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Ilona Domnich – Through my voice and music I can express all my life experiences
Ilona Domnich is a rising opera star, described by critics as ‘a memorable voice of silken beauty with a luminous edge to the tone, a sensitive musician and an actress of magnetic presence’. She was chosen by Opera Now 2014 as one of their Top 10 high flyers, a “new generation of sopranos who are destined to have impressive careers”.
Ilona Domnich was born in St. Petersburg, moved to Israel and studied music in Jerusalem. She was discovered by a famous opera teacher who invited her to join the Royal College of Music in London. She has performed in many famous venues and festivals, like English National Opera, Buxton and Grange Park Opera, music festivals in Europe and sung title roles in operas like The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Onegin, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, La boheme, Pelleas and Melisande.
When did you start to sing and what was your dream?
I have always sung, humming tunes around the house and even at school during lessons, and for that I was told off. I started learning to play the piano at a young age and used to accompany myself singing songs at many parties in our house. My grandmother was a celebrated tourist guide of the museums of St. Petersburg. She liked to have music soirees and I would be the entertainment.
Later I was deeply moved by the performances of Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and Fyodor Shalyapin. I was overwhelmed by the realisation of what a human voice can express and knew that this was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t know whether I should be an actress or a singer. Now I am both, because opera is a perfect art form that combines it all. But I started professional singing lessons quite late, at the age of 23.
How would you describe the first year as a migrant in this country?
My coming to London was a miracle. Vera Rosza, a famous opera singer and teacher of leading opera stars, was giving a master class in Jerusalem. I was sitting in the audience. One of the singers fell ill and I raised my hand from the audience to sing instead. After the master class I was told to phone Vera. She said at the time that I had no technique, but a soul of a musician and a memorable voice – the two crucial ingredients for an opera singer. She invited me to come to London to study with her. Vera Rosza herself was also an immigrant from Hungary.
It was my second immigration, and I was studying at one of the most prestigious colleges, through a generous scholarship. And yet it was not easy: I felt isolated and very small. It felt as if I was lifting a huge weight alone and fighting some kind of a giant. But I was lucky to meet many lovely people, who believed in me, helped me and kept encouraging me. London is a great cosmopolitan city, so diverse, everybody is different – a good place to be an immigrant, a foreigner. I felt very lucky to be here, hopeful that everything will be happening to me here. I also met here my future husband, also an immigrant, and we started a family.
London is a great cosmopolitan city, so diverse, everybody is different – a good place to be an immigrant, a foreigner.
What does it mean for an artist to face challenges of migration?
I moved from St. Petersburg to Jerusalem and then to London. I feel blessed to be carrying three most beautiful cities in me and to be exposed to such different cultures, languages and ways of living. I was a young girl when I came to Israel, everything seemed exciting, I really loved the new life and experiences. I was absorbing everything like a sponge.
I was a young woman when I came to London. It was a good time to come alone to discover myself.
I feel that as an artist I am more open to new experiences, in our profession you are going into the unknown every time you start a new project, and you have to rely on yourself, on your inner vision, instincts and inner strength. I think that I am lucky, because I have a lot of inner light in me and I meet the hardships bravely. I know that life is full of turning corners, it is about growing and changing and whatever one goes through shapes us. I know who I am thanks to all the previous experiences of my life. It helps me to be a better artist. Through my voice and music I am able to express all my life experiences.
What are the challenges you had as an artist trying to invest in your career?
The main challenge is the unknown and that there is no guarantee that you will make it. On the way there are some challenges. One is how to sustain yourself financially being a freelance musician. I was teaching as a student and after I graduated, this was my main income source and the singing was more like a passion. Slowly it changed, and I am no longer teaching, though I really enjoyed it. I am very grateful to my husband, Dror, who was very supportive all the way.
…you have to rely on yourself, on your inner vision, instincts and inner strength. I think that I am lucky, because I have a lot of inner light in me and I meet the hardships bravely.
Another, and a big one, is how not to lose confidence: after hundreds of auditions, you may be chosen for just a few – how to keep going and believing in yourself? I used to be very upset, but the fact that people who chose me kept inviting me back meant that being rejected at auditions did not really matter. I found strength in an old wisdom “What’s yours will come to you, what’s not yours, you don’t need it.” Also, there are so many possibilities and so many choices: how to have the strength to listen to your inner voice to shape your own destiny (and career).
