The following interview took place in the administrative offices of the Opera de Montreal, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Bass-baritone Burak Bilgili; edited image, based on a Alvaro Jaramillo photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: You attended the music conservatory of the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in the Findikli neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey. What was your preparation for admittance?
BB: My teachers in high school had said that I had a voice and that I should be trained. However, I did not pursue their suggestions until my brother was admitted to the conservatory when I was 15 and he was 19. When he was vocalizing I was joking with him, pretending to vocalize as well. But he discovered that I had a voice.
I applied to the conservatory three years in a row. I was accepted to the conservatory. But most conservatory graduates become pop singers, because that’s where the money is.
At age 19, I became interested in learning about opera. I knew that I had to train my voice not to be a pop singer. I would only train as an opera singer.
[Below: Burak Bilgili as Sir Giorgio Walton in the 2010 performances of Bellini’s “I Puritani” at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Italy; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: I understand that a decisive point in your career was hearing Welsh bass-baritone Byrn Terfel in live performance. Explain the circumstances.
BB: When I was a first year student, in 1995, one of my stage teachers told me that Bryn Terfel was coming for a concert. He sang an all-Schubert program. Hearing his voice and technique was like a dream for me. I went and waited backstage to meet him.
I didn’t understand how he produced his type of singing. I was shocked at the huge gap that I saw between my training and that of Terfel’s. I would have to go outside Turkey and work hard on my goal of becoming an opera singer.
Wm: So, it was hearing Bryn Terfel that led you to your decision to drop out of the conservatory.
BB: Yes, I was a 20-year old first year student. I said that I would quit the conservatory, because I wanted to be trained so that I could sing like Terfel. There is such a huge gap in our training in Turkey, that if I couldn’t be like Terfel, I would never have an operatic career.
Wm: You made your operatic debut at the Turkish Opera in Istanbul in 1998 at age 24. What were the prospects for an operatic career in Turkey?
BB: Those who learn opera and stay in Turkey have a chance at lifetime jobs with the opera house. The opera jobs don’t pay well, but you can sing until you are 62.
I thought to myself, an opera singer should be a respected professional like a lawyer or doctor. I decided that I wouldn’t audition for the opera house.
Turkey has good vocal talents and vocal materials for the opera world, but there are not a lot of opportunities for young singers, like in the USA or in European Countries.
We have lots of different type of conservatories in Turkey, good teachers and good trainers, but it is not very competitive like in the USA and there are not many teachers who will do the research on how their students might succeed in the opera world.
[Below: Ferrando (Burak Bilgili, right) expresses his suspicions to the Count di Luna (Dmitri Hovorostovsky, left) in a 2009 San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: As I understand it, students who desire an international opera career must not only search out a teacher who can properly train their voice, but one who can advise them on how to succeed in the competitive world of opera.
BB: There are not many voice teachers in Turkey that I believe do the research and follow up on the opera world. If the teachers don’t show interest in artistic success in the larger world, it will reflect on their students, who will become lazy.
I think most young singers in Turkey do not dream about and motivate themselves for successful opera careers. They accept whatever they receive. They don’t like to fight or look for better opportunities.
They wake up at home listening to arabesque music. Then, they take a bus with their ears covered with headphones listening to that same type of music. Their whole lifestyle is very arabesque too. They grow up with dirty and simple music.
The instruments on our body that cheat us the most are our ears. Students quickly learn simple music. Complicated music, such as classical music, is much more difficult to learn.
Classical music needs for the ears to be trained to understand it better, but classical music helps us to see much more color in our lives.
Wm: I know of several successful American opera singers whose early vocal experiences were in rock and popular music and who went on to classical music and opera. But you seem to be more pessimistic about those who begin with popular Turkish music.
BB: Many of the successful American and European opera singers have won competitions when they were between 22 and 25 years of age. That is the reality of the opera world outside of Turkey.
Turkish students do not expect to do this. I don’t believe that the Turkish lifestyle encourages vocal studies. Students may want to learn new arias, but they always have excuses as why they should not study. They don’t dream of being successful, and on motivating themselves to focus on achieving a target.
