Talking to soprano Johana Simon is a very pleasant experience. Listening to her sing, a huge pleasure. In dialogue she is a smiling, uneasy girl, easy word and fresh laughter, very sure of her truths, accomplishments and dreams. On stage, it suddenly unfolds, the same made light in a beautiful divine and caressing prayer, which thwarts the storms on its forehead and surrenders in a rough, yet sore, called to war.
Two of his various musical projects motivated this interview. Of course, there could be no lack of vision about the beautiful singing in our country, and the avatars and spiritual rewards suffered or won by Cuban artists. As my interviewee told me, the stage is a fantastic world, but, down here, even sopranos also have family problems, common and urgent issues to solve and a life, with joys and sorrows, like that of any other mortal.
However, and his feminine soul full of music always helped, in the end the conversation returned again to the sublime universe of lyrical voices. From such stories, tragic or happy, under the protection of their chords, it is possible to forget a little, and even endure and fight, the daily circumstances. Luckily, in the scene and in the sensitive, and at no cost, it is also possible to inhabit these realities. An interview can then navigate loaded with arpeggios, legends and verses.
Here are some of the traces of Johana Simon’s portrait. If you prefer, rather than read them, listen to their colors ring.
How did you find out you were a soprano?
“My family always had a lot of attraction for classical ballet. I was in ballet, from a very young age, until I was twelve, when I couldn’t take it anymore. Back then, I’d lock up in the bathroom and sing, but nobody listened to me. The first lyrical voice I heard was that of my uncle, who studied with Zoila Galvez, is not an improvised one, and has a beautiful baritone voice, very sweet, very velvety. When I had lunch at my house, and that was Monday through Friday, I finished eating and, it seems that ‘with a full belly and a happy heart’, she would start singing. He sang in these talks the traditional Cuban music, the whole repertoire of Ernesto Lecuona, those songs that Esther Borja did, in short… Those are my first references.
“Basically, I started studying singing too late, when I was seventeen. While studying at the French Alliance, I was tricked into participating in the Chanson Francaise, a contest they do there. I made a very difficult song by Nana Mouskouri, a great Greek singer, of a voice that doesn’t become lyrical, but it’s amazing, and although nothing happened, because I only got to the second round, I discovered that I liked that very much.
“So as not to make the story too long. All of that encouraged me to find a way. After trying some places, I ended up studying with Professor Ricardo Linares. That was the person who taught me to love this career. After two years of being there, I proposed to him to do a concert. I needed to know if I could stand on stage, face the audience, all that pressure. Teacher Pura Ortiz was kind enough to join me. I also supported a great friend, our first graduate countertenor in the ISA, who is Ubail Zamora. We did the concert and that was the beginning of Johana Simón, in 1999. That’s when I realized that was my way. After that performance I felt a euphoria, a feeling I’ve never had again, I ended up with incredible joy. At that moment I was God on earth.”
There’s a job of yours I want to talk about. You have a concert where you perform only Avemarías. I’d like you to tell me about that project, but first I want to know if you’re a woman of faith. From the stage, besides all the technique, do you remember to sing to God?
“I am baptized, in fact, I was already baptized as an adult and I do consider myself a person of faith. Look, right now, I was in Trinidad and went to mass several times because the father there, a very old, Spanish gentleman, I think his name is Cyril, I really liked it as officiating. Going to mass sometimes depends a lot on the parents officiating. Because, if you’re going to get bored, even though the word of God is never boring, just because it’s the word of God, then it’s better not to.
“On the other hand, yes, I remember also singing to God. At this point in my career the technique is already quite incorporated. Besides, it’s not that you don’t worry about her, in some works you worry a little more about some details, because of conditions imposed by the composer, but if you’re on stage and it’s all worry, then you’re not delivering the best and you don’t enjoy it. That’s not the idea. I try to get to the stage as safely and calmly as possible because that is also part of the enjoyment. When that happens to me, when I worry too much, I think I’ll stop singing.
“That Avemariah concert is very difficult, especially since people have no idea how many Hail Marys exist. The selection is very complicated when choosing a certain number and that at the same time is interesting and varied for the public. Besides, I needed to underline the edge that I also sing opera. I sing opera, thank God, and also Wagner and Verdi who had the courtesy of writing prayers to Our Lady, in two operas. I include them because at that point the voice takes a different projection. Among the authors chosen are Luigi Cherubini, Richard Wagner enters, with another optician, in German. Then Giusepe Verdi, another variation, but in Italian, and Gabriel Fauré, in Latin. From there there is a segment with Cuban authors. That’s part of another idea I’m working on. I wish I could do a solo concert with Avemarías or prayers by Cuban composers. That’s where I’m at, because a lot of works often appear in the catalogues, but no scores. Without the music written, it’s impossible. It would be very good to record a record, an anthology, with, I don’t know, thirty Avemariah or something, of all the authors and times.”
Tell me about the accompaniment with a format as unusual as Kronos.
“It’s a trio with a reed format, that is, it has an oboe, a clarinet and a bassoon, and it’s run by Analiet Presno. The best thing is that we already have together a half-walked path with the repertoire. It’s a format I’m working with a lot and I’m satisfied with the result. In fact, see if reality influences, there are even practical issues with that. It is easier to carry a woodwind instrument than a piano. In some places, especially if there is no audio, that sound is much more powerful, even than a piano, not to mention that there is not always piano everywhere. Now, speaking in absolutely musical terms, I really like the loudness that that format provides. Girls are very competent and I like the way they understand the music and adapt that they possess.”