Then as for every woman there are a few challenges being a mum and a professional, in my case a singer. But like everything else in life it depends on how you look at it. How much you are prepared to challenge yourself, take risks and trust that it will turn out to be good, not to be neurotic? It did not come to me naturally, and there was a period when I was panicking that I can’t be a superwoman. And then I suddenly understood, why should I be perfect? One thing at a time, I will live each moment: when I am with my son, I am happy; when I am learning my music, I am happy too. I can highly recommend the book ‘F**k It’ by John Parkin, that helped me to take it easy.
I found strength in an old wisdom “What’s yours will come to you, what’s not yours – you don’t need it.”
How has your career developed through the years?
Many opera singers have a star career straight after college. I am glad that my path was more gradual, as I believe that in order to be at the highest level and to sustain the serious demands of the international operatic career, one needs a lot of life experience, not only in music, but in life: womanhood, relationships, and motherhood. One needs mental strength as well as ambition and passion.
I am happy with where I am now and where I am going. I am singing more internationally and just recorded my second CD, where the whole concept was mine, it was my self-expression. I am calling the CD ‘Surrender’. For me the word surrender is a dynamic force that helps to move forward, it is about facing fears, breaking illusions, listening to your instincts and fully engaging with one own self. I am intrigued by women, by their initiations through life cycles, each woman has within her myriads of variations – and through my operatic women and their voices I learn about the deepest aspects of the human soul.
It is strange to talk about singing as a career, as it is rather more my passion and my life. Simply because it is my voice that leads me towards my next dream. I feel that I am going to the next level.
What are the best achievements that you are proud of?
I’d say that there are four:
- I started my life afresh twice, though immigration, and succeeded both times. When you emigrate, from one side you face a new exciting future, from another, you leave behind many precious things: your friends, your family, and your culture. How do you merge together all of your lives? It seems to me at times that I have lived three lives, each very different from the other.
- Being a mother for me is the big achievement of my life. My son has changed me forever. He taught me how to look at things from a different perspective and prioritise, and I had to become more disciplined to manage so many things.
- Having learned to trust my intuition and listen to my inner voice. I am still discovering the depth of my inner world, I am constantly changing and this makes me happy.
- With time I became fearless, be it in taking new challenging projects, and hitting the highest notes or making life changing decisions. “The scariest thing is not what we can’t do, but the realisation of how powerful we are.” It doesn’t matter for me to sing at the English national opera, Queen Elizabeth Hall, live on the radio or in a small room, or a little fringe theatre. I choose to sing roles that change me in the process. Projects that challenge me, that show my versatility and diversity as an artist.
Do you have any regrets in life?
There are only two regrets. The biggest one is that I didn’t have more children after I had my son but I hope to have more now. The other one is that I eat too many biscuits. I am constantly having to fight to keep a good shape and fit into my gorgeous stage dresses. Otherwise, I don’t regret a thing. Everything in life is an experience and we are learning. I am who I am now thanks to everything that I have lived through.
Have you done any other job apart from singing?
I tried sitting in a lab, and then being a secretary, but not very successfully. It wasn’t me and it was like playing a role. I studied forensic science and criminology, so one day I might go back to it. But only after I have sung around the world and discovered everything I can about women and their inner voices. For me, what I do now is more than a profession.
One of my regrets is that I eat too many biscuits. I am constantly having to fight to keep a good shape and fit into my gorgeous stage dresses!
How do you manage your career and being a mother at the same time?
Like many other women, but running around like crazy and often being late. For the first three years of my son’s life, I stayed with him and chose to do just the occasional concert. I believe that boys need their mothers in the first few years to establish their confidence. From his early age I have been taking him with me to rehearsals and to performances, and he spends summers with me at music festivals in Europe. My husband, Dror, is a very hands on father. Between him, me and the nanny, we manage. What we are missing, as do many immigrants, is our broader family: grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and we are creating a network of friends instead.
What is your love story?
We met in London, when we were both foreign students here. To earn money we were both teaching languages at a Saturday school. After a couple of weeks he asked me for my phone number. I asked “Are you serious?” He smiled and said “Yes!”
Our first date was on Valentine’s day. I invited him to see a concert and we went to a ridiculously expensive restaurant in Kensington. I can still remember the look on his face when he saw the bill and the brave smile that followed. And now he is my husband. We complement each other: what he appreciates in me is that I see the beauty in everything, and I value in him that he is very grounded and reliable. Life is simply better and easier together.