jury work is just right for this: giving the feedback that meant so much to her 25 years ago.

Charisma is, says Rost, extremely important for a singer. “I can’t describe it – it’s when the audience cannot tear their eyes away from the singer. The singer comes on stage and she’s got something to say. Something that speaks to the soul.”  Singers, says Rost, often do too many facial expressions and movements. They’re not necessary. “What you need is musicality, elegance… You can sense charisma at once; it is presence, the singer’s soul.”

Andrea Rost herself simply radiates soul and elegance. She acts from the heart, her movements are soft. She gives the impression of being a dreamy operatic heroine, but she knows it takes vast determination to become a star. She never stops stressing this in speaking of her career.

Gilda her calling card

The Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition was the last competition in which Andrea Rost took part. From that moment, her career really took off. “It all came at just the right time for me. Immediately after the competition I signed a contract with the opera in Budapest, and only a year after that I received an invitation from the Vienna State Opera. I knew the members of the jury had talked about me and I got a warm welcome in Vienna. It’s different nowadays, what with social media and the internet. A singer has to market herself, and anyone can watch competitions on the internet.”

In Vienna Andrea was assigned roles for which she would later become famous: Lucia di Lammermoor, Violetta in La traviata, and the lyric Mozart roles. Her star role is, however, probably Gilda in Rigoletto, the part in which she made her debut at La Scala, Milan in 1994, on the invitation of Riccardo Muti. Gilda is also her favourite role. “My La Scala debut was a leap to a world career,” she happily recalls. “After that, the path lay open to the Met, the Bastille, Salzburg, everywhere.”

In very recent years Andrea has also jumped to the heavyweight league and done more dramatic roles such as Strauss’s Daphne and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. This season she can, for example, be heard as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Nedda in Pagliacci and Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.

Learning is a never-ending process

At the top a singer, as Andrea Rost points out, has to be her own teacher and critic. “You have to check yourself far more. I record myself all the time in order to maintain control over my voice.” She also points out that without a cast-iron vocal technique a singer won’t get very far.
“Opera houses sometimes give young singers too heavy or too many roles, and this requires a really good vocal technique, otherwise they’re doomed. You have to practise, and a lot, every day. I’m still learning how to learn vocal technique! It's never ending. Keeping up to scratch is sometimes very difficult. A singer needs tremendous self-discipline.” This, according to Andrea Rost, is what’s most important in a singing competition: always learning, constantly, because learning is a never-ending process.

Andrea Rost still keeps in touch with the Finnish family she stayed with in Helsinki back in 1989. “Family accommodation is a wonderful thing! My family have been following my career, just as Mirjam Helin did. She was a very special lady: elegant and kind, and she had a wonderful sense of humour.”

Twenty-five years ago Andrea Rost was concentrating on the competition, but this time she sees Helsinki from a different perspective. “I’m more relaxed now and have time to enjoy myself, especially since the competition organisation is so wonderful. I’ve jogged round Töölö Bay and spent some time with the other members of the jury. They’re wonderful. Ben Heppner is a real story-teller!”

The end of her nearly two-week stint on the jury arouses feelings akin to the end of a hectic opera production, says Andrea Rost. “Everything’s so intensive, and all of a sudden it ends and will never happen again. I’m a bit sad, the competition had such a good atmosphere. I’ve loved every moment!”

Text: Auli Särkiö
Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Photos: Heikki Tuuli