Inna Demenkova
© Eduardus Lee
The Dutch National Opera Studio is a two-year program for young singers and accompanists, preparing them for an international career in opera. It comprises workshops, courses and coaching, and it gives young artists a chance to work for a renowned opera theatre right at the beginning of their career. Russian soprano Inna Demenkova is one of the talented singers who were chosen to take part, but not all classical musicians have been in love with music since they were children. Demenkova recalls hiding under a bed, in her home near Moscow, to avoid having to go to music school as a child: only her mother’s perseverance convinced her to keep pursuing a musical education. 

Perhaps it was the wrong choice of instrument: she never quite liked the piano. Then, with the teenage years, came the Moscow Regional Basic Music College, where she graduated in 2015, and this is when love for classical music and opera really made its way in her life. After another few years at the Victor Popov Academy of Choral Art, she decided that this was indeed her path and started pursuing it with commitment and passion.

Passion seems to be the driving force behind Demenkova’s art. As a high soprano, she feels the strong appeal of drammatico roles, such as Puccini's Manon Lescaut. “I truly hope that's where my voice will be going as it matures,” she tells me. “I also know that I need to grow into these roles with time: right now I prepare lighter parts – Adina in L'elisir d'amore, Norina in Don Pasquale, Ilia in Idomeneo – but I sometimes find it hard to contain the passion and the energy that I would like to express”. She mentions her Russian temperament and how it shapes her approach to music. Her Mount Everest, the role that feels closest to her heart, is Violetta in La traviata. “I feel her pain and I love the way the character evolves, from a light spirited girl who has fun and loves men to a deeper awareness and, ultimately, her ruin”.

When discussing the skills necessary to become an opera singer, Demenkova’s first word is “responsibility”. A singer must have a great sense of responsibility, focus all their energy into the process and become deeply involved. “You have to put your soul into it,” she says. This can be pursued only after a solid learning of musical theory and solfeggio. Moreover, it is important to have good communication skills, to deal with agents, directors, conductors, theatre managers. “Just a beautiful voice is definitely not enough,” she tells me.

The pandemic hit when Demenkova was still in Russia. With the lockdown, the theatres and concert halls had closed and she had to resort to all sorts of odd jobs: manager of an advertisement agency, promoter, deliveries, anything. It was a very hard time for her and her family. From the point of view of her career, she really missed the relationship with the public: “I love to sing in front of a live audience, to get feedback, to feel their energy, which gives me energy in return”. She seems to be an artist focused on communication: all her efforts to improve and grow in her mastery of singing are aimed at her relationship with her audience. “My voice should be the tool that touches people, that makes them forget about their routine and puts them in touch with art,” she says. 

After her first experiences in Russia and the pandemic, she understood the need of some European experience, so she participated and won a prize in the “Tenor Viñas” competition in Barcelona. She joined the Dutch National Opera Studio shortly after: it was a perfect opportunity to expand her horizons in Europe and increase her visibility. It was also her first time living away from her mother country, and the move was not completely smooth. Of course, as any young person away from home, she missed her friends and family, but there were also cultural differences to be reckoned with. “I realized that Europeans like small talk. I was shocked. Everybody saying ‘hello’ in the theatre, everybody! All the time!” Her Russian directness and pragmatism had clashed with European mellow formality: she is still getting used to it! She also mentions how in Russia the opera productions tend to be classical, tied to tradition: she was surprised to see how central European audiences welcome modern, innovative productions, something she has now also learned to enjoy. 

Inna Demenkova
© Joep Hijwegen
Her life at the Dutch National Opera Studio is filled with rehearsals and coaching. She particularly values the language coaching: “I think an opera singer must learn at least three or four languages – Italian, of course, but also German and French”. The Studio, she feels, is giving her good opportunities and a high level of training and learning.

Demenkova was immediately involved in the work that opened the 2021/22 season at the DNO: a new production of Der Zwerg, by Alexander Zemlinsky, where she sang the second maid. “I enjoyed every minute of the process: the incessant rehearsals, which took up all of my time, the direction rehearsals where we had to roll in the mud, the music of this opera, not so well known, the story and my relationship with the rest of the cast. They were all wonderful”. Her youthful enthusiasm is palpable; it comes through in the excitement of talking about her first experience on the stage in Amsterdam. Channelled through her instrument, it may prove to be a strong asset in the first stages of her career.

Her immediate future plans include two competitions: the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo, Norway, and the first round of the Neue Stimmen competition, which will be held in Amsterdam and in many other cities around the world, with the final in Germany in March 2022. In the meantime, she is very busy at DNO preparing and rehearsing the role of Annina in La traviata, which will be on stage in December – a first step towards her Mount Everest. Later in the season, she will be the title role in the 2019 contemporary opera Denis & Katya by Philip Venables – a story based on real life events: two teenagers ran away and documented their adventure on the internet, all the way up to their death. For this role Demenkova will venture into the mezzo tessitura, but she is adamant that her voice is soprano.

When we talk about the benefits and disadvantages of working as an opera singer, Demenkova gives a philosophical answer: the same aspect represents both the best and the worst that this career has to offer, namely, travelling so much around the world. In her desire of exploring the globe and singing in the best theatres, she looks forward to visiting different cities and meeting different people. She dreams of performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Arena di Verona, but at the same time, she knows that this will be an obstacle to building a family and having stability. I suggest that many successful opera singers do seem to have found a way to have a beautiful family – Anna Netrebko’s name comes to mind – and this seems to make her a bit more hopeful.

At the end, I ask her what the word “success” means for her: what would give her the feeling that she has finally made it? Her answer was another confirmation of her emotional commitment to her audience: “When somebody tells me that my singing changed their life”. A very strong guiding principle for a young artist indeed.

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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.

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