Wm: I’ve noted in the past that some countries with small populations – such as Bulgaria and the Republic of Georgia – have produced a much larger number of international opera stars than one should expect. I would suspect this is because of either public or private sector investment in developing successful approaches for training singers for international stages.
A country needs such an infrastructure or else young artists with talent have to go elsewhere to succeed. But such investments in infrastructure can be made. If you consider the United States, 60 years ago nothing like the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices Program and the San Francisco Opera Merola program existed.
BB: Right now technology is different then it was ten years ago, so it may be possible for such investment in operatic training to happen faster than before.
[Below: Burak Bilgili as Sarastro in a 2011 Avignon Opera Theatre production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; resized image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: You had the example of Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, who had an international career, beginning in the 1950s.
BB: Yes, and she left Turkey for her training. I felt that for the doors of opera to be open to me, I had to sing outside of Turkey, like Gencer did.
There were people who tried to persuade me not to train elsewhere. “Those who have leave Turkey to learn opera end up missing their home and family. You will then come back home.”
But I would reply: “Yes, I get homesick, but I have to give something up, if I am going to pursue a dream.”
Wm: Gencer was an important singer at the San Francisco Opera, where she performed her first bel canto role ever – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. In fact, she was my first Violetta in “La Traviata”, my first Lucia, and my first Gioconda.
BB: Gencer told us that she was not passionate for the role of Gioconda. You know how hard this role is to sing.
She encouraged me to sing the basso roles in Rossini’s operas, such as Mustafa in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”, Assur in “Semiramide” and the title role of “Maometto Secondo”. It is the early 19th century Italian composers who wrote more vocal opportunities for the bass voice. I’m happy to sing those roles.
Although some bassos avoid Wagner, I also plan to try out Daland in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”,
Wm: You credit soprano Katia Ricciarelli with an early boost to your career.
BB: Yes, she came to the conservatory in Turkey to conduct a master class for which she chose eight opera students. At the end, she said she would take “the tenor and the basso” to Italy for a full fellowship to train.
Wm: So you became a student at the Academica Lirica Internationale in Parma, Italy, in Ricciarelli’s International Master Class.
BB: Yes, I left Turkey to study in Parma.
Wm: And it was here that basso Bonaldo Giaiotti became an influence on your future career.
BB: That is so. My first encounter with him was a big surprise. When most of the vocal students are singing inside of a hall, Giaiotti goes outside to listen to their voices.
I had been vocalizing to get ready to sing. He listened to my voice. We spoke in Italian. He made some critical comments, but he was so nice. He then gave me two arias to prepare that I didn’t know.
He is so disciplined. He remains to this day a person whose advice I seek about my voice.
[Below: Burak Bilgili in the title role of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” at Philadelphia’s Academy of the Vocal Arts; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: How did you come to apply to the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia?
BB: There was a Turkish student in AVA, Burak Dorduncu. He had learned from his cousin, but my Turkish voice teacher Guzin Gurel knew him. Dorduncu’s success in applying for and getting accepted into AVA encouraged me to apply for it as well.
It was Guzin Gurel who helped me to prepare for the audition, and paid for almost all my expenses, including my airplane ticket to Philadelphia. Although my English was terrible, they accepted me.
Wm: What did you learn at AVA?
BB: I had learned a lot from my teachers in Turkey and in Parma, but training in America is harder – more disciplined and more focused. However, even though there is more direction, it’s still up to the person to take responsibility to learn the skills that one needs to go to the next level.
If I had been learning to sell vegetables, my training first in Turkey and then in Europe was like learning to sell onions and potatoes. In America, you will learn to sell many different fruits and vegetables.
There is very good training in Turkey, but there is a gap. In Turkey, there is almost no attention to acting. It’s assumed that the ability to act is within yourself – that you can’t teach a singer to act.
