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Natalia Pavlova: from Russia with a Love for Italian Culture and Music, also in NY

Meeting in New York with the soprano who lives between Rome and Moscow: her discovery in life that her passion for Italy had become her destiny

Natalia Pavlova (Photo by Lisa Pavlova)


At this newspaper we are never interested in just “putting Italians first”; rather we prefer to talk about the art of those who love Italy and Italian culture, regardless of where they were born.

Opera singer Natalia Pavlova from Moscow, has cultivated an extraordinary love for Italy since she was a child, to the point that fate has partnered her in her passion. Today she lives her artistic career between Russia, Rome and, more recently, also New York.

We met Natalia for the first time in Manhattan, at the house of a mutual friend, very well-known in the world of cinema, and we believed she was an actress. Instead when, in perfect Italian, she told us that she was a soprano who had just sung in New York, her strong bond with Italy, whose language she spoke so well, fascinated us. We met with Natalia Pavlova on a beautiful sunny day in Bryant Park, where talking about her childhood, her family and her career, revealed to us how love for Italian culture is born.

Natalia Pavlova at Bryant Park, Manhattan

Natalia grew up in a family where art abounds and she can boast that among her ancestors was the great poet Alexander Pushkin. In this conversation we talk about music, poetry and painting, but also about the feelings that a young and exceptional Russian artist has for Italy and New York.

Pavlova starts from her family, the source of her art.

“My father, Andrej Shatsky, Maia Pushkina’s son, was a very good musician, pianist and choir director, he made sacred music. He passed away 6 years ago, and unfortunately, I did not have time to make a lot of beautiful music and concerts with him. His father, Valeri Shatsky on the other hand, was a famous pianist and director of the Faculty of Piano of the Minsk conservatory, and his father’s father, Vladislav Epstein, also was a pianist, professor of conservatory in Moscow. All top-level musicians!

My mother, Vera Pavlova, is considered one of the greatest contemporary Russian poets. Translated into more than 20 languages, she has published 25 collections of poetry, two released in New York for Penguin Books. Her poem, If there is something to desire, on whose text I sang the opera for cello and voice at Carnegie Hall, was also posted on New York subway trains for a long time: I am very proud of my mother, she is my pride, my joy, my happiness.

My mother has lived in New York for 13 years; for her it is the most beautiful city in the world, and we own a house in Manhattan, where my younger sister Lisa Pavlova, a very good photographer, now lives. I am here for the first time at a concert at Carnegie Hall. For me it is a real privilege to be the daughter of a poet “.

And Natalia eventually married a poet …

Natalia Pavlova

“Perhaps it was this that led me to meet and marry an Italian poet, writer and artist David Colantoni. With my husband we have a very strong intellectual relationship, precisely because we come from families that somehow resemble each other a lot, we’re both “sons of art” for better or for worse. His father, Domenico Colantoni, sadly passed away in March of this year after a long illness. We remained close to him until the end, and so we became great friends. He is considered one of the greatest Italian painters of the second half of the twentieth century. He was a great friend of Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Ferreri, Giorgio de Chirico, and Robert Altman too, to whom, along with Moravia, he dedicated two major exhibitions in the 80s. On this note, I’d like to point out a book of Moravia’s writings, 450 pages, just released by Bompiani, entitled, I Don’t Know Why I Didn’t Become a Painter in which there are two long essays of Moravia on my father-in-law. Domenico Colantoni was also the author of 5 experimental films that stirred a great cultural debate in the 1980s, and also a veritable dispute between Natalia Ginsburg and Alberto Moravia at the newspaper. Soon, we hope to establish a foundation with the vast material of his production and his documents”.

Natalia continues to tell us about her family as the source of her art.

“I must say that I’m very lucky because I grew up in this family of artists, even my uncle, Sergey Desiatov, my mother’s brother, is the founder and director of one of the major centers of design and contemporary art and architecture in Moscow, Art Play, and he is also an excellent painter. The members of this beautiful family are my most important audience, and when I used to see my grandfather crying during a performance, then I knew that the concert had been really beautiful … “

In the midst of this musical family, her mother urged her towards Opera.

