By Tom Lady
No, not that Georgia. We mean Georgia, the COUNTRY— the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus Mountains by the Black Sea. This was the birth place of Nino Sanikidze, head coach of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, a program that has been nurturing and developing superlative vocal talent for many years, as well as raising the next generation of pianists/coaches.
If you’ve been to even one Opera League seminar, you know Nino. She accompanies one or two young artists who enchant us with selections from forthcoming operas. She often lectures on opera as well.
Nino’s Georgia is an ancient land steeped in rich cultural history and a deep musical tradition. It’s a place where five is the age when kids enroll in a music school and then get tested every four years to check their progression.
This is the culture Nino knew as a child. Growing up in the capital city of Tbilisi, five-year-old Nino began her musical journey on the piano at the Tbilisi Special Music School for Gifted Children, the same school where her sister went and her mom taught. Nino’s idols were her teacher, Nodar Gabunia, the legendary composer Gia Kancheli, still practicing in Europe today, and Zachary Paliashvili, whom Nino describes as the “Georgian Aaron Copland.”
Nino and her sister parlayed their finely honed talent into scholarships at the University of Northern Iowa. After receiving her doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, Nino auditioned and joined the Young Artist program at Washington National Opera, where she met Plácido Domingo, its general director. In 2006 Plácido invited her to Los Angeles to head up LA Opera’s Young Artists Progra.
What does she like about working with him? “His generosity as an artist and as a person are so harmonious,” she says. “He’s humble and hard working and precise. He’s someone who spends time honing his skills even if he doesn’t necessarily need to,” Nino said. She adds that the way he makes music is “organic and pleasurable.”
Nino describes being the head coach for the young artists as “part musical, part admin, part whatever else.” She oversees the artists’ development process by deciding who should study what, when, and with whom.
No two days are alike. “Lots of playing, lots of rehearsals,” she says. The repertoire is always different. Billy Budd today, Lucia tomorrow. Dress rehearsals can yield hundreds of notes to review and research into the wee hours. Indeed, setting up this interview, one was struck by emails from Nino time-stamped at 2 am. “Another day at the office,” she says.
Approximately 450 aspirants applied to Young Artists Program this year, a record number, of which six or seven eventually made the cut. Most Young Artists already have a master of music degree and will take an average of two years to complete the program. When they move here, they get a weekly stipend for living expenses and are permitted to sing freelance gigs if and when possible. As part of their development, the Young Artists receive coaching and lessons, and often cover and perform roles in mainstage productions at LA Opera.
Uniqueness is the chief quality Nino, Josh Winograde (senior director, Artistic Planning), and Plácido look for during the lengthy audition and selection process. She stresses that while other young artist programs are based on specific vocal needs, LA Opera wants someone special, so they don’t rely solely on auditioning. So they keep an eye out for talent wherever they go, especially at festivals and Operalia, Plácido Domingo’s annual World Opera Competition for young singers.
The biggest challenge Nino has with the Young Artists Program is that “they seem to think repetition becomes redundant. No such thing,” she says. She talked about the “terror of the five-year-olds,” in the Georgian musical tradition where a student practices over and over to develop perfect pitch and tone while they master the scales. “Practice the scales until the scales are afraid of you,” she quotes a famous musician.
With so many “tentacles” as she puts it, including her role as prompter, does Nino have a favorite part of the job? “No,” she says unequivocally. “I love it all,” she says with a pure Georgian beam. “It’s a dream come true.”