November is here!

In honor of the two-month-a-versary of my time in Russia, I have started a list of

~*Things I have had to Get Used to in Russia*~

  • Garderob/Гардероб: In most public institutions, there is a cloak room where you are expected to leave your coat, umbrella, etc. It’s very convenient, especially when I actually remember to retrieve all my belongings. What strikes me is the intensity with which people regard NOT leaving your coat in the garderob….the other day, I made the mistake of popping into the conservatory medical center without taking off my coat, and was immediately escorted out by the shocked medical personnel! Also, when I was attending a concert last week, I wanted to keep my coat on because I was cold, but the ushers didn’t allow me into the auditorium until I had given my coat up. Also, in many institutions, the cloakroom gives out mandatory covers for shoes to keep the floors clean:

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  • Russian Applause: I love the way that Russian audiences applaud. When the applause begins, there is the normal chaotic scattered clapping, but after a while, the whole audience settles into a collective rhythm as the bows continue. There is something very connected and organic about this…
  • Exact change: In Russia, the customer is not always right. The cashier ladies at all grocery stores seem to have a chronic lack of change, and sigh profoundly and mutter under their breath if you give them a large bill for your purchases. I live in perpetual fear of angry grocery lady clerks.
  • Purple hair: Purple would be the last color I would expect to see on an elderly lady, and yet here I have seen many dames sporting the hue. Perplexed, I asked my hairdresser about this, wondering if maybe they all bought a dye that went terribly wrong…in which case, they should stop buying it, haha. But she just laughed and answered that it’s been a trend since the Soviet times, and older women think the color is preferable to grey:   


  • Cell Phones: The decorum for cell phone use is very different here. In a lesson, it’s perfectly normal for a professor to pause the lesson every time they get a call, or for a student to have their phone ring and leave the class to answer it. 
  • Herring: Herring…I still haven’t gotten used to the taste of herring… There is a popular dish here called “Селедка под шубой”, or “Herring under a fur coat,” where the herring is skillfully hidden under a blanket of vegetables and beets but then comes out in the bottom layer to surprise my unsuspecting tastebuds. I want so desperately to like it, but I guess it will take some more time: 



The first snow of the year:

photo 1   photo 2


On October 25th, Miss Kondina’s students presented a recital of arias and arts songs set to texts of Alexander Pushkin, the beloved poet and literary icon. We sang at the Белый Зал/White Hall of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, a gorgeous space, with excellent acoustics:

Белый 2 Белый 1

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(<<I Remember the beautiful moment…>> Arias and Romances of A.S. Pushkin and his contemporaries)


The last week in October was the International Conservatory Festival Week, a weeklong series of concerts and events with musicians from all over the world:

photo 2

I sang the premiere of a new work with the St. Petersburg Conservatory Chamber Orchestra in a concert honoring the 450th year since the birth of Shakespeare. We performed a set of three songs called “Wedding Songs” (texts taken from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”), written by a member of the composition faculty, Ekaterina Ivanova-Blinova. The pieces were upbeat and fun to sing and featured three soloists: soprano, percussion and electric guitar. I can only describe the style as a mix of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous string orchestrations with rhythmic and melodic elements of Elvis or the Beatles, complete with the electric guitar humming in the background. Hopefully I can get a recording! I was happy to sing in the Малый Зал/Small Hall named after Glazunov, especially since it will be closing for renovation sometime this school-year: 

Глазунов 2 Глазунов 1

photo 5 

(Beautiful flowers given to me by the composer) 


This past weekend, I participated in an Art Song competition called “Romansiada” in Gatchina, which is about 50 kilometers outside St. Petersburg, and the home of the Gatchina Palace (commissioned by Catherine the Great for one of her favorites):


It was fun to hear all of the Russian art song and folk repertoire sung by the contestants, including the famous “Дорогой Длинною”/”Those were the days”, which had the audience clapping and singing along. Here is a youtube rendition I found that reflects the Russian stage esthetic of sparkly lights and all that jazz: 

I sang Alabiev’s “Соловей” (The Nightingale) and Shishkin’s song “Слушайте, если хотите” (Listen, if you want) and was delighted to win 3rd prize. Here is a picture of my diploma, and also my friend Daria and myself after the performance: 

IMG_0688     photo 1


Last week I was walking home after a long day and felt a wave of homesickness, for which I then found the obvious remedy: 


As I was sitting down, it struck me that the remedy didn’t really make sense, since I rarely eat Mickie D’s at home… but there you go. 