“I didn’t decide to become a singer, rather my destiny decided for me. Although, really, it’s also thanks to my mother, who had initially started out as a musician, and who sent me to a music school. In answer to my question, ’Mom but will I be here until my old age?’ she answered, ‘No my child, up to mine’. So, I started loving music. I remember that at the age of five I danced, and I did a parody of the opera singers I saw on TV, and so my mother heard my voice.

Moscow, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. With Svetlanov State Simphony Orchestra, directed by Vladimir Jurowski.

With my mother we played the pianofour-handed; before I was born, she was sure that she would be a composer. While she was pregnant with me, she would sing in the choir of the Orthodox church and listened to so much music; this was an experiment to give birth to a musical child. I must say the experiment seems to have been successful. She wrote her first poem after my birth, and became a great poet. Meanwhile, we had concerts at home with many musician friends who came to play with us.

I started out as an actress in a musical theater for young actors and started touring half of Europe. At the age of 14 I began to study singing professionally with a professor from Salzburg, Troyanova Gertruda. His students sang all over the world, at the Bolshoi, at La Scala, at the Metropolitan Opera, and then the dream of becoming a singer, finally was born.”

But how did Natalia’s relationship with Italy take root? With Rome? And what about the meeting with her future husband?

“The destiny of every singer and musician is somehow linked with Italy, because Russian music, or rather even the world of classical music, is born in Italy. Above all this connection exists in Russia, it is sufficient to recall the first works of Fomin, Paskevuch and Bortniansky, who wrote serious operas. I will shortly perform Bortniansky’s Alcide and Fomin’s Orpheus in the Moscow Philharmonic, but they all studied in Italy. Glinka even lived in Italy, and his work, “Ivan Susanin” which is the first Russian work, is an absolutely Italian work! “.

Natalia Pavlova with her husband David Colantoni in Moscow

Natalia continues her story about the birth of her bond with Italy.

“While I was studying singing at the age of 14 -the Belcanto technique with Troianova G. M. – I wanted to understand the meaning of the words I sang. So, I started studying Italian on my own. I bought a book called Italian in Three Weeks. Of course, I spent a little more than that, three months, practically all summer! And while the others enjoyed themselves, I studied that book like a mad person, taking notes in my notebook– and so I learned Italian. I really liked this language, its musicality. While I was still studying, I couldn’t imagine that in the following years I would live in Italy and that my family would become part Italian”.

Of course, the Italy of her destiny.

“Here is another twist of fate: when I graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, I took a walk with an Italian musician friend of mine who had come to visit me, and I showed him the city center. While we were walking over a new bridge, he told me that in Italy it was a tradition to make a wish when you are seeing something newly built, so I did … The wish was to continue my relationship with Italy, which fascinated me more and more, in every way.

Precisely from this desire of Italy I thought up and then staged, a mono show entitled “The Letters” at the theater of the School of dramatic art  with the help of Vasiliev, based on the texts of the letters of Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and arias from their works, a show  that from time to time I still perform on stage in Italy.

A month after that walk, at the same point, I met a friend who invited me to participate in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” at the Accademia Santa Croce in Trieste. And here is the magic: with that concert my real story in Italy began. So I performed lots of concerts and operas in Venice, and I studied singing, then in Florence, and slowly I  reached Rome, where I met my future husband. He was introduced to me by our common friend, George Gusev, a talented and virtuoso cellist and composer, who was a student of the great Giovanni Sollima, one of the greatest contemporary composers and cellists. I was practically a guest at his house at Christmas, and I never again left Rome. A fabulous love story!! “

David Colantoni, Giovanni Sollima and Natalia Pavlova

And from that moment also the artistic lives of Natalia and her husband David Colantoni are intertwined.

“My husband then became a great friend of Giovanni Sollima with whom he has a really special relationship. Giovanni generously wrote an adaptation for soprano, or for my voice, of two of his extraordinary works: one, “Viaggio in Italia”, is a new version for voice and quintet, whose world premiere we presented at the International House of Music in Moscow and that I wanted to dedicate to the memory of Domenico Colantoni, from whose archive I projected video material from the 60s and 70s made with Super 8; and another piece from his work “Caravaggio”, which Giovanni, to whom I am infinitely grateful for this gift, rewrote on purpose for voice and two cellos, which I will shortly perform in Moscow at the International Masters of Music Festival, and in the Basilica in Aracoeli with Marco Algenti and Bernardino Penazzi.

