Superstars Charles Castronovo and his wife, soprano Ekaterina Siurina have two children and both are world-renowned opera singers with major international careers, often appearing together.
08 March 2020
image © Michael Pöhn
(Watch this space for more from Ekaterina Siurina)
S: What are you both up to at the moment?
CC: I’m singing a new production of Verdi's I Masnadieri (Premieres on March 8) at the moment in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper. I’m going back and forth in between shows because our 12 and 6 year olds are still in school in Berlin so I’m with them between shows!
Ekaterina just finished recording her first solo album and is now taking a week to visit family in Russia with our 6 year old son Valentino.
S: Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments? How have you maintained a balance between your busy career and having a personal life?
CC: In all honesty, we have not had really any extra time for any downtime, passion projects or even hobbies lately. This is more about our bad scheduling than lack of ideas and wishes! Things get a bit better this summer! When we have time Katerina likes pottery and any kind of art done with your hands. I’m more into doing some physical activity like yoga and working out. About balance, we try our best but I would say this year was unbalanced leaning more on the top busy side.
S: SWAP’ra has been established to try to encourage gender equality in the opera industry. There are several obstacles for women in fulfilling their full career potential, and one of these challenges is the juggle of career and parenthood. But of course, this particular challenge also affects opera fathers. Charles, could you describe the ways in which a busy career has affected you as a father over the years, and if and how this differs from the way parenthood affected Ekaterina’s career?
CC: Great question. First I can say my career has absolutely affected the whole process of being a parent. I have missed quite a few birthdays (always arriving a few days later or having to leave a couple days before). Also have missed many holidays and karate tests and everything else kids need their parents around for. Of course I’m working hard to provide for my family but it’s always a huge sacrifice. But as I mentioned briefly in the little speech at the Opera Awards, I feel that the family suffers and sacrifices the most for their singer parents and partners.
I do think in this case that it affects women even more in their careers. First because when Ekaterina had our children she had to take a pretty long time off to recover and also to spend as much time with the newborn baby as well. In this career you need to show up as often as possible or people tend to forget about you! That’s not a criticism of the business.. it’s just the truth. And with there always being more women singers then men, let alone decent tenors, you can see how the pressure is higher for women. I sympathize with my wife a lot about this subject because I never want or have asked her to stop singing. She has a natural talent that deserves to be heard and witnessed. But I know it can be a struggle for mothers in particular to balance wanting to perform and fulfill the need to accomplish your passion but also provide and take care and nurture your children and family.
S: Do you both think women’s career progressions differ from men’s?
CC: I can only speak of my experience but I was always on a slow and steady career and development path. Even when I wanted to go faster, it didn’t really happen. So I accepted it! Haha! If we speak about vocal development then I would say women mature and develop earlier than men.. as in most other things in life!
S: How have you both managed your careers alongside your family commitments? How has this changed as your children have got older? What have been your lifelines in this juggle? (Helpful grandparents/nannies/boarding school/etc?)
CC: Ekaterina has taken most of the load with caring for our children. They are sometimes with me alone while she works but more often it’s the other way around. We do have help every once in a while from family but not too much. Also we have had nannies that have been helpful. Our 12 year old is of course more independent already and that is helpful but I can’t say it’s not without its own particular challenges..!
S: How have you managed each other’s schedules in order to manage your family’s needs. Have you taken it in turns at working away for example?
CC: I work more often than Katerina in general. She doesn’t like to go from job to job constantly as I do. Or let’s say I can accept it a bit more and she prefers to work a great production and then spend some time at home doing normal things! If I’m home for more than two weeks I’m already thinking about the next project and role. I guess I’m quite relaxed as a person so I need to get out some emotions on stage! But there are times when I was home while she worked. Or for example when she sang in Sydney for 5 weeks I didn’t work at all and just hung out with the boys having fun all over Sydney while she rehearsed!
S: Have you taken your children out of school for long periods and home schooled/tutored them in order to have them with you when working abroad? Please tell us how this has worked for you?
CC: Our 12 year old Alessandro was actually home-schooled his whole life up until last year. He just started 6th grade going to an international school that is in English and German in Berlin. That gave us flexibility but we didn’t think he was getting all the structure and interaction he really needed. So in the end I think it was more convenient for us but we decided he needed those other things more.
S: Have either of you taken your children and a nanny/au pair abroad with you for a production when the other has been working/away?
CC: Yes, we have taken nannies/au pairs with us on jobs and staying home while the other was away. Of course it means more coordination and more flight tickets and an extra room and all of that.. so, sometimes a daunting task.. but there have been several times where it was completely worth it because of the location of the job and what experiences we could have all together there. The trickiest part is finding the right nanny who is flexible and can roll with the punches as they say.