There is another project of yours that I am very interested in addressing, but, about realities, what is it like to be an artist of the bell singing in Cuba?
“It’s very difficult, because first things don’t work out. We all know that no work here is actually paid for. Imagine then everything that comes with a concert, which is the most elementary expression to show what you do. At least one pianist must be hired. I can’t tell a professional to do it out of friendship, because if he does it out of friendship, then he doesn’t eat. You have to pay him, because the pianist lives off it. So you have to pay me so I can then pay the musicians I use. The necessary copies of the scores must be printed for rehearsals. You have to take care of the wardrobe, count there shoes, dresses, accessories, suits, ties, ornamentation that that can wear… All of that costs a lot, a lot of money. Because, besides, when you stop on a stage, sing this music, you stop being human, you’re like something out of somewhere else and the audience needs to see something beautiful, different. There also sums the bureaucracy when it comes to paying, taxes, anyway, there are diabolical mechanisms. If you relate what you pay to act with everything that costs to organize it, in money and in encouragement, it’s completely incoherent.”
Let’s talk about your habaneras record then.
“The original idea was of my repertoristic teacher, Raul Iglesias, who is unfortunately no longer among us. The intention was to gather the material of several lyrical habaneras to make a concert. Then, over time, I kept searching and searching and in the end a huge number of songs appeared that was very interesting to record. In fact, the album is a triple album and has forty-two habaneras recorded.
“A first record is entirely dedicated to Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, with sixteen themes. By the way, that gives me even some rage, because I have still had some last minute and that I hope to record sometime, because they deserve it. Also, music that is not recorded does not exist. The other album was made with the overseas habaneras, they are about a dozen. There is, of course, Georges Bizet, there are works by Pauline Viardot-García, by Manuel Penella… Of course it includes Sebastian Iradier’s The Dove with that arrangement they say Bizet plagiarism to make Carmen. Anyway, I forget one, but it’s a selection of the most important thing that’s sounded out there. One of those habaneras is made of two voices, where I sang with myself, a little to evoke and pay homage to Esther Borja’s famous record.1
“The third album is by Cuban authors, it is about fourteen or fifteen songs, and there it is from La perla to Ignacio Cervantes, Ernesto Lecuona, José Marín Varona, Félix Guerrero, Arturo Bonachea, anyway…
“The album was made with a small label from the City Historian’s Office called La Ceiba. It was recorded in 2013 and for various reasons could not be published until now. Thanks to Eusebio Leal, whom I consider a person of honor, because he honors his commitments, we have him there kept as a treasure, to include him in all the activities for the Fifth Centenary of the City. Eusebio Leal, whom I thank very much for all his help, is one of the great ones responsible for that record. In addition, that date also coincides with my twentieth anniversary of an artistic career. It must be said that there are habaneras that are going to sound very modern there, there is a lot of Cuban air throughout the album. You will find texts by Federico Urbach, by Julian del Casal…”.
“In the year of recording that album, my daughter Alicia Victoria was born, by C-section. Because it was premature, and I had some health problems, that cost me an income of about two months. But there came a time when I couldn’t take it anymore, I can’t ever sit still. I organized everything in such a way that I left the hospital in April and by mid-May we were already recording. The entire album was made in eight sessions. I am joined by two pianists, who are Frank Paredes and Leonardo Milanés. Paredes has a touch like more European and Milanese sounds very Cuban, so we de-armor the repertoires. I worked very comfortable with everyone. The engraver was Orestes Eagle, a tremendous professional and a great person; everything flowed very well and very fast. So, to answer you, yes, I’m satisfied with the result. But every time I hear it, I think I’d sing it better now. And if not better, at least different.”
Have you thought about crossing into non-lyrical genres?
“Yes and no. I’ll explain. Right now I’m on a plan I don’t want to reveal. I tell you when it comes true and it has to do, besides art of course, with economic matters. On the other hand, although it is difficult to lead a career that makes enough of you, it is also not so easy for me to abandon the lyrical. Look, without flaunting and in all modesty, but I’m going to be in the books of opera history in this country. I premiered in 2013 The Wandering Dutchman and made it three days in a row. It was a test of fire, but I think it came out with all the dignity of the world. Well, in the world you get paid what that’s worth and you rest one day through between each show, and not here. Anyway, it was done, and then I also premiered Tannhauser and the Wartburg poetic tournament. The two works are by Wagner.
“Before, there was a little more opera in Cuba. Now the same thing doesn’t happen. When there are those who conduct the opera in Cuba, with knowledge of the cause and respect for the talent we have in the country, I hope and look forward that we can, with a minimum of conditions, do something worthy, like what the Cuban public deserves and expects.”
To finish. What characters would you like to make that you’re still missing?
“Especially Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. There are little things of mine, in here, that are not exhibited, that I would like to put in that character. The other is Anna Boleyn, by Gaetano Donizetti and the other is Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini. Those are the characters I’d like to make. I hope he makes it.” Ω
1 The album is called Esther Borja sings to two, three and four voices and was recorded in 1955. Numidia Vaillant and Luis Carbonell accompany her to the piano. It’s a gem of our best song. (Author’s Note).