Recently I brought to St. Petersburg, to the state Pushkin museum, the “Eighteenth-century Fashion Theater” which reconstructed the era of “Catherine the Great”, the  empress who would invite Italian composers to Moscow. We performed authentic Cimarosa, Maestro di Capella, with Maestro Marcello Lippi, with whom we have a great friendship by now, at that time artistic director of the theater in Pisa, and the Servant Padrone.

Then in Rome we created the Russian festival at Palazzo Poli, which takes up the tradition of the Russian Salons of Sinaida Volkonskaja of the nineteenth century, where Liszt, Chopin played, and where I sang with the excellent violinist and friend Sergey Krylov, who is also very close to Italy, where he has lived since he was 18 years old. His father was a fantastic violin maker in Cremona, and he plays on the violin made by his father. And then most of my concerts at the Moscow Philharmonic with Akademia of ancient music directed by Tatiana Grindenko, is dedicated to Italian music: Vivaldi, Cesti, Gerardeschi , Pavona Cordens, little-known music but beautiful and very important!

Natalia Pavlova in Rome

At the Philharmonic of Moscow we debuted the world premiere of a work by the composer Iraida Yusupova entitled “Genesis” (the Russian-Italian family) based on a poem by my husband David Colantoni and my mother Vera Pavlova, that was a very great success. On this occasion a CD with the music of Iraida and with text by David Colantoni, was produced “.

At this point, while telling us about these concerts between Rome and Moscow, Natalia adds:

“My life in Italy would be impossible without my husband, who strongly supports me also artistically, and whom I consider to be a great artist; and that makes me open the world of Italian art, of Italian intellectuals. So, in this relationship I can develop, I can grow as an artist, not limiting myself only to singing, but in a broader human and spiritual sense, which is the most important thing! “

And how does a Muscovite adapt her life to living in Rome?

“I love Rome, in whose heart I have the privilege of living, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a unique city where two civilizations come together and coexist, like two parallel times: ancient and contemporary, as Fellini so grandly expressed. By the way, a long while ago I did the show, “The Fellini dream that never ends”, with the music of Nino Rota and lyrics from his book “Making a film”. I am fortunate to have sung in the major Roman Basilicas, Rome Auditoriums, Baths of Caracalla, Palazzo Poli etc., etc. Rome always inspires me as well as New York inspires me.”

Natalia at Carnegie Hall

And now there is New York, a new relationship. Will it continue?

“On May 30th, in New York, I performed a concert at Carnegie Hall with the pianist and artistic director of the Narnia Festival, Cristiana Pegoraro. At Carnegie we performed the world premiere of a composition by a contemporary Mexican composer, Venus Rey Jr., titled “Pavlova Sings” based on my mother’s lyrics, in a new version for piano, horn, cello and voice, with the participation of my mother and a very talented Ian Vlahović, who played the French horn, and the cellist and composer Georgy Gusev.

Another link with great Italian art is that my dress for the concert at Carnegie Hall was designed by a young but already important Sicilian stylist, and now my dear friend, named Flavia Pinello “.

Let’s see how Natalia’s relationship with New York is born, through her mother and her mother’s love story with Steven Seymour …

“Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to come here while he was still alive, but New York was always like a dream to me, in fact I had a dream that recurred in different variations: I arrive in the city with my mother and my sister, the beautiful and mysterious view of the skyscrapers, the ocean that even reached the sidewalks, the wind, very fresh and very clean, that purified my soul, destroying my sad thoughts … And here the dream became reality, it was prophetic, and the real city was just like that, indeed this is even more beautiful. I live in the beautiful Manhattan apartment where my mother lived with Steven, where my sister is still living, and I’m talking to you in the fantastic Bryant Park … “

The concert at Carnegie Hall with pianist Cristiana Pegoraro (Photo Lisa Pavlova)

The concert at Carnegie Hall: did it go in the way that you imagined?

