Kami Bordet-Sturla (photo Latifa Messaoudi)

Kami Bordet-Sturla: To Speak, to Sing, to Feel Armenian

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YEREVAN — Last November 23, the young French mezzo-soprano Kami (Camille) Bordet-Sturla played the role of Orpheus in Gluck’s opera “Orpheus and Eurydice” (directed by Vram Karapetyan) at the Yerevan Opera Studio. She is not only a young singer with a wonderful voice and artistry, but also a true friend of the Armenian people. It has been a little more than a year since Kami got acquainted with the Armenian people and culture, but she has learned to speak Armenian fluently, as well as to read and write. Our conversation below also took place in Armenian.

Dear Kami, at first you studied history and political science, then also in an art school. After all of this, how did you become a singer — and such a good singer?

Thank you very much for your comment! My story with music started very early. I was a creative child: I was painting, writing, singing, I wanted to be an actress. We used to live near Dijon, Burgundy, where I attended a special school program and sang in the church every weekend. Then I learned the basics of piano, harpsichord, flute… Music has always been present in my life, but although there are many musicians in my family, they are not professionals. My father is a doctor and my mother a social worker. In their opinion, I had to study something “serious;” the possibility of becoming a singer didn’t even come to mind, so I chose the traditional path. Everything was interesting to me, especially the subjects that helped me understand the world, such as history and political science. When I was 13, I watched a documentary about Afghanistan that affected me so much that I decided to become a journalist to direct documentary films about far-away countries. When I was admitted to the Paris Institute of Political Science, I was scared of not being good enough and thought to myself, that I should focus on my studies: I dropped all of the artistic activities I was doing. But I was not happy, something was missing in my life. I was going to school with people from different social backgrounds, in a very Parisian atmosphere, some of them had a lot of money, some of them had been determined to go into politics from a very early age. This was unusual for me, and I was not feeling comfortable in this atmosphere. In the fourth year, I had to start working for a company, I discovered what it felt like to stay eight hours straight in front of a computer, to keep quiet and respectful while facing a boss whom I completely disagreed with, and I hated it. I felt that if I kept going in this direction, maybe I would be very successful and earn a lot of money, but I would never be happy. So I tried another way. I entered the National Superior School of Decorative Arts in Paris, while finishing my master’s degree. Once my master’s degree was completed, and since I had a little more time, I decided to go back to the conservatory. Gradually I realized how much I loved to sing, and my interest for the stage returned. On stage, I feel free: it is similar to life, but without limits: everything is possible, every sensation is multiplied. It is an incredible feeling. That’s why I then went to the Basel Conservatory.

You mainly have sung in Baroque operas, in less staged works. Is it your choice or is it what suits your voice?

Both. My family has always listened to a lot of Baroque music, and I naturally went for that style. At the same time, since I’m a light coloratura mezzo, I feel very comfortable in the Baroque and classical repertoire. It is important for producers to know the identity of the singer and to offer appropriate roles, and so far, baroque music has brought me luck. For example, last summer I started working with the famous Catalan baroque conductor Jordi Savall and I was accepted into a French program that helps young singers to sing in front of important people and find a job. I sang with them the role of Nero in Handel’s “Agrippina,” which was a fantastic experience.

Kami Bordet-Sturla

Andrea Bocelli has said: “An opera singer is like an athlete before the match.” Is he right?

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One hundred percent! I agree in different ways. Most singers have to nurture a very healthy lifestyle (sleep and eat well, stay away from alcohol and smoking, etc.). Of course, there are exceptions, but it most of us can’t mess up. Singing, like sports, requires an excellent understanding and control of our body and mind. In addition, singing is a result of an important muscular work that, like memory, must be trained to remain healthy. On a psychological level too, singing and sports are similar. The world of music is not easy, especially when you didn’t walk on the usual tracks. Since I started to study professionally later than others, it seems to me that I have to overcome more challenges to achieve my goals, because I am about five years late. Like athletes, singers have to be very strong mentally also. We must learn to manage failure, to fall, rise again, never give up, until the light finally shows up.

It is true that opera’s audience is mostly older people? How can opera in the 21st century appeal to the young?

This is a very good question, and I think about it a lot, because I do not have a proper answer. I think that, maybe, the first step is education. Music is not well taught in traditional schools, at least in my country. Opera is the deepest, the most precious form of Western music. It does not mean that it has more value than other styles, but from all points of view (harmonic, rhythmical…) it is more developed, therefore more complex. Even as a professional musician, who listens to classical music all day long, I know that I can understand ten percent of it. Someone who is just discovering opera can probably get two percent of the composer’s intentions. This is a huge problem and it happens in every field. The more educated people are, the richer their taste is, and more likely they are to go towards more complex artistic forms.