AVA is special. It is one of the greatest schools in world that teaches only opera. I learned the discipline that one needs for the opera world. Even today, if I am performing a role that I originally learned at AVA, it is so easy for me. For young singers, it is one of the best schools.
But even some people who graduate from AVA criticize it a lot. Some say that AVA has too much discipline, that the training is too aggressive.
I like it. There is no kind of training like this. I still live in Philadelphia and still work with the coaches there.
Wm: During your first year at AVA, you applied to and were accepted for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, the summer training for young opera artists. How did this come about?
BB: Every year the AVA holds the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition to encourage young singers. I did not put my name on the list of persons wishing to compete. But AVA vocal coach Danielle Orlando came to me and asked why my name was not on the list and so I applied.
I won the competition and first prize and the audience prize and – very important for me – I won money. After that I had more confidence to apply for other competitions, including the Merola program – and it accepted me.
[Below: In a Michigan Opera Theater production, Doctor Dulcamara (Burak Bilgili, right) explains to Nemorino (Stephen Costello, seated on steps) how love potions work; edited photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: What did you learn in the Merola program?
BB: The Merola program is very hard work, but I learned a lot there. I am proud to be part of the 2001 family of the Merolini.
However, I did not know that San Francisco was an earthquake center. In 1998, I had been alone in my home during an earthquake in Istanbul, so when I opened the folder for students applying for the Merola program and their was a paper in the folder about earthquakes, and then Los Angeles had an earthquake, it concerned me that I would again be in an earthquake center. But there was no damaging earthquake during the time I was in the Merola program.
The first day, I linked up with three tenors – Brian Hymel, Ryan MacPherson and Jangwon Lee – and we became friends
Wm: You became the 2003 Cardiff (Wales) Singer of the World. How did that come about?
BB: At that time an opera director had to recommend you. You could not apply in person. I had auditioned for La Scala in Milan and they hired me to perform Duke Alfonso in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”. They asked me if I would like to go to Cardiff. Because I knew Byrn Terfel, I did want to go to Wales. And I knew that Dmitri Hvorostovsky had won that competition (in 1989). Meanwhile, I participated in the international Belvedere Singing Competition and had won the first prize for 2002.
I did an audition in New York. I went to Cardiff the next summer where I was the third concert night winner in the 2003 competition. It’s a big competition in an interesting city. On the street, people were stopping me and asking me to sign autographs on their programs. Although it was a prestigious win, I was not really satisfied with the results.
Wm: You are married to soprano Eglise Gutierrez, who was a fellow AVA student with you.
BB: At AVA, we were classmates and best friends, but, when we were in school, we were not dating. That came afterwards.
Wm: What roles do the two of you do together?
BB: I sing Raimondo and she sings the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. In Bellini’s “I Puritani”, she sings Elvira and I sing Giorgio Walton. We will do the roles of Adina and Doctor Dulcamara in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Cincinnati.
[Below: Eglise Gutierrez (left) is Elvira and Burak Bilgili (right) is Sir Giorgio Walton in a 2010 Teatro Lirico di Cagliari (Italy) production of Bellini’s “I Puritani”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
We both sing in Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia” and in Bellini’s “Sonnambula”. The role of Amina in “Sonnambula” was her first role at AVA.
So often the bassos get the high priest roles, but there some operas that have roles that would have interesting roles for both of us – Figaro and Susanna in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, or perhaps Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, with me singing the Don and Eglise singing Donna Anna.
Wm: May I ask you to recount the experience of your New York Metropolitan Opera debut?
BB: Originally I was scheduled to sing only one performance. I had been asked to cover another artist for an earlier performance of Leporello in “Don Giovanni”. At the last moment, I was asked to step in as Leporello for that artist, but there is no opportunity for me to rehearse onstage with any of the cast.
It’s a big hall and the performance was sold out. I was determined that I was going to make it work, and give the audience everything I could.
The way the opera was staged, Leporello in the final scene was supposed to be on top of a long table eating the food spread out there. I got up on the table and was so nervous, praying that it would not collapse or that I would fall off. I normally wouldn’t eat food in performance, and there were no napkins, but I ate the turkey legs. It was a big risk, but the audience liked me a lot and I got a big ovation.