“The concert at Carnegie Hall was a very important event for me! I was amazed by the energy and beauty of the historic Carnegie Hall scene, where Rostropovich, Callas performed, and I had a wonderful impression from the New York audience, who welcomed me with so much warmth and a standing ovation. New York is a very lively city in the field of culture, especially of contemporary art, and it has a magnetism which moves you and attracts you in wanting to return.

So I’m planning to come back here next year with other world premieres. Then I invited Iraida Yusupova to write an opera with the beautiful poems from North Street Dithyrambs by Jonathan Galassi, the director of Farrar Straus with whom my husband has a friendship, and she is now working on it. I would like to do a concert with organ in Saint Patrick, and a mono opera, “La voix humaine” by Francis Poulenc with the pianist Leon Livshin, with whom we had, a week ago, a concert at the Pushkin Association in New York together with my mother. It was a tribute to Pushkin, 200 years after birth.

I still have many other projects, my life, with respect to the family, is linked to NY. My mother and my sister, who still live here, my father-in-law Domenico Colantoni, painter and filmmaker, who in the 80s came to New York with a letter of introduction (written by Alberto Moravia, a dear friend to whom my father-in-law dedicated a great exhibition) to meet the great Roger Straus, who was the American publisher of the famous Italian novelist.

Natalia in New York

My husband David Colantoni made a digital work in memory of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy called “The Pietà in Ground Zero” which is also in the archive of the 9/11 memorial artists.
Meanwhile, now I will be touring America with the pianist Daniel Wnukowski in San Diego, and in Florida I would like to meet the contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach. Then I should also go to Canada, where Wnukowski invited me to participate in his international Summer in Collingwood festival. So I’m full of American projects!

In my future plans, however, more than anything else I see so much work with contemporary music and with living composers, because I believe it is very important to have the real relationship with composers, not only in music but also during rehearsals, in life, you feel much closer to music, indeed almost the music itself.

We are preparing the “Magnificat” by Vladimir Martynov with the Academy of early music of the Moscow Philharmonic,Caravaggio” by Giovanni Sollima, who as I have already said, has rewritten for my voice as a new version – and that I will perform very soon. We are also thinking about producing it with the great violinist and conductor of the Vilnius Philharmonic Orchestra, Sergej Krylov ”.

But where does Natalia Pavlova dream of singing?

“Once a spectator after a concert in Milan told me: ‘Brava! But when will I hear you at La Scala?’ Instinctively, I answered, ‘in two years.’ It was just a thought, the first thing that came into my mind. So maybe in two years you’ll see me at La Scala! “

Natalia Pavlova in front of the United Nations

What value does art have today to tackle the problems of contemporary society? In America as well as in Italy or in Russia?

“In New York I saw so many nationalities living together, in fact I felt the beautiful and positive energy that brought them together. I believe that the value of art also serves to bring people closer. Opera and music in general, are a universal means to make people feel kinship, despite their differences of nationality and their conflicts, to create harmony. The great poet Auden used to say, “people are not in conflict, not when the mass sings in unison, but when it sings in harmony”. Unfortunately, the world of today is full of cruelty and violence, but with art, with music, theater, literature we cannot hide this truth, and bring our message directly against all this, against violence! Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, Keats used to say. We can bring a little beauty, love – everything the world needs and misses, and do it in an absolutely real space of music, theater, cinema, literature, poetry. It is simple to say in words but very difficult to put into action “.

In saying goodbye to Natalia Pavlova, a Russian artist in love with Italy, waiting to hear her singing opera in New York again, we ask her who is her favorite composer.

“Among my favorite contemporary composers, surely there is the great Sicilian, Giovanni Sollima, Iraida Yusupova and Vladimir Martynov. On the other hand, if we talk about opera, the strongest emotions come when I sing Giuseppe Verdi’s arias. But it is difficult to choose, also because it does not always coincide with what you like and what you can do better. The repertoire that belongs to you, this is much more important to understand for a singer. I know that when I sing Sollima, or even Vladimir Martynov – another living genius– I feel my ability and artistic freedom grow and paradoxically, the classical and baroque repertoire opens up in a deeper way, I feel it closer, more understandable, and vocally I can support it more easily. “

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