An impish smile greets me as baritone Georgiy Derbas-Richter and I start our online interview. He is the newest member of the Dutch National Opera Studio - a two-year traineeship for young singers and répétiteurs that aims to prepare them for an international opera career through a combination of workshops and professional experiences. Derbas-Richter comes from Ukraine, and although he is relieved to be in a safe environment himself, he admits to listening to news from friends and family back home all day long. 

He was born in Kryvyi Rih, a city winding around the confluence of two rivers and claiming the unusual title of "longest city in Europe" as it stretches over about 100 kilometres. Music was not necessarily a central theme in Derbas-Richter's home – his father was the director of an iron-ore mine and his mother a geologist. Nonetheless, his constant singing as a child did not go unnoticed. When he was about five, he heard an old man sing a folk song at a market and the little boy, mesmerised, sang this tune for days on end. Guitar lessons started when he was about seven, with a teacher who truly inspired him, and when he received the gift of a karaoke set, there was no stopping him anymore. 

By 2016 he was studying at a music conservatory and was lucky to have Professor Valery Buimester as his first mentor. The baritone, named "National Artist of Ukraine", quickly recognised the potential in Derbas-Richter's voice and encouraged him to pursue a singing career. More importantly, he taught the young singer how to find the soul of music and the spiritual and emotional connection with it. Often, the young singer would ask him: “Tell me please, what am I, a baritone or a tenor?” and Buimester would wisely answer: “You are Georgiy, and never forget that!”

Georgiy Derbas-Richter
© Laura Cnossen
Joining the Chamber Choir of Kyiv under the direction of Mykola Hobdych in 2017 gave Derbas-Richter the opportunity to be a soloist and travel on a few international tours. He has remained a member of this ensemble, on and off, and this experience culminated in a performance at the Ravenna Festival with a programme of new compositions for a cappella chorus by the eminent Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. 

By the beginning of 2019, then just 22 years old, Derbas-Richter felt he was ready to study German, as he fervently wanted to enrol at a German music conservatory. This was also to do with the fact that his mother is of German-Jewish decent. At some point in the future, he tells me, he wants to delve into ancestral research to really find out about his family history. Four months at a language school in Cologne followed, but he still was not proficient enough to be accepted at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule. Coronavirus hit around that time, and he returned to Ukraine, where he finished his Bachelor of Vocal Studies in 2020. 

Even if an audition for the Teatr Wielki Polish National Opera Academy was successful, an official invitation never materialised, possibly due to the pandemic. However, the Academy's coach and advisor, Eytan Pessen, who in the meantime had become a good friend and career mentor, encouraged Derbas-Richter to also apply to the Dutch National Opera Studio. It took Derbas-Richter some time, however, before he could find the confidence to do so. First came a rewarding summer at the Saluzzo Opera Academy, where he sang Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, then two rounds of auditions to join the Hannover Opera House Chorus – an experience that involved a trip from Kyiv to Hannover ripe with unfortunate incidents, including missed connections and his luggage being lost, but also with the kindness of strangers who helped him get to his destination – as well as more auditions at the Volksoper Opera Studio in Vienna and the Wroclaw Opera House in Poland. 

In Poland, he tells me, he was accompanied by his girlfriend Alona, also a singer, and decided to buy for the two of them two little bells as a love token they could carry to help them feel connected even when apart. In view of the events of the following months and the separation that awaited them, it was almost as if by premonition. Alona returned to Kyiv and Derbas-Richter, after further urging by Pessen, had finally found the courage to apply to Dutch National Opera and travelled to Amsterdam. 

Only a few days later, on 24th of February, he woke up in his Dutch hotel room to over 100 messages from his family and friends in Kyiv, telling him about the invasion and the bombings. That was just the beginning, as in the following days and weeks, he had to hear harrowing stories from his loved ones, forced to flee the city on foot for hours in the freezing cold of winter.

For Derbas-Richter, meeting the Artistic Leader of the Dutch National Opera Studio Rosemary Joshua just the following day after this rude awakening was pivotal. “She saved me, like a mother, she is so special to me,” he recalls. “She helped me deal with life in this very unique situation. I had so many doubts about myself being in Amsterdam and not with my family, and she reassured me that if I am here, then that's where I belong.”

Rosemary Joshua made it possible for Derbas-Richter to stay in Amsterdam and start at the Opera Studio in April 2022 – a full four months earlier than planned. “I am so thankful for being able to be here and to actively participate in the Studio,” the young baritone tells me. 

A normal day starts with a 30-minute warm-up in one of the studio rooms at the opera, followed by coaching sessions or workshops, including a weekly movement and dance session and drama coaching where, he tells me, “I can explore the soul and the spirit of the character I am studying.” In his short time at the studio, he says, “I already feel so much more confident on stage,” adding: “It's not like in seven months I will be Pavarotti, but my breathing and technique have opened up my voice.”

With the Studio's help, he has found accommodation in a private home where he was warmly welcomed, and, professionally speaking, he has had the opportunity to participate in a concert programme, to make a main stage debut in a gala concert in June, and to be cast as the Second Witch in Dido and Aeneas. For the upcoming season 2022/23, he is already cast as Morales in Carmen and will be a Hunter in Rusalka. In addition, he is exploring repertoire such as Korngold's Die Tote Stadt and Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, as well as some Baroque repertoire. “I am still trying to find my own voice and style,” he confesses.

But what about when he is not singing? “I have a passion for playing chess online and I love to start and end my day with a couple of games,” he says enthusiastically. “I love the strategic thinking involved and the total concentration it requires. It relaxes me very much.” 

Rounding out his love of music, another passion is “singing and listening to Ukrainian folk music and to movie music from the 1930s and 1940s, the one with real instrumentation, not the computer or electronically generated stuff,” he says. “I think I have a much older soul. I respect the work of composers who work endlessly at perfecting a melody or phrase that will exactly express their intent and not just bang out a tune on an electronic instrument.”

There is little time to indulge in another hobby, but he does have one more passion: embroidering Russian Orthodox icons using the cross-stitch technique, which he tells me is an interest that dates back to when he was a ten-year-old boy. But nowadays, every bit of extra time goes into learning Dutch and perfecting his English. “I love to read dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, and now I am reading to develop my English with an app where you can tap any word and it gives me the meaning in Ukrainian.”

This summer, Derbas-Richter is looking forward to exploring more of Amsterdam and its surroundings, as well as visiting his girlfriend Alona, who is now taking part in an Erasmus exchange programme in Karlsruhe, Germany. They both hope that a solution can be found for her to stay either in Germany or the Netherlands. His parents are now safe in Ukraine, but there is always the worry of what may happen next. 

Having just turned 26, Derbas-Richter concludes: “I have found so much willingness to help around me, but I don't want to be a burden to anyone. I don't want to sit on the shoulders of other people. I am OK now and I will make my way.”

With his charm, talent, and dedication, he is most certainly on the right path. 


----

With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

Find out more about Georgiy Derbas-Richter:

DNO Studio Instagram