The days are continuing to get shorter! I am 99.9% a morning person but even for me it is getting difficult to wake up early: 


Translation: Morning is whenever I wake up. 


Opera, the gym, the metro …but mostly opera.


I signed up for Planet Fitness (or Планета Фитнес) near my apartment as a preemptive measure against seasonal winter blues…the days are getting shorter! Also, I want to eat as many pirogi as I want.

I like to attend fitness classes and work out in a group. The trainers here come into class, don’t introduce themselves, and get right to work. They always play American music, so if I close my eyes it almost feels like I am back home in the USA….if it weren’t for the trainer yelling at me in Russian, of course:

Trainer: “LUNGES!! 25 MORE!!”

Me: “ughhhhh”


Me: *pretends not to understand Russian*


I performed in Tchaikovsky’s opera “Iolanta” this weekend in the conservatory’s Theater of Opera and Ballet:


Iolanta is the story of a young princess who was blind from birth, but had this kept from her for her entire life. Her father the king ordered everyone to never let her know about her misfortune: she did not know about sight, colors, light… Iolanta, feeling that she was missing something in her life, thought that her eyes existed only to cry. To make a long story short, a noble knight encounters Iolanta, spoils the secret by telling her about sight, and ignites in her the desire to see. She is cured by a doctor, marries her knight, and everyone rejoices. Yay, happily ever after!

I played Brigitta, Iolanta’s friend/lady-in-waiting:

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To be involved in the shows here, you have to learn the part on your own (you can get coachings with the opera staff) and then show up to the first rehearsal memorized. There can be several people going for the same role, and we all take turns singing musical rehearsals and running staging sessions.

During this process, it’s all very vague as to who will actually be singing in the performance…in fact, I didn’t know I was going to perform until two days before the show, when I saw my wig/makeup call for the orchestra dress rehearsal! 

Here is a press release advertising the performance:

Such an awesome experience! I don’t have a picture from our actual performance, but here is a picture from a previous run of the same production, so you can see the other costumes: 



I enjoyed seeing Verdi’s “Otello” in Mariinsky II, the latest addition to the Mariinsky theater venues. It was opened last year, and has amazing acoustics and very unique architectural design:

Mar II 3  MarII

I can’t possibly have a blog post without mentioning food, so here is the mid-opera snack my friend Daria and I had after act II of Otello:

IMG_0592 IMG_0591 IMG_0589

The story is so long and tragic, it definitely warranted some emotional eating to alleviate the sadness. Spoiler: everyone dies. 

Some more shots inside Mariinsky II: 

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The original Mariinsky Theater is also gorgeous, and I can just feel all of the history when I walk in…many composers had their works premiered here, including Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov:

Mariinsky mariinka

ST. PETERSBURG SUBWAY (not the restaurant)

I don’t have to commute to the conservatory, since I am lucky enough to live ten minutes away on foot. However, I still use the subway to get around, and it is quite an experience. The metro is located very deep underground because St. Petersburg was built on marshland and required a lot of digging to get it on solid ground. This results in very loooooong escalator rides:

metro 2 

Some of the stations are very elaborate and beautiful, like Avtovo Station:

Avtovo Station, Saint Petersburg, Russia tourism destinations

(Nerd alert: Avtovo station reminds me of Moria, the dwarf kingdom from Lord of the Rings. ^_^)


Yesterday marked the first month of my time here, September 1st to October 1st. It is going by so fast!


I have been making the acquaintance of the neighbors around my apartment, among whom are several older babushkas who, after looking me up and down, feel personally responsible for advising me on how to dress warmer. Since it is only September, I imagine this will only continue into the winter months. The other day on the stairwell, I had such an encounter, but this time the babushka asked me, “I hear you singing sometimes. Are you going to apply for that TV show, The Voice?” I tried to explain that the Voice is for pop music, I sing opera…etc etc. She was not convinced.


I have a one-on-one discussion session about the history of Russian vocal music with the head of the Art Song department, Maria Germanova, once a week. She is a pianist, singer, and Phd musicologist, plus an incredible story-teller. We started by talking about ancient Russian chants, folk music, and will continue on to talk about romances, opera, salon music, soviet-era composers and modern composers.

