It is time of humility, time to look up to the sky – Kristian Benedikt

Silence of the Arts – with Kristian Benedikt

Renowned Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt made his Italian debut in 2013, since then he is one the most famous dramatic tenors in Europe and the world. He is particularly well known with his Otello. During this year he was infected with Covid19. Despite the critical condition, he not only survived and successfully returned to the stage, but also helped lots of other people with his advice and contributions! It was immense pleasure to talk to him via messenger and share some creative ideas.
Dear Kristian, we all suffered a lot from the pandemic this year, but as I know it hit you harder than others – you were seriously ill for 2 months ago… How hard was Covid really?

– My case was very difficult. I had double pneumonia. I spent 2 weeks in the special care and then 2 weeks in the hospital, since I could not breath without an oxygen mask. Fortunately, I was not “intubated” – doctors knowing that I am a singer had taken special care, they used so called “moustache” equipment to provide me with oxygen and avoid intubating, since that would be a serious danger to my vocal cords.

Does it make you uncomfortable to speak about this experience?

– no, contrary! since I have recovered, I speak about it in every interview and try to give as much information as possible, so that people, especially singers know how to help themselves. Together with my wife, we also donate the blood (to be used for plasma-therapy).

How did you get infected?

– I was preparing for the recording of Ponchielli’s I Lituani, working with Enrico Reggioli… one day, the secretary called me that I have to immediately go to the test, because the director of the theatre was diagnosed with covid. I had no symptoms whatsoever, but the test was positive! In the beginning I was at home, but after it got worse, fever was raising… After 5 days I went to the hospital and doctors discovered that I already had full blown double pneumonia…

How fast was the recovery process?

– despite the strongest form of the virus, I recovered very fast – after six weeks I was already on the stage singing Beethoven 9th Symphony. It was a bit of a miracle – even doctors admitted that although my lungs were not fully recovered, they reacted as if they were 100% healthy person’s. Of course I put in a lot of effort. Right from the beginning I was exercising: as soon as I wake up, I do “vacuum” (you have to breathe out all the air from the lungs and force yourself to stay without breathing as long as possible, 15-20 seconds at least). I am practicing the exercises of Strelnikova – she was a singer herself and her breathing exercises are excellent! some of my colleagues use it too, soprano Svetlana Kasyan, who was also infected with covid also published on facebook those exercises. …so, after all these efforts I started to sing very soon. Apart of above mentioned Beethoven 9th (which is not very difficult), I also sung a concert with Organ and since 2 weeks come back to work on Ponchielli’s I Lituani – the role of Corrado is a very demanding part! and I am surprised myself, how fine it all works as if I never had any virus!

This opera is rarely performed, when will the premiere be?

– It is going to be a recording with Lithuanian National Philharmonie. The orchestra, my colleagues already recorded it when I was ill, now I will record my part.

As most of us, you probably also suffered from cancellations of the productions or delays this year, what do you regret most?

– Yes, of course! all my performances abroad were cancelled or postponed. That is very painful… there were projects that were already so close to the final: like Ernani for example. In march we were just a few days before the premiere. So much work and effort was gone… At that moment theatres were not ready at all, nobody knew what to do… but you know, single projects are not my main concern! I worry about the attitude of the society, governments – when they try to present our work as if we are just singing some songs to have fun! I’ll tell you a joke: we were sent into the quarantine in March and our performance was cancelled – when in whole Lithuania there was only one person infected with Covid! One person!!! can you imagine, so many people lost their job because of it… and all the musicians (all the artists actually) – we had to prove that actually – we are working! we have a right to exist!

Exactly! We are not just having a hobby. It is our job!

– I do not want to blame someone particularly… but it is a very dangerous tendency. And I wish that politicians in the whole world would have made a little effort to understand the situation of artists… We are part of this system and for years we have contributed a lot! …Oh, I still have to finish the Joke: so, after a month of quarantine the head of the health department held a press-conference. We asked him, when can the theatres come back to work, to rehearsals? – the answer was: it was never forbidden to rehearse, they just can not perform! can you imagine? it went viral, the internet was blown by those words… it is a scandal!

You do not think that theatre is a risk to a public health, do you?

– there is one point that we all have to consider: seasonal flu for example – there are about 50 000 people in Lithuania that have the flu every year and some of them (20 to 40) die! this is very sad… it happens despite the fact that there are well known vaccines available, there are medications! but people still get infected and some die! The corona virus will also exist… even after the vaccine will be there… of course it was a new virus and in the beginning we did not know how to treat it! but we have to learn a lesson: closing down everything will not save the world! it causes more problems, than solves! we should not lose common sense! I am rather supporter of the idea of public immunity. I give you one example: in my family me, my wife and my daughter, we had a virus. But my son, who lived with us all the time, did not get a virus! our immunity system is the best difference! also, when I got infected: on those rehearsals there were many people working, some of us got infected, others – not! Being close to the person who has a virus is not the end of the world! Just let’s be adequate! let’s not lose common sense!

I totally agree! especially, knowing how much effort and investments theatres made to guarantee the social distances and security for the public. And we do not know of a single case of infection spreading among the public… do you think we will ever come back to a normal life? How is the situation in Lithuania?