Wm: I have seen you sing the role of Nilakantha in Delibes’ “Lakme” to three different Lakmes.
Delibes and his librettist left it a mystery as what happened to Gerald after Lakme’s death at the opera’s close. I am of the opinion that Gerald went native and stayed with Nilakantha.
BB: I think if the opera had another scene, Gerald would be trying to get out of India, because I think Nilakantha, who tried to have him killed in the second act, would want to finish the deed.
[Below: Nilakantha (Burak Bilgili, left) and Lakme (Audrey Luna, right), disguised as itinerant beggars, enter the marketplace in Opera de Montreal’s 2013 production of Delibes’ “Lakme”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]
Wm: Yet, she as a priestess has married herself eternally to Gerald. Nilakantha is now eternally Gerald’s father-in-law.
BB: Nilakantha raised Lakme and is very proud of her, but she is not his real daughter. We don’t know anything about her mother.
I believe that Gerald is still alive in the third act because Lakme saved him. But I don’t think he was honest with her about his feelings, while she was honest with him. He was about to leave with the British soldiers. But I believe that the Hindus are more honest in their feelings that the British, who hide their emotions. Nilakantha would never be good friends with Gerald.
Wm: But I believe both Gerald and Lakme are adolescents, like Romeo and Juliet, who are driven solely by emotion. That Gerald and Lakme are from different cultures at odds with each other, instead of from feuding families all are of the same culture, complicates the situation. But the source book – Julien Viaud’s Le Mariage de Loti that inspired “Lakme” – is about Loti “going native” and I believe that is what Gerald does after Lakme’s sacrifice. I believe the opera’s ending would be more dramatic if that is the way it’s staged.
BB: Well, perhaps some director will want to rethink how it ends.
Wm: Your parents had two sons in the Conservatory. What are their thoughts about your careers?
BB: My parents wanted us to be free to make our own choices in life. They never bother us. My brother, Baris Bilgili, is a pop singer. I chose opera.
Wm: I’ve seen Baris Bilgili’s YouTube videos. He’s very good.
Do you parents come to your opera performances?
BB: My family loves opera. My mother came to see me at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. When I’m in Europe, I invite them to wherever I’m singing, but my mother doesn’t like to travel. My parents come to see me when I do concerts in Turkey.
Wm: You and your wife are both international opera stars and you have a three year old daughter. How do you manage your careers and family?
BB: It is a hard life. I was at our daughter Lucia’s delivery, I saw her the first time when she was ten days old. I was with her on her first birthday, but not her second or third. Both of my parents traveled to our home in Philadelphia to visit their first grandchild.
Both Eglise and I like our jobs and both of us strive to improve ourselves. We work to keep the relationship solid. We have a private life. It’s important to have a second person to support you. We support each other.
When I was singing in Verdi’s “Les Vêpres Siciliennes” in the Caramoor (New York) Festival, she came to my dress rehearsal. I went to listen to her at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. I travelled with her to Brussels for rehearsals and then back to London with her.
[Bwlow: Bass-baritone Burak Bilgili; edited image, based on a Alvaro Jaramillo photograph, courtesy of Burak Bilgili.]
Wm: So the career you dreamed about in Turkey is what you are now living.
BB: I am a very social person with my fellow cast members. I understand opera singers. I like to drink coffee and talk with them and exchange stories and information.
Wm: Thank you, Burak.
BB: Thank you.
For my reviews of Burak Bilgili’s performances as Nilakantha, see: and Leah Partridge’s Splendid “Lakme” – Florida Grand Opera, Miami: February 27, 2009 and Luna, Tessier and Bilgili in Stylishly Sung “Lakme” – Opera de Montreal, September 24, 2013.
For my review of Burak Bilgili’s performance as Zaccaria, see: Strassberger’s Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012.
For my review of Burak Bilgili’s performance as Ferrando, see: Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.