On the other hand, we should not be “polite” with opera. While respecting a composer’s wishes, we have to adapt opera to our time and bring out the elements that speak universally. Despite texts or themes that may seem old fashioned, the main questions raised in the plots are ageless. I like directors who build bridges between the music of past centuries and our reality, allowing me to feel close to the characters and their problems. For example, when I was working on “Orpheus” I always tried to make the story talk. What message, what metaphors, what symbols are embedded in this story? What does Hell represent, what does it symbolize? What does teenage love feel like? What does it mean to fall in love for the first time, to do anything for it? And so on. This way my work becomes much more interesting, because I start to imagine, dream and finally, I become creative, so that in my turn I can build a bridge with the audience.

You speak several languages. How did it happen that you mastered Armenian, even in writing?

This is a very beautiful story. I started to learn Armenian just before the last war. I did not know anything about Armenia at that time. Since I wanted to learn German, I started using a website that connects people who want to learn languages. I met a German-speaking Armenian guy, who started to talk about his country and to show me words in Armenian. I was struck by the beauty of this alphabet. Progressively, we got closer and I wanted to learn more about his country, which seemed very interesting to me. I loved this very rich and diverse culture, mixing Russian, Middle-Eastern, European influences. A few days later the war started. I do not know why, I felt very strongly your people’s pain and I could not stop thinking about what was happening in Armenia. I started learning the alphabet, then gradually the language. At some point, I thought that I should definitely find a connection with my work, because I couldn’t eat, sleep, I was losing interest in music. I started to dig into the Armenian music, among which I discovered Komitas. In Gordes, in the south of France, I won a song contest thanks to Komitas’ Lullaby, that I performed a cappella, improvising. I try as much as possible to perform Komitas at my concerts. During the war, I tried to get in touch with many Armenians on the Internet. I wanted to show to your people that they are not alone. Accidentally, I met an Iranian musician who spoke fluent Armenian. Since he was also a foreigner, it was easier for him to explain the rules of the language to me, and he taught me Armenian. The reason I learned so quickly was that I am impatient, so I practiced every day, trying to speak as much as possible without fear of making mistakes, writing every new word in a notebook to learn it later… To this day, I have been using this method. I learnt to write with the book Eastern Armenian for English Speakers. And since I have studied art, I am very sensitive to lines and shapes, my eye gets it quickly.

Soon, of course, I decided to go to Armenia. It did not make sense to learn so much without getting to know the country. Last January, I came to Armenia for the first time, on my own. I got extremely lucky, met incredible people, among which this guy, with whom I had only spoken online, who was there to pick me up at the airport and found an apartment for me, without asking for anything in return. Back then I also met my boyfriend. Our relationship started in English and little by little I insisted switching to Armenian. Now we almost always speak Armenian.

I think the Yerevan performance of “Orpheus and Eurydice” was a great novelty in the history of Armenian opera, with a brilliant international staff. We were very satisfied, what about you?

Of course me too! Orpheus is a very big and interesting role. It was the first time I had to play such an important role, and it was even more interesting that it happened in Armenia. There were so many challenges: there was very little time, few rehearsals, I was working in another language, in another culture. But adapting to a different context was very interesting on a work level and on a more general life level. I was thrilled by the talent of my colleagues. Working with Vram, the director, was also a pleasure, because he gave us a lot a freedom. It was a real exchange: although giving his point of view, he was always open to hear whatever we had to say. I do not know if I would have such a collaboration in Europe. Finally, I was very moved during and after the performance. The positive comments I received from the audience warmed my heart, and I am thrilled to hear that you enjoyed our work.

What new projects do you have in France when you return?

There are a few auditions coming; I am preparing the role of Dorabella in Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte” for next summer. I’ll be singing Handel’s “Messiah” with Jordi Savall. I have a few concerts in Gordes earned thanks to the competition, I am working on a program around French composer Déodat de Séverac’s work with my pianist. I would also like, finally, to write the show I’ve had in mind for a long time now, about my first trip to Armenia and Artsakh, but so far I haven’t found enough time. As you can see, I am not close to getting bored.

They say that a person who comes to Armenia once wants to return constantly.

I know. I am coming back for New Year’s Eve!

 

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