It is a very long way between lockdown in Cardiff and rehearsing in Texas for the opening of Houston Grand Opera Dialogue of the Carmelites in Texas. For soprano Natalya Romaniw that journey, from the cancellation mid run of Madam Butterfly at English National Opera in 2020 to February 2022’s opening of the Poulenc opera, has been more than resuming what was a career already in the ascendancy.
The Swansea-born singer of Ukrainian descent first came to my attention at Cardiff Singer of the World when that rather unusual cross between a tv talent show and audition opportunity for singers to be seen my lots of casting directors and recording agent plus some die-hard opera fans did uncharacteristically well for a Welsh contestant. (The automatic entry of a Welsh singer means they are in the final 20 but few have progressed beyond that). Natalya was different and although she now feels she should not have taken part at that stage in her career she went on to be signed by Houston Grand Opera, having completed her studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Understandably Natalya prefers to talk about the roles she has sung with great critical and popular acclaim in recent years; whether that is Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Garsington and the Scottish and Welsh opera companies (the latter oddly one of the very few times she has sung in her native Wales since her student performance days, but such is the oddity of opera casting in the land of song).
After Houston she returns to Europe to make her debut at Opéra de Rouen in Jenůfa and then she is back to the UK for the rescheduled Rusalka at Garsington in the summer and a yet to be officially announced title role debut with the Royal Opera. It does not take a great deal of sleuthing to work out the role and from recent auditions we can expect to see her performing soon in similar large roles on Continental European stages.
Tosca with English National Opera (images Lloyd Winters)
Madam Butterfly, English National Opera (image Jane Hobson)
Tatyana with Roderick Williams in Eugene Onegin at Garsington Opera
Mařenka in Bartered Bride with Brendan Gunnell at Garsington Opera
Mimi in La Boheme at English National Opera
Tatyana, Eugene Onegin at Welsh National Opera
Cardiff Bay remains home for Natalya, and she enjoys how it has attracted like-minded people to live there. “There is a community of singers and of orchestra members, actors, a flock of talented people and, I love it, it is a creative hub. When I go running I meet people I know from other countries, people who I know from here.” It is of course just as well because the Covid first year of lockdown brought down the curtain on her career and that flat became the centre of her world. It was March 2020. “There were six shows left and we had performed six when the theatre closed. We knew it was coming and we could see the seats were beginning to empty but didn’t know when we would close. Those last two shows were my best singing – I decided I would give it everything as I had nothing to lose.”
Natalya came home to Cardiff Bay as the scheduled work fell away including another major role, Dvořák’s Rusalka at Garsington Opera for which she had planned to stay in London and prepare. Also cancelled were the Albert Hall Proms. The cancellations continued, including the title role in Puccini’s Tosca at ENO. “That really broke my heart,” she said. “I didn’t know if the industry would survive or what it would be like when it did come back and for some people their careers have just ended that is tragic. “
While the bills still had to be paid she knew her career would survive. “I have been very lucky. I was established enough to luckily have other things under my belt.” It also did not stop critical success, winning Young Artist of the Year at the 2020 Gramophone Classical Music Awards and Singer of the Year at the 2020 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. The release of her first CD, Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul, with pianist Lada Valešová, followed.
The Slavic Soul was most appropriate as the young Natalya loved with her Ukrainian grandfather and grandmother and her police officer mother in Swansea. Her mother still lives in the city. Her Ukrainian grandfather sang and played the accordion. She took part in Welsh National Youth Opera performances in 2006 while still a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and in 2009 the Cardiff Singer of the World tv opera competition in 2009 reaching the Song Prize. While Natalya doesn’t “do” regrets she feel she maybe should not have taken part in that competition when she did. “No regrets – there’s no point, everything good and bad helps shape the artist you are. I do wish perhaps that I hadn’t done Cardiff Singer of the world at such a young age but that hasn’t affected my career.” She was 19.
Travelling to Houston before Christmas (with the changes to testing rules bringing travel challenges) was more like visiting old friends and people she calls her Texas family – plus – plus warmer and sunnier weather, warm swimming pools rather than cold Welsh showers. Training had taken Natalya to Houston Grand Opera’s young singer programme between 2012 and 2014. On returning to the Europe lots of roles followed including Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Garsington Opera, Welsh National Opera, for which she won the Wales Theatre Awards singer award, and Scottish Opera; her European debut in L’amico Fritz for Den Jyske Opera; Lisa in Pique Dame with Opera Holland Park and National Theatre Brno and the title role in Janacek’s Jenůfa with Grange Park Opera.
After the pandemic-forced lull, during which included Natalya contracting Covid, some work did happen including singing in a streamed gala alongside fellow Guildhall alumni Bryn, Terfel a Prom from Hoddinott Hall, and Mimi in an ENO’s Drive & Live staging of Puccini’s La bohème. With live performances in front of audiences resumed, this summer she sang Alice Ford with Bryn in Verdi’s Falstaff at Grange Park Opera and did get her chance to sing Tosca with ENO but in an open-air performance in South London. “One reviewer criticised my costumes, particularly a dress and blazer in act one, not realising we were wearing our own clothes. There wasn’t a budget for costume!”
Speaking of her own clothes, one benefit of lockdown was the new trim Natalya having shed a stone through healthy eating and exercise. The experience of lockdown also gave her something of a wakeup call and triggered a new lifestyle regime of exercise and diet. “It was too easy to put on weight in lockdown. It made me think about my health and the sort of lifestyle, moving from hotel-to-hotel room, eating badly. I thought, ‘when do the excuses end’. It was also easier in the lockdown being at home and there were no pubs to go to! I’m more aware of balancing exercise and eating although I am not an angel.”
She got herself a calorie counting app and a personal trainer putting her through her paces through Zoom “I know myself well enough to know that I needed motivation – he was like a checking in point – and I went down two dress sizes. It had become a nightmare with gowns. I had smaller gown, medium gowns and I thought I am not going into the next sizes.” The new regime meant some gown alterations.
Obviously talented and very hard working, Natalya also puts some of her success down to be intuitive about the music industry, knowing what is happening around her, the trends, and roles, how not only to survive (as many do not and some certainly have not during the Covid shutdowns) but to thrive. Modestly, however, she says she never really expected to have such a successful career and is very aware of the problems for young singers particularly when they come out of the somewhat cossetted world of musical colleges and the big hard real world confronts them. As she points out, gone are the included coaching and singing lessons, the support network, the accesses prestigious musical schools enable. While she did attract scholarships she believes the step between college and the outside world is one that needs to be given far greater attention. Also, while Houston is in some ways like a second home, the life of even a leading principal can still be one of much travelling and a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
“My ambitions are to have an international career and most importantly to be happy because without happiness a life on the road can be quite hard. I’ll spend Christmas in Houston with my American friends and Texas family,” she said. Then it will be more travel. “I’m quite proud of everything I’ve achieved so far, a lot of hard work has gone into my career, but I have some exciting house debuts I’m particularly excited about.” Having said that she admits, “It is not going to be easy living out of a suitcase again”, she adds, “especially after 18 months of the comforts of home”.