I sensed a very energetic atmosphere while interviewing young Ukrainian baritone Maksym Nazarenko – currently working at the Dutch National Opera Studio. Launched in 2018, the Opera Studio is a two-year traineeship for talented and promising young artists who are interested in embarking on an international career. According to the programme, singers and répétiteurs attend workshops and receive coaching from renowned Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua.

Maksym Nazarenko
© Eduardus Lee

Bonding with people who have been making music from a fairly early age is one of the highlights of a learning environment: it is exhilarating to talk to musicians your age, sharing perspectives and anecdotes. I would not go as far as claiming there is a 'musician type’ – in fact, there are several, too numerous to be mentioned – but I can easily say that when a group of music-lovers comes together, a characteristic atmosphere is to be experienced. Despite distance and a busy schedule, Nazarenko talked to me at length about his life and his career as a professional singer, and while doing so, both his face and his words radiated enthusiasm.

Admittedly, Nazarenko’s start with music wasn’t exactly idyllic. As is the case for many, music already ran in the family: Nazarenko’s father is a trumpet player and it was the one introducing him to the opportunity of studying music. When asked what instrument he wanted to play, the young boy chose the violin and promptly started to take lessons. This marked the beginning of Nazarenko’s music education, but his violin training soon came to a halt when his teacher left the school. Determined not to give up, he switched to singing lessons – still, things did not go much more smoothly.

“My first encounter with music was at school, but classes weren’t so beneficial to me,” he says. “My teacher didn’t see potential in me and told me I had a bad voice, which rather put me off.” Growing up, the feeling of not belonging didn’t seem to fade. “I didn’t achieve much because I kept comparing myself to my colleagues and that undermined my self-confidence and my performances.” Even so, he never stopped dedicating time to music and decided to attend the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy, the conservatory of Kyiv. This was not an easy period for Nazarenko, who had to juggle college and conservatory, all the while working to pay for his studies. But eventually, something changed.

“It was around the third year of college,” he explains. “I gained renewed motivation.” Under the guidance of a new teacher, well-esteemed Ukrainian baritone Ivan Ponomarenko, Nazarenko found the determination to take his music studies further and resolved to make singing his career. “Ponomarenko’s teachings were essential to my growth. Thanks to him I got rid of my insecurities and made incredible progress. After he died, I started studying with Hennady Kapka. He also taught me a lot and helped me refine my singing, but it was Ponomarenko that disclosed to me the beauty of opera and made me realise it was the right career for me to pursue.” Soon enough, all the hard work bore fruit. In 2019 Nazarenko was a finalist at the Belvedere Singing Competition, an important contest for young singers who want to make themselves known – held in various cities across Europe. This was not only a significant achievement, but also his first time in those European countries.

It would not be long in fact before the baritone had another chance to visit Europe, and more specifically the Netherlands. This time, though, he wasn’t the contestant in a competition: he was in for an open audition to enter the Dutch National Opera Studio programme. Much to his own surprise, Nazarenko passed the audition and became a part of the Opera Studio. This predictably determined a pretty radical change in the life of the Ukrainian baritone, who doesn’t miss the chance to share a funny anecdote from that particular time. “When the programme started, I was still a student at the Kyiv Conservatory. As you can imagine I couldn’t possibly attend both at the same time, so I went AWOL from the conservatory for a while,” he chortles. “Both my colleagues and teachers were quite puzzled not to see me attend classes, everyone was asking where I had gone. It was quite a muddle, but of course then I told them the news and everything got cleared up.”

Now that he has graduated, his double life in between Kyiv and Amsterdam has finally stopped. “Kyiv is a beautiful city, but it was not easy to live in due to my busy, frenzied routine: attending college and working while studying at the conservatory definitely didn’t leave me much time or energy to master my music skills. Finishing my studies at the conservatory and moving to Amsterdam for the Opera Studio has allowed me to keep my eyes on the goal and focus on what matters the most to me” he remarks, placing hands on both sides of his head as to mimic a horse’s blinkers, “which is making music as a professional opera singer, always striving to improve myself.” Of course, this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying life in the enthralling European capital. “Amsterdam is so cool and rich with opportunities. I love visiting museums, meeting friends in bars and strolling around parks.”

Maksym Nazarenko
© Joep Hijwegen
As for the Opera Studio, Nazarenko is absolutely enthusiastic. “Rosemary Joshua’s guidance has been precious to me. She is very scrupulous about details and eager to delve deeper into the characters, to find reasons behind their actions and behind the music.” Joshua’s taste for insightful interpretations has certainly rubbed off on Nazarenko. When I asked him what he valued the most as a performer, he quickly replied that “a steady vocal technique is essential but it has to be supported by a proper understanding of the character, which relies on a thorough analysis of the music and of the character’s thoughts, emotions and motivations. That is why it is so stimulating to work with good directors,” he added. “Just by giving you stage directions they open new scenarios, and through this awareness they help you refine not only your stage presence, but also – indirectly – your singing.”

The baritone’s vivacious yet reflective nature easily comes to the surface while he speaks. One cannot help but wonder then what roles he would most like to dedicate such passion to. What is Nazarenko’s repertoire of choice? I know he took part in the Dutch National Opera’s livestream of Donizetti Queens in Concert, so I ask him about belcanto. “Singing belcanto is very rewarding but also very challenging for the voice,” he observes. “After spending some time working on those roles, I usually feel drawn to Mozart. I haven’t had the chance to sing a complete Mozart opera on stage yet, just single pieces like arias and duets. Yet I feel his music is a real tonic for the voice. However” he adds, “my dream role is Eugene Onegin. The vividness of the character, the proximity to my original culture – that’s what appeals to me. Before covid-19 we were rehearsing Iolanta. I was supposed to sing Robert, but then everything stopped."

As with everyone, the pandemic wasn’t easy on Nazarenko. “I had just moved to Amsterdam and we had to interrupt our work at the Opera Studio. My plans blew up. Of course this was a general experience. It was a tough time, also for us musicians.” Still, the baritone didn’t lose his usual determination. “We were resolute to keep the music going. Some colleagues and I arranged to meet on Zoom and perform together. It was tricky, but a lot of fun!”

Since we have reached the end of our conversation, I ask the unavoidable question: what are his plans for the future? “Now that things are beginning to get better, I definitely intend to stay in Europe for the foreseeable future. There are some interesting projects coming my way, everyone wants a piece of me,” he laughs. “I am not yet sure what I will do, but I am very thrilled to find out what the future has in store for me."


This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.

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