Classical music: The big voice that kicks up a storm

Elena Prokina has come a long way. From the fields of St Petersburg to Glyndebourne, to be exact.
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Everyone knows the horror stories about classical musicians in Maoist China - the humiliations, mutilations, forced labour in the countryside. Classical musicians in Soviet Russia, we have been led to assume, had a comparatively easy time: bred like racehorses, they were expressly trained to win glory for their motherland.

So the history of Elena Prokina's student years comes as a surprise. "Every October we were sent to dig potatoes in the fields round St Petersburg. The ground was frozen, the weather was awful, everyone got ill." No way to treat a lady? Certainly no way to treat a budding soprano, even if she and her friends did manage to extract some fun along the way.

We're in the Glyndebourne canteen, where it emerges that the man sharing the duty of nursing her 19-month-old son was also sent to dig potatoes round St Petersburg, though the way this couple met was rather more tortuous. Kirill Chevtchenko was a music critic with a ferocious reputation, who was one day sent to review a Traviata where his future wife was singing the lead. "He gave me a rotten review," says Prokina with a grimace. "Not at all," counters her husband. "I merely said she could in time become an excellent singer, provided she got rid of her wonky intonation. Soon after, we ran into each other in a cafe and I persuaded her to do an interview." That interview was never published, but the marriage banns were: now he delivers his reviews across the breakfast table.

But her biggest musical influence was her father. "He was just a driver, with no musical education, but he played the piano and guitar, and had a beautiful tenor voice. What talent I have must come from him. We used to sing together - folk songs, operettas - and from my early years I wanted to be an actress."

They lived in Odessa, once the cradle of the world's greatest violinists, but sadly run down even in the last days of communism. Prokina went at 13 to the local music conservatory, but its fustiness drove her on to an experimental theatre school in St Petersburg where she acquired a unique battery of skills. These included wrestling, yoga, acrobatics, juggling, skiing (an obligatory five kilometres a day) and fencing. "At first I refused to fence, but I gave in when they threatened to take my grant away."

Her musical training was even less orthodox. "For the first year we had to make mimed dramas out of the preludes and fugues of Bach. Only in the second year were we allowed to sing." Moreover, they had to sing while doing classical ballet exercises. "And you must realise that the classical posture - with the diaphragm held in - makes singing almost impossible." But all this paid dividends, as witness her Tatyana in the Glyndebourne Eugene Onegin last year. In the climactic Letter Scene, Prokina was hurled around the stage by the force of her emotions. This was the second time in the space of a few months that she had rocked British audiences: the first was her title role in the Covent Garden Katya Kabanova. These doomed heroines are often twinned in western minds, but she draws a clear distinction. "When I sing Katya, I forget I'm playing a role. But when I sing Tatyana, a familiar figure to every Russian schoolgirl, I'm conscious of Tchaikovsky's art every step of the way."

She was talent-spotted by Valery Gergiev, and pitched in at the deep end. The Kirov was in dire straits, and rehearsal ludicrously short - she had 24 hours to prepare the lead in Prince Igor. The nadir came when a company official announced that she had just seven hours - in his view plenty of time - to work up a different part in the same opera when another soprano fell ill. "As I stood on stage before the curtain went up I prayed to God, and he answered my prayer." Next Saturday she is due to sing Amelia in Peter Hall's production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Prayers may still be in order, but not to a desperate degree.

It's a typical modern irony that Prokina does not sing in Russia. There isn't the money for opera now, and still less in her beloved Odessa, from where the star organist had to decamp to the West because the local power supply was too weak to drive her instrument.

Prokina's dream is to mount a festival in one of the palaces in St Petersburg, and to stage an Onegin free of the gaffes which irked her in Graham Vick's critically-acclaimed Glyndebourne production. Psychological truth, she says, may have been present in abundance, but social truth was missed entirely.

While the select few catch her in Glyndebourne next week, the wider public can get hold of her new CD. Thirty songs by the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere, none of them masterpieces but all marked by a sweet artlessness. And sung with supreme accomplishment.

`Simon Boccanegra': Glyndebourne from 4 July. The video of `Eugene Onegin' is released by Warner. `How Dark Is The Night': songs by Gliere. BMG Conifer 75605 51303 2