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Pittsburgh-produced CD-ROM raises the curtain on great Bulgarian opera tradition

A musical treasure

Wednesday, February 07, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

It's a modestly sized European country touching an important sea, where the joy of singing infuses everyone and everything. Music holds great respect in its villages and cosmopolitan cities. Its professional singers have been among the world's most celebrated over the last century.

It's not Italy, but Bulgaria.

Frank Fischer, who spearheaded a project to preserve Bulgarian opera, turns up the volume on one of his favorites in the Pittsburgh Opera library. "What brought me to this project was that most people outside of Bulgaria perceive most of these singers to be Russian." (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

A country the size of Ohio, Bulgaria was once home to 10 opera companies, produced many top talents such as Boris Christoff and a rich tradition of indigenous composers.

But the history of opera in this region remains clouded and unknown to Westerners, especially Americans. Under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire from about 1300 until 1878, and then bullied by the Soviets as part of the Eastern Bloc, Bulgaria has been a forgotten land in classical music, its culture overshadowed by others in the eyes of onlookers.

"I suspect that when a person sees an opera singer's name with a Slavic-language ending, they assume that they are Russian," says Donna Buchanan, an ethnomusicologist specializing in Bulgarian music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There has been a general tendency, up until 1990, to lump all the countries of the Eastern European Bloc together because they shared the same political system. But there was much variance between them."

A better understanding of Bulgaria's operatic traditions is taking root right here in Pittsburgh, where an opera buff has taken it upon himself to change our perceptions of Bulgaria and to open up a lost chapter of the golden age of singing to thousands of opera fans worldwide.

Frank Fischer, a former president of National Record Mart and a longtime member of the Pittsburgh Opera board, has compiled an extensive collection of historical information, pictures and, most importantly, 45 hours worth of recordings of Bulgarian opera singers performing selections from popular and native operas, complete with audio files giving the correct pronunciation of names. It's all packaged on the CD-ROM "Opera From Bulgaria," selling for less than $10.

"This is a labor of love for me," says Fischer, 65, who paid for the research and trips to Bulgaria with his own money. "What brought me to this project was that most people outside of Bulgaria perceive most of these singers to be Russian."

Bulgaria has its own strong vocal tradition, affording great respect to folk and opera singers. "Singing was something that everyone did," says Buchanan. Even during the years of Soviet occupation, the state government supported cultural centers, festivals, competitions and conservatories to perpetuate the art of singing. "It's in the air -- we were brought up doing it," the Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova once said on the subject.

In fact, it was a misunderstanding about Dimitrova that sparked Fischer's interest in Bulgarian opera. At a reception he hosted in 1993 for incoming Pittsburgh Opera Center artists, a Bulgarian singer not only pointed out he was incorrect in calling Dimitrova Russian instead of Bulgarian, she invited him to visit her family in Europe. Fischer seized the opportunity.

"When I went to Bulgaria in '95 I was impressed by the singers," he says. "I spent time at the Academy of Music and really got to know Bulgarian opera fast." When he decided to start the archiving project in 1996, two resources aided him.

One was Bulgarian National Radio. "During the communist period it had recorded nearly everything, and it furnished me with all the material I wanted," he says. The other was his wife. Fischer met Yonka Nikolova Fischer at the opera in Sophia. The couple lives in Pittsburgh, but spends three months a year in Bulgaria.

Not that she doesn't feel at home in Pittsburgh. "It is the oldest Bulgarian community in the U.S.," says Pat French, president of the West Homestead-based Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center. The center opened its own extensive music library to Fischer and then funded the pressing of 2,000 of the CD-ROMS (Bulgaria's Values Foundation also supported the project).

It's a matter of pride for the local community. "There are a lot of children of Bulgarian Americans who don't know that much about the opera," French says. "We felt that was something we had to do. Our goal is to perpetuate and preserve Bulgarian culture. It's a good thing for Bulgaria, too; a lot of these countries were closed for so long and they have so much."

If relatively unknown, Bulgaria's talent pool is deep. The group of composers the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians names as "the classics of Bulgarian music" (Vladigerov, Pipkov, Nenov, Stoyanov, and others) produced many pieces. Early works by Emanuil Manolov ("The Poor Woman" from 1900) and Gerogi Atanasov ("Gergana" from 1917) gave way to Vladigerov's "Tsar Kaloyan" (1936) and Stoyanov's "Salambo" (1940). But Western bias and Bulgaria's seclusion kept this music from entering the Western canon.

"There was just as big a wall around Bulgaria keeping outsiders out as there was keeping us from understanding them," says Fischer. Singers such as soprano Ljuba Welitsch and mezzo-soprano Elena Nicolai who performed outside Bulgaria were simply swept up into a racial melange called Russian. It still happens today -- star mezzo Vesselina Kasarova is from Bulgaria, not Russia.

Then there's the case of the famous bass Christoff, who is often considered Russian. One reason for this is that he became famous for the role of the Russian Boris Godunov. But another factor is that he spent his professional life outside of Bulgaria for political reasons. "Boris Christoff, the greatest Bulgarian singer, never sang one opera in Bulgaria," says Fischer.

Fischer's goal is to bring this sort of information to everyone, "to present the contribution of Bulgarian vocal artists to the musical world," he says. "It was meant to be an audio encyclopedia ... [But] I was uncertain about what format to put this in. Then I ran into Mike Richter and used the CD-ROM."

A retired engineer, Richter first envisioned audio encyclopedias in 1995. "[Fischer] contacted me after hearing of some of the other volumes in the audio encyclopedia," Richter says. "[His] tone was somewhere between doubt and thinking me a charlatan. I sent him some discs, he became intrigued and we initiated the program." Between the two of them, "the investment is close to a man-year, with the bulk of it on his part," he says.

Much of that work was convincing the Bulgarians to trust this intense American bent on getting his hands on some of the country's musical treasures "I had to convince them that I was for real," says Fischer. "When the Iron Curtain opened up, a lot of Westerners went in and took advantage of the cultures."

"The remarkable achievement was his selling the Bulgarians on the concept," says Richter.

Buchanan, the ethnomusicologist, occasionally hears nationalistic sentiments from Bulgarians. "I have a friend who says, 'It is time for Balkan people to take on Balkan people.' But this kind of effort would be embraced by Bulgarians." Indeed, Fischer's disc has received support from everyone from the Minister of Culture of Bulgaria to singers there.

"I had to establish a certain amount of trust -- after that happened all my doors were open," he says.

The discs, which were manufactured in Bulgaria, are distributed at and are also available with a donation to the Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center (call 412-461-6188). But the effort is more a philanthropic and educational one, destined for "libraries, music institutions and Bulgarian embassies," says Fischer, who is now developing a second volume. Bulgarian National Radio will receive $1.75 of each disc sold.

The CDs only operate in computers, rather than conventional CD players, but that's not an obstacle to Fischer or Richter. "Today's schools and libraries are well-equipped to handle CD-ROMs, so the 'market' is not limited where it matters most," says Richter.

"It's opening up things that down the road will be important," says Fischer. "We are hoping to stimulate people from other countries living in America to do the same."

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