S: Have you noticed a change of attitude towards women in opera during your career? (In all areas of the industry, not just with regards to parenting) Do you see any difference in these attitudes in different countries?
CC: I have seen, what I believe, is a more accepting tone to the things women have had to go through in this career in general. I would say things slowly but surely more in a positive direction. The difficult part is that some of the issues that are practically norms in the business cannot necessarily be changed because of any of us, and that is the fact is in this business is that we must be present and in the game. It goes for the most famous singers and the least famous singers. Even if one of the most well-known singers will stop for a year or two, the opera world will not stop, it will continue without them. The cast must be filled and the show must go on.. so, for example, when a mother takes a well-deserved break after having a child for a while, there are sometimes issues with coming back and getting into the game again. This varies of course for individual casting directors and individual singers, but there is a tendency for there to assume that that singer would want to do a lot less after starting a family. And that may be true, but again, it depends on the artist. Long answer, but we can see that this is sometimes an issue. But in general I think things are always slowly moving to a more accepting place.
S: Women are considerably under-represented in opera when it comes to directors and conductors. Do you observe any differences in the way women in these roles work, or the vibe of a production led by women?
CC: I've worked with several women conductors and directors and have had a great time creating performances with them. And I do see more and more women in these positions which is for me wonderful. For me, Art is the absolute equalizer...! Men and women cannot compete in art in my opinion.. art is art. There are incredible female and male singers.. we cannot compare with each other. That's what I truly adore about opera. So for me, it absolutely makes no difference who is conducting or directing as far as gender goes. Everyone has a chance to have an engaging vibe, a supportive vibe, a passionate vibe and yes, even a crazy one.! Definitely not unique to either gender.! Haha!
S: What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
CC: My BIGGEST wish for the opera industry to help artists with families: PLEASE, we do not have to rehearse 6 to 8 weeks for a new production.! This is really a huge issue with every singer I know. It is not because we are lazy or do not want to work very hard on the details of the musical score or the dramatic intentions of the production..
the reasons are numerous and absolutely true:
a) It is very tiring and by the time the premiere is arriving half of the singers either get sick or have spent a lot of energy and voice on rehearsals and arrive to the premiere pretty worn out. That goes even for experienced singers who just want to give their best to the show and their colleagues, it is easy to find yourself fatigued by premiere time.
b) It requires the singer to be away from home for long periods of time. Even if there is a chance to fly home for a weekend of a random day off it is a long time to be out of the daily routine of family life. The short trips home also add to the basic fatigue of the rehearsals etc.
c) It is extremely expensive in most cases to stay in a hotel or furnished apartment for 2 months while paying all of your normal life expenses at home. Like taking a second mortgage most of the year. And depending on the city, it could be quite an expensive second mortgage.
d) And even with a lot of respect to the many great directors in the world.. usually experienced and driven singers can find the spark and intention of a production with strong direction in the first couple weeks.. after that there is a lot of nitpicking and repeating of things that is just tiring. Many times it is felt that a certain production needs more rehearsal time.. but I find it always because of the technical aspects of the show, sets, lights, etc.. and not the artists doing the staging or creating the drama on stage. So, perhaps the technical team can rehearse with extras for two weeks and get that set and then the singers could rehearse when that is all ready. Could be an idea.
e) It is hard on children and a family for any parent to be gone for longer periods of time. I wish I could have changed that many times in my career but it is nearly impossible because of the nature of this job. But, this is a part we all wish could improve.
I do think it could be wonderful if every opera house had some sort of day care or children activities planned for artists with children. That would really be amazing. And not just a room with a babysitter watching that the kids don't hurt themselves while they watch films or play video games, but something engaging like musical activities and other things that get the kids to learn and have fun while parents are in rehearsal of even during performances. This would really be amazing and every singer with kids would want to work at that opera house all the time!
S: What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry is about to become a parent?
CC: I would say to anyone in this career who wants to start a family that they should do it. More positives than negatives for sure. BUT... it is very helpful to make sure you have good support from family and a system that allows you to have some normal time with your partner and with your kids.
S: How has your voice/the roles you are cast in changed as your career has gone on?
CC: My voice has grown and rounded out a bit over the last few years and that has eased me into a few more meaty roles.! I have now sung my first Don Jose and Hoffmann and coming soon are things like Don Carlos, Werther and Carlo in Verdi's Masnadieri.
S: If you could go back in time would you change anything in your career?
CC: If I could change anything it would be that I would just take more time to study and prepare my new roles more slowly. Because of the pace of the career at times I did not have the luxury of taking a few months to a year to really let the role get into my voice and body before I performed it. If I could change anything it would be that.