Talk to opera experts and they’ll tell you the genre is not always kind to its female characters. As Charlotte Higgins wrote in the Guardian, opera may be the most misogynistic art form. “Katya (Kabanova) drowns herself, filled with guilt for her adultery. Isolde dies a transcendental love-death. Tosca flings herself off the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. And on and on and on,” writes Higgins. And then there’s Tatyana, the protagonist in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and my one hope for a feminist diva.
In the show based on Pushkin’s novel of the same name, beautiful bumpkin Tatyana meets city slicker Eugene Onegin at a country dance and immediately falls in love. Shy but certain, she pens a letter to Onegin professing the depths of her infatuation. Onegin, however, is not moved. The superior playboy, embarrassed by the letter, puts the moves on Tatyana’s sis Olga at the dance. Needless to say, Olga’s fiance Lensky is not amused. So he challenges Onegin to a duel. Flash forward to a few years later and Tatyana is quite literally the belle of St. Petersburg’s balls having married Prince Gremina. Onegin sees her and realizes he actually does loves her. But Tatyana, even though she admits she still loves Onegin, stays true to her new spouse, and sends Onegin packing. So is Tatyana one of the rare leading opera ladies who actually uses her agency to promote feminist ideals?
“No. She is not feminist.”
That’s the answer I get from Natalia Pavlova, the woman who has been cast to play Tatyana in Spoleto’s production of Eugene Onegin. She says I’ve got it all wrong. Tatyana isn’t a feminist. She’s a dreamer.
“She’s a woman who in first act she’s dreaming every time she meets her love, Onegin,” says the 33-year-old Pavlova who became a professional opera singer just four years ago. “She wanted him and then she didn’t see his, I don’t know how you say, he’s fake.”
Even though Onegin eventually comes around and returns Tatyana’s feelings, Pavlova says her character’s decision to stay with her husband is less about feminist ideals and more about loving her husband as well.
“It’s a different type of love because she love him too. It’s difficult for her, but she can’t break his heart,” says Pavlova. And that’s the great tragedy of Tatyana’s life. She’s a woman torn between two men — one who broke her heart and one who made her famous. When Pavlova puts it that way, it looks less like a girl power opera and more like a telenovela, which is not a dig at the latter. In fact, I’d argue that that being the case, playing the role of Tatyana has to be even harder for Pavlova. Of course, as I come to find out, I’m wrong about that too.
Pavlova grew up in Russia and found herself performing in local theater productions as early as age five. But she says she never wanted to be a singer.
“In college, I played piano in Moscow Conservatory. I studied to be a chorus conductor,” she says, “But I never wanted to be a vocalist. Then I met my teacher and he told me that I can sing. I have a good voice but my voice is slipping and if I study I will sing. So he said you need to try to sing.”
And that was that. Using her typical hard work and determination, Pavlova says that within a month she’d up-ended all of her career plans and had set her sights on being a singer. But even still, opera was far from her aspirations.
“Before opera I sang with the orchestra in Moscow. I sang old music, like Vivaldi,” she says. Then one night she turned on the TV and saw famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. “He talked about his life and I think, ‘I must try.’ I say to myself, ‘Yes, you must try,'” she says. Next thing you know she’s traveling around the world starring in a variety of operas from Anne Frank to The Letters.
That’s kind of how life goes for the plucky Pavlova. She puts her mind to something and she does it. And that’s the same approach Pavlova brings to the character of Tatyana. While she spends hours rehearsing with her voice coaches, Pavlova says that when she takes the stage she’s neither here nor there but in some other place fully embodying the character.
“When I’m on the stage, I’m thinking about my personality, about Tatyana, what she is thinking, feeling, and these give me impression to sing,” she says. She understands who the character is in that moment. No one is telling Pavlova what to do once she’s on stage, she just finds her mark and brings the character to life. And somehow she embodies both women, a dreamer and one hell of a female role model, feminist or not.