Monday, March 9, 2015

ARTISTS CORNER: Tenor Timur Bekbosunov

Tenor Timur Bekbosunov
Kazakh-American Tenor Timur Bekbosunov makes his Sarasota Opera debut as The Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy tale opera The Golden Cockerel this season. Mr. Bekbosunov has appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Opera Boston, Saint Cecilia Academy, and in such esteemed concert halls as the Hollywood Bowl, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Timur has worked with many composers, including Thomas Adès, Evan Ziporyn, Anne LeBaron, David T. Little, Mohammed Fairouz, Silvano Bussotti, Anthony Davis, Meyer Kupferman, Veronika Krausas, David Rosenboom, Matt Marks, Peter Eötvös, Tobias Picker; and film composers Charles Bernstein, Joel Goldsmith, and Nick Urata.    

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?

A. I am originally from Almaty, Kazakhstan, the former capital of my native country. In the United States, I have lived in Wichita, Kansas, and Boston. I now reside in Los Angeles, the sunny California!

Mr. Bekbosunov and the
Kazakh Folk Instrument Orchestra
Q. I’m sure you could write pages about growing up in Kazakhstan. Can you give us a brief description of what life was like for you there when you were younger?

A. Growing up in the last decade of the Soviet Union, I remember the long lines for essential things, such as bread and bread. I was an early riser, and I loved waking up early and get into a milk line in time because by 8 am all the milk would be sold out. I also recall the extravagant and engaging State-organized holiday events with concerts, musicians, delicious national food, and cultural events.  In addition to attending a public school, I was enrolled in a music school and was tutored in English. Such events were always a nice reprieve from studies.

Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A. My mother was a piano teacher and my grandmother was an amateur singer, whose talent got her accepted into the Moscow Conservatory where she only stayed for one year. Singing was always around me, through my grandmother’s singing Russian folk and patriotic songs and my grandfather’s passionate interest in the Kazakh traditional ethnographic music. The choice to pursue singing came much later, as in Kazakhstan, I was planning to pursue a career in music journalism.

Mr. Bekbosunov in the
New York Premiere of
The House of Bali
at Brooklyn Academy of Music
Q. Did you have many opportunities to sing in your home country while growing up?

A. I attended a music school in the afternoon for seven years where I studied everything from solfeggio to music history. In particular, the concentration was vocal performance, which resulted in choral singing with three different ensembles. The school, which was founded as a private studio, became a dominant force in Almaty, traveling to many festivals around the world eventually winning the top prize in the First Choir Olympics in Budapest, Hungary.

Q. What brought you to the United States?

A. My dad enrolled me in a student exchange program to study English, because it was always his dream to visit the United States. In fact, it was an incredible surprise to me when he revealed his plan. But it was also a pleasant and fascinating surprise as the United States was uncharted territory in our post-Soviet mentality. I thought that I would return to Kazakhstan at the end of my studies, but after being accepted into university, my plans had changed. I was placed to live in Kansas, where I met a wonderful host-mother, who later on became my best friend and an American mom. I was very lucky to have two mothers!

Q. Do you travel back to Kazakhstan with any regularity?

A. My dad still lives in Kazakhstan so I try to visit the country at least twice a year. In 2011, I created and co-produced a large-scale musical project, Silent Steppe Cantata, which commissioned an American composer Anne LeBaron to write a piece for a folk orchestra, women’s choir, and tenor. The project was a three year process and was premiered in the capital of Kazakhstan with support from many U.S. and Kazakh organizations, and I was honored to be a part of it. A short documentary about the project, The Nomad’s Song, will be streaming live on Netflix in 2016.

Mr. Bekbosunov as The Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel
Q. What can you tell us about the Astrologer?  How does he fit into the plot of the opera?

A. The Astrologer seems to function as a narrator as well as a clairvoyant magical being who predicts, foreshadows, and knows what’s to come in the future. There is a great satiric quality to his presence, who with a sly smile, appears to pretend as if he does not know much, but in fact understands everything.

Q. What is it about this role that made you want to take it on?

A. I absolutely love singing unusual roles in different styles. The Astrologer in particular requires a high vocal range. I always wanted to tackle it, as Rimsky-Korsakoff composed it for a voice that he called tenor-alto, and is often interpreted by a high tenor voice.

Q. Beyond the musical work, what other kind of preparation/research work do you incorporate in the learning process?  Historical?  Character study?  

A. Familiarity with Pushkin’s fairy tales as well as doing pictorial and visual research of the era inspires me to look at the role from a historical angle. I then try to bring in my own individual interpretation.

Q. The bulk of your work seems to lie in the contemporary music world. What is it about that type of music that pulls you in?

A. Contemporary music has always been a vibrant source of open exploration, experimentation, and flexibility. There are always hidden corners to uncover once I get passed the harmonic and rhythmic obstacles. Infusing the character into what seems like impossibly difficult musical material, becomes an absolutely liberating force. I feel that I am able to let go completely when I start with a new composition. Contemporary music is a perfect vehicle for singing in different genres and it allows me to express myself without restraint.

Q. Through your work, you seem to be broadening the definition of the term “opera singer” from what most of our audience might be familiar with. Can you tell us a little about some of the projects you have created?

A. Outside of performing in traditional operatic repertoire, contemporary music and interdisciplinary projects, I have a glam rock band called "Timur and the Dime Museum," which now takes up almost half of my performance activities. "Timur and the Dime Museum" has been featured at several major festivals as well as performed in many clubs, so it is certainly very different from the classical music world but has a similar vocal approach. My band was commissioned to create a theatrical project COLLAPSE based on man-made environmental disasters. Produced by Beth Morrison Projects and composed by Daniel Corral as a Requiem, COLLAPSE has been staged in LA, Miami and Rotterdam, and will premiere in NYC in September 2015.

Living in Los Angeles has also allowed me to create music videos and sing on soundtracks. I have been lucky to collaborate with Charles Bernstein, the famed composer of horror films, as well as Nick Urata, the frontman of DeVotchKa, in his score to Ruby Sparks. Film artist Sandra Powers (and an editor of Nickelodeon show "Dora the Explorer"), has exclusively directed all of my music videos. Our collaboration has been mutually rewarding.

(Click HERE to hear an interview with Mr. Bekbosunov on NPR's "Here & Now" program)

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A. I performed a small role of Paul Mache in the newly discovered unfinished opera of Shostakovich, "Orango." Directed by Peter Sellars for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my job was to distract Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor, during my solo. Peter Sellars told me that I can do anything to Maestro, which felt strangely gratifying. Not sure if anybody would remember my five minutes of fame, but I know that Maestro Salonen will be probably have nightmares about me harassing him on the podium for the rest of his life.

The Astrologer demands the Queen of Shemakha as his prize
 for bringing
The Golden Cockerel to King Dodon. Photo by Rod Millington.
Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A. I wish I could have a glass of Prosecco before I sing! I often take a shot of espresso, and try not to talk too much during the day of performance. I also prefer to sing when I am slightly hungry, so it is very rare that I eat before a performance. So I guess that makes food my superstition!