– Well, as most of the European countries, we had to stop too… in the theatre we  had cases of infection, but not among the public, only members of the cast… but it was very rare and immediately all the measures were taken, as in my case as well. I really hope that with the time we will have the chance to come back to normality. I have a lot of plans even in December: we have postponed Verdi’s Requiem, It will take place on 23rd of December. I also have a few gala-concerts for New year together with The Kaunas Philharmonie. And after that will be Ernani, which we had to postpone from last year; also Turandot – very interesting production of Robert Willson. International projects are still on hold – waiting for the dates for Dame Pique from Germany, Aida – in Latvia, Samson et Dalila in South Korea, etc…

I hope we’ll overcome the coronavirus and the worse – the virus of ignorance in the end! and we’ll come back to our work… Kristian, I often heard your name when talking about Otello – you are one of THE Otellos of our times? is it your favourite role?  

– Yes, Otello is of course very important for me. I have been singing it since 2011, I have prepared my first Otello here in Lithuania with our important director Eimuntas Nekrošius. But internationally I have performed it first in Italy in 2013 in Modena. After that I had chances to perform this role all around the world! in your city, in Vienna for example: 3 years ago I had to substitute peter Seiffert. I was asked the day before, next day I was there, had a rehearsal in the morning to learn the staging and in the evening I was getting ready for the performance. There was a funny situation: young lady comes in in my room and presents herself in Russian (I speak Russian too)- “I am your Desdemona, my name is Olga Bezsmertna”, you know in Russion “Bezsmertna” means immortal! so I am turning to her: “so how am I meant to kill you if you are immortal?”… in the end it was a very successful adventure!

What kind of person is your Otello? did you always have freedom to express your vision of this character?  

– I studied with a very famous Italian tenor, Gianfranco Cecchele, who himself was a student of Del Monaco – the greatest Otello ever! my vision was partially influenced by him. In Italian language there is a word – GENEROSO (generous) – it describes Otello the most! it is a royal role! He is a very sensitive person and a person of justice! There are a lot of insensitive people on this planet: “it is not my business” – this phrase drives me crazy! For Otello “it is not my business” does not exist! In Dame Pique Hermann has the same personality – I call him Russian Otello. “I am not ill, I am in love” and he loves the girl without even knowing her name… unconditionally! Otello is like that, he is honest, extremely honest! otherwise he would not have killed himself as soon as he found out he killed an innocent person. He does justice! all the time! This opera is not a love story: pay attention to the love-duet of Otello and Desdemona when they are still happy. They speak about love in past tense – “ed io t’amavo… e Tu m’amavi…” why?.. Otello is not young and the story does not take place in a moment when they have fallen in love with each other. It is an opera about justice! What can we learn from it? …no, not suicide of course! it teaches us to come back to the higher standards: not forgive ourselves mistakes, to be sensitive in our families, in our society, in our ideals!

Are there any roles that you still dream to sing?  

– Of course! I am slowly approaching Wagner roles. I have already sung Siegmund in Die Walküre – My first role. It was Lithuanian production. We were on tour in Italy in Ravenna and Maestro Riccardo Muti admired this performance! I have sung Rienzi – concert version and Lohengrin at the Mariinsky theater in Sankt Petersburg under the baton of Maestro Gergiev. At the moment I dream to sing Tannhäuser and Parsifal… but I can never have enough of Otello! although I have already done 18 productions of it – from classical to very modern, but every time a new opportunity turns around – I am ready to take an adventure… Once Vladimir Atlantov told me in Vienna – We are all co-authors of the opera, not only a composer. We are the ones (singers, directors, conductors, whole team), who create the opera together with the composer. And I can not agree more!

What would your advice be to your colleagues, younger singers? how can we survive and not lose the spirit under those conditions?

– first of all: not despair! the challenges in this world will not end (and for sure they will not end with coronavirus)… little joke: pessimist and optimist meet and pessimist starts to complain: life is so tough, it is so terrible, it cannot get any worse… and optimist responds: why not? of course it can… so life is like that! one challenge ends, another starts! but whatever has a start, has an end too! we have to go on! We should look for higher inspirations… we do not work in order to earn the money and then spend it… it is too profane… we have to understand why we do what we do! Why we live in our society. We are not just some walking vocal cords! We are personalities, we have to contribute in many ways to society. We have objectives in our life (to sing, for example), but we also should have higher reasoning. If there is no possibility to sing an opera at the moment, try to do something else, find creative ways to serve society, serve your profession! my personal example: during the first quarantine, when the performances were canceled I organised a recording of a popular Lithuanian song – it was written for my teacher, famous Lithuanian tenor Virgilijus Noreika. So, I invited almost all the Lithuanian tenors to record this song – 19 of us! It was great fun! then I developed this idea and organised “Tenoriada” – we made a record in one concert: on one stage there were 15 tenors! It happened just after quarantine – 13 July and the success was huge! So, just go on… just be creative… be part of the society of your country, your city!
– and one very important point: the pandemics just reminded us that we are just humans! It destroyed our illusion that we can do everything, this world belongs to us… We have to understand that power, wealth… is nothing. It can not keep us alive forever! we have to remember God, our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ or higher existence (regardless of our religions). It is time to look up to the sky, time to kneel, humility and understand, that nothing will save us if we are not protected by higher power.

28 novembre 2020

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