I am taking voice lessons with Olga Dmitrievna Kondina, a coloratura soprano who is a “заслуженная артистка России” (Honored Artist of Russia) and “народная артистка Росии” (National Artist of Russia) for her many years as a performer and soloist with the Mariinsky Theater. She is a beautiful singer, but also a warm person with a great sense of humor. She often pauses my lessons to tell me anecdotes, or to tell me about her vocal journeys. She was actually a violinist before she was a singer, and graduated with a degree in violin before she became a vocalist. She was discovered by the vocal faculty at her conservatory when she volunteered to sing a piece with the orchestra she was playing in. They needed a soprano and mezzo, and the orchestra director turned to the ensemble and asked…”So….who sings?” Ms. Kondina volunteered, a voice professor heard her, and the rest is history.

Here is a video of her singing “Casta Diva”:


I went to see Britten’s War Requiem performed at the Концертный Зал Мариинского Театра/The Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theater, played by members of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra, the Mariinsky’s professional chorus, a childrens choir, and three vocal soloists. It was an epic affair, made even more so by the presence of the conductor, Valery Gergiev:


The audience loves him, there was a palpable shift in the applause and a general sigh of admiration when he came out on stage. This reaction was definitely well-deserved, the concert was very powerful, ranging from beautiful, reverent pianissimos to huge moments when the entire ensemble was involved. What an emotional, thought-provoking work.

The concert hall was built relatively recently, first opened in 2007, and the wooden architecture of the interior makes for some spectacular acoustics. The walls are lined with wood, but are shaped in a way that creates a flow in the room:

Zal 2 Zal 1

(Disclaimer…not my pictures! I love Google Image!)

On my way home after the concert, here was my view of the Conservatory, across the street from the Mariinsky Theater:

IMG_0576                 IMG_0577

St. Petersburg is beautiful at night…it is probably good that I enjoy the darkness, since I am going to experience a lot of it! The sun hibernates here, and in December there are days when there will be only a few hours of daylight. Something to look forward to, with some Vitamin D in hand.


I didn’t get to see as much this week as I would have liked, because the season took its toll and I caught my traditional fall cold. On the plus side, it was yet another Russian adventure, this time into the land of Russian homeopathic medicines. Nina Nikolaevna cured me quite quickly with various remedies, including mint oils for the throat, lemons, teas and juices, and a particular remedy which can only be described as sticking cotton swabs drenched in Russia’s version of VapoRub up my nose. It was amazing. I am going to take a suitcase full of the stuff back home!


I have visited several churches here in town, and am delighted with the range and beauty of the singing. One of the churches I visited first was the St. Isidore Cathedral:


The church was completed around 1907, originally intended to host an Estonian-Orthodox parish. It was closed during the soviet era, but is now renovated and working. I really enjoyed hearing their choir, and recorded the Cherubic Hymn:

Another site I visited is the Kazan Church at the Valaamskoye Podvorye, which is affiliated with the Valaam monastery:


They sing in an ancient liturgical style, which is called Znammeny chant, with all-male choir. It is very solemn and beautiful:

Below is a recording from a CD they released a few years ago, different style but just as beautiful:


The other day, I was finally able to visit the Sennoy Rinok, the local market, which is only fifteen minutes walk away from my apartment. The season is perfect for shopping there right now, and it was really a feast for the eyes:

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Speaking of feasts, I visited a local bakery and tried pirogi with my new friend Maya, who also did a Fulbright here in St. Petersburg a few years ago. They tasted just as good as they look:

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First Weeks


At the passport checkpoint, the customs officer spent a considerable amount of time checking out my photo at all angles. I suppose having blonde hair, big glasses and 7 years since the passport photo make an understandable difference. Plus I’m pretty sure I forgot to brush my hair on passport-photo-taking day back in 2007.

Here is a dramatized version of our exchange:

Officer: Is this you?

Me:…yes… (visions of being sent back to the USA)

Officer: Take off your glasses.

Me: *takes them off*

Officer: Smile.

Me: *awkward, worried smile*

Officer: Hmmmm. Please show me another form of identification.

Eventually, I was allowed into the country. This was the first thing I saw when I walked out of customs:


It’s like I never left! I was met at the airport by a wonderful friend of a friend, Zhenya, who immediately took it upon himself to lug my enormous suitcase. We had to buy an extra bus ticket for my luggage.

