Ilona Ten. The Romance of Romance

- Text Xenia Yevdokimen­ko | photo Ulugbek Isakov

Ilona Ten is a soloist at the Abai Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet House. This might seem to be an achievemen­t that any profession­al vocalist would be proud of, yet this singer, with her lovely voice and rare stage charm, explains that her true vocation is Russian romance.

Russian romance as a genre is neither pompous nor designed for great epic drama, but it is much loved by the public and by Ilona Ten, who has derived huge pleasure from it. It has also led her down a career path that has been anything but dull. Ilona doesn’t take her achievemen­ts too seriously but talks about her work in the theatre, her solo parts and concerts, very candidly and with a sense of humour. One of the interestin­g aspects of singing romantic parts is that they are something that opera singers are often unable to do well, as they find themselves too caught up in using the technique and power of their voices. Ilona, however, manages to sing from her heart, not because her voice is modest, but simply because her heart is huge.

Her own story is far from the passions she sings about. She doesn’t have a gypsy background or blazing eyes. She was a quiet, home-loving girl who happened to go to a performanc­e of Mozart’s complex and tragic Requiem, led by the senior conductor of the Bishkek City Opera House. She was so affected by the music and the choir that she decided there and then to become a singer. Even though she couldn’t read music, had never sung before and had always been too shy to go on stage at school.

For her entrance exam for the College of Music, Ilona learnt a Korean song. It was her mother’s idea; by singing in Korean any small error was likely to go unnoticed. This ploy saved the day as when it came to the examinatio­n Ilona was so excited that she forgot both the song and the words. In order to finish the piece she ended up singing all the names of her national dishes. Later, members of the commission expressed their surprise that the folk song was so long. Neverthele­ss, maybe because of her evident passion for singing or because destiny was on her side, Ilona was admitted to the college. Her mother was the one who had more faith in her than anyone else. She taught Ilona to believe she could achieve anything, and worked hard to prepare her for the romance competitio­n that took place at the end of the first year of study.

– “I was such a goody-goody that, of course, I couldn’t really understand the passions that I was singing about. My mother picked a character for every line of the song we chose. Every evening in the two weeks before the competitio­n she would make me dress up, come on stage, make a bow and sing the song until I really knew it. In those early days I was almost too embarrasse­d to make the bow.”

Her teachers and fellow students were greatly surprised when Ilona won first prize. The jury agreed unanimousl­y that her heartfelt and emotional performanc­e had redeemed any vocal imperfecti­ons. After graduating from college, she was advised to continue her studies and consider travelling to St Petersburg to do so. However, a girl from an Asian family would not usually be allowed to travel so far, and Ilona herself was nervous about it. So in the end she chose the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservato­ry in Almaty.

– “Things in my life often happen by accident, but then turn out for the best, as though I was following orders,” laughs Ilona. “For instance, when I was a third-year conservato­ry student I accidental­ly heard about the qualifying round of the Russian competitio­n for romance singers, ‘Romanciada’, that was taking place in Shymkent. I was not among the best vocalists of the third-year students so nobody had thought to suggest that I take part in it. By the time I found out it was already too late to apply, but in the end I convinced the organisers, managed to gather all the documents I needed within one hour, and left for Shymkent that night to go and sing in the competitio­n.”

As it turned out, it was a very good thing that she did go. Without time to prepare and carefully consider her repertoire, Ilona still won a prize. The jury liked her so much they invited her to Moscow to take part in a gala as a guest performer. The concert took place at the Pillar Hall of the Palace of Unions with the giants of the romance genre filling the best seats: Nikolay Slichenko and Nani Bregvadze. Ilona could not have guessed that three years later she would walk onto the very same stage as a contestant and win third place amongst the profession­als.

“At the time I was preparing for a trip to St Petersburg to compete in a competitio­n named after Rimsky-Korsakov. My repertoire included one little-known romance that I was so anxious about that I needed to get a profession­al opinion from my colleagues as to whether I was understand­ing and singing it correctly, so once again I applied to compete at ‘Romanciada’ and went to Shymkent. I was very surprised to find myself sharing the first prize with the soloist from the Opera House, Dina Khamzina, and once again I was invited to Moscow…”

In 2009, Ilona became a soloist at the Abai Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet House.

— “I wouldn’t say that I was born for opera. Yes, it is a goal that I have achieved, however, romance is closer to my heart and my voice. And nothing can replace the feeling of communicat­ing with a live audience, which is why I love concerts, even informal ones, where you can live up to a dozen different lives and watch the reaction of the audience.”

Ilona’s life took another unexpected turn when she was invited to participat­e in the large internatio­nal project ‘New Century — New Names’, which involved a famous conductor, a great orchestra and one of the best concert halls in New York. “Seven young performers took part in the project and each of them amazed me with their tight schedule. It seemed that as soon as they had finished performing in one concert they immediatel­y headed off to another. All of them were already top-liners and had performed in the best theatres of the world. All of these talented young people had weighty foundation­s behind them, and all I had was Russian romance to support me.”

When she sang her programme during rehearsals, she was asked to sing more songs. Even after this success, Ilona is not in rush to accept invitation­s from all the countries that have invited her to sing. She sets her priorities, which include her little daughter, performing in concerts in her native city and giving lessons to aspiring amateurs.

— “I am quite sure that singing is the only activity that can cure both body and soul. That is why I always tell people to ‘sing!’ In the scheme of things, I don’t see any difference between a person who wants to pursue a profession­al career or one who just wants to learn to sing for their own pleasure. Singing makes a person happy, and this is the most important thing.”

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