Sprightly story-teller holds audience spell-bound

“Genuine contact with an eager audience is surely the biggest prize I won here.” This, in a nutshell, is how versatile, Frankfurt-based Ukrainian soprano Kateryna Kasper describes her experience of the 2014 Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition.

It’s the morning after the Final at the Helsinki Music Centre. Only a few hours earlier, Kateryna Kasper (b. 1986) has been declared the winner of the prize for women in the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, and various emotions flicker across her face: joyful surprise, emotion and weariness. “I didn’t sleep very well, because things like this don’t often happen,” she says, eyes gleaming. “But I’ll soon be back to normal, sitting at the piano learning new pieces.”

The mighty emotions unleashed by the Final will, in the days to come, act like a magic wand. Right now, she gives the impression of being shy as she twists her notebook ribbon round her finger. This is, however, far from the impression she gives up on stage. In the Final, she sent the audience into ecstasy with her electrifying rendition of Thérèse’s feminist aria from Poulenc’s surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias. “Singing the aria for the first time with an orchestra was fantastic! It’s a funny sort of song, but it’s also topical in that it’s about war and strong women.”

Throughout the competition Kateryna appeared radiantly self-assured – a sharp-witted, versatile story-teller. If successful singers were to be roughly divided into vocal wonders and artists, then Kateryna would most definitely count among the latter. For at no point did her sparky eloquence and expressiveness desert her. This is also how she sees herself: “I’m a very sprightly sort of person with a lively imagination. I long for variety and am interested in all kinds of things.” Opera is one source of enjoyment, because up on stage it’s possible to do things that would be out of the question in real life. “But Lied is a completely different world; there, I’m the boss.”

At the Mirjam Helin Competition, Kateryna Kasper proved that she has honed her voice into an instrument of numerous dimensions. She seemed equally at home whatever she was singing: Baroque rhetoric, Mozart coloratura, subtle German Lied, abandoned French chanson or ascetic 20th-century repertoire.

Already a fully-fledged professional, Kateryna Kasper recently signed a contract in the city, Frankfurt, that is now her home and where she has been part of the opera studio’s student programme since 2012. How did she become a singer? “I’ve always been a singer,” she laughs. “I loved performing even when I was very small. I even dreamt of becoming an actress, but as a singer, I can also act and keep discovering new aspects of myself.” Her parents dedicated themselves to Kateryna’s musical education. Her mother is a painter and her father a jazz musician.

Kateryna comes very close to tears when she thinks of her home town, Makiyivka near Donetsk. Right now the guns are roaring there, but her parents have not left their home and Kateryna’s anxiety about them surfaces the moment the competition is over.

From Baroque to contemporary opera

Kateryna Kasper left Ukraine for Germany a few years ago, first as an exchange student in Nuremberg and then to Frankfurt. “I’ve now got a contract lasting several years at Frankfurt Opera. I love this house and I hope to be here a long time,” she says. This does not, however, prevent her from doing gigs elsewhere. Indeed, she wants to travel, to meet different kinds of people and to work with good musicians and orchestras.

In Frankfurt, Kateryna has already been entrusted with parts such as Pamina and Papagena in The Magic Flute and the leading role in Cavalieri’s Baroque opera Rappresentione di anima e di corpo. This summer she sang in the premiere of the new opera The Golden Dragon by Peter Eötvös. Last year she formed a Baroque ensemble of her own called théâtre sans rideau (theatre without a curtain) to present early music scored for solo voices and ensemble in a direct, exciting way. Her husband, Johannes Kasper, plays the cello in this ensemble.

Rather than singing the great operatic roles, Kateryna prefers to adventure into early and contemporary music, and Lied. “I wanted to take part in the Mirjam Helin Competition when I discovered it allows great freedom of repertoire.” Personal growth stories are what interest Kateryna in planning her concerts, and her choice of competition repertoire reflected a desire to tell about different women. The singer’s artistic choices carry a lot of weight in a Lieder recital. “The challenge is what appeals to me in Lied: the singer has a lot of responsibility, and correspondingly it brings a lot of pleasure. You have to make the audience resonate with the music. If you can manage to do this, it’s a magnificent experience for everyone.”

The audience at the Mirjam Helin Competition was a great source of energy for Kateryna Kasper. “Quite frankly, I was surprised how closely the audience followed the competition from the beginning right through to the end. I’d like to say a big thank you to the warm audience; a reception such as this is a tremendous gift for an artist. Genuine contact with an eager audience is surely the biggest prize I won here.”

A singing competition is, says Kateryna Kasper, a good opportunity to learn more about oneself and to practise handling stress. She praises the encouraging atmosphere at the Mirjam Helin Competition, and when Russian interpreter Daniel Shaul, whom she has got to know here in Helsinki, happens to walk past, she breaks off to give him a big hug by way of saying goodbye. She also enjoyed the invaluable support of her accompanist, Tiffany Butt, and her cellist husband, who was with her in Helsinki. “Being here on my own would have been hard, even though I’ve met so many lovely people.”

The world awaits the victorious soprano, but right now she has but a single dream: peace for Ukraine. “I’d like to do some oratorios again soon. They are like a prayer for the world.”

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