We took the scenic route and I was able to get my first glimpses of the city. It’s beautiful to see the historic buildings, the bustle of people and the babushkas lining the streets selling various produce from their dachi (dacha=country house outside the city—many people have them to escape city life). Not really related to anything, but while I was on the bus I saw a man walking down the crowded street with a quiver full of arrows and a bow in his hand….not in a carrying case or anything, just out in the open. Russian Robin Hood, да? Not sure why this made such an impression, but I’m just trying to picture someone doing that, say, in the crowded streets of NYC.

Nina Nikolaevna, my host for the year, gave me such a warm welcome, including a wonderful meal of Russian borscht and sour cream. I have a room to myself, with a fold-out bed, and even a piano! The neighbors may not yet realize that they are in for a full year of free, unsolicited opera entertainment.


The first hurdle upon waking up from a jetlagged sleep was taking care of enrollment at the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory, where I will be enrolled in a post-graduate diploma program for the year:


 I skipped around to various offices to take care of my visa, application forms, choosing classes, etc. The system is very different to sign up for classes…in fact, I am not clear that there is a system at all? My enrollment process consisted of an extended conversation with a foreign student office representative. We talked about what I needed from the program…then she would make a phone call to a professor…then we would talk some more…more phone calls to the powers that be, and voila, my class load materialized:

Voice Lessons

Russian Art Song Study

History of Russian Vocal Music

Opera Class

Coaching with concertmaster (concertmaster=collaborative pianist/coach)

I am thankful to Elena Andreevna of the foreign student office…without her, I would still be figuring out my schedule three weeks later. All of my classes relate specifically to the study of Russian vocal literature. Get ready, America, I am bringing it all over to you!

Most of my classes, except for opera class, are private instruction. The average number of voice lessons students receive a week is 3, compared to 1 in American conservatories (and the students here even complain that 3 is not enough!). I think there are plusses and minuses to both systems: the American system encourages independent work and development, but at the same time, there is a lot to be said for having your teacher whip you into shape several times a week. We are also allowed to sit in on other student’s lessons, so I am using that as an opportunity to learn Russian repertoire for various kinds of voices.

The schedule at the conservatory does not really get started until 11am, and can go late into the evening. As someone who used to get up to go to the gym at 5:45am, before work, this feels like perpetual vacation.

The students I have met so far have been very welcoming and curious about me, where I am from, what I am doing here. Several people have asked if I am from Finland, because they notice that although I am fluent in Russian I speak a little differently (and also maybe it’s the blonde hair). I can fake the inflection pretty well now that I’ve been here for a while, but vocabulary and word order give me away!


Paying for tuition at the bank turned out to be a fun little dance. For some reason or another, my debit card did not work to pay the bill, and the cashier at the bank shrugged and suggested that I take out the money in cash and pay for it that way. Now, the ATM’s have a maximum amount that you can take out, and I calculated that to pay the full amount, I would have to make 20 separate withdrawals.

So there I was, for about half an hour, taking copious amounts of cash out of this ATM machine, stuffing it in my pocket, re-swiping my card, looking around nervously…rinse and repeat. Finally I came up to the cash register with a huge wad of cash and made the payment. I made a new friend out of it, Ivan the Sberbank door attendant. After observing my activities for a while, he began to direct the impatient customers in line behind me to the next ATM…. “Please, she will be here for a long time, use the bancomat around the corner…” He chuckles at me now whenever I come into the bank. I am pretty sure he is still telling the story about the crazy American girl who tried to empty the ATM.


I have started to explore the city a little bit, walking around and taking a boat tour. It’s so gorgeous, and the weather has behaved remarkably well. I have been told that September can be rainy and unpleasant, but we have had sunny skies and temperature in the 60s. And by that of course I mean 15-20s, celsius. 

Peter and Paul Church Coastme


In other news, here is the first Russian meal I have made from scratch, the famous Salat Olivier:


I am eating a lot of potatoes, sour cream, and salads dressed with mayonnaise, and still losing weight. Russia is a magical place. I have also had my first experience with Russian fast food at a place called “Теремок.” I had a “блин” (Blini are Russian crepes—very traditional) and mushroom soup:

 Fast Food 

Here is an ad for Teremok:


Translation: “CAUTION! Our food is very tasty!” Excellent work, advertising team! It made me stop by and try it. 


I am so lucky to have this opportunity to spend so much time here and immerse myself not only in Russian music, but also the culture, the atmosphere and the history. Occasionally, just walking down the street, I find myself grinning because I still can’t believe it’s real! Then I notice people staring and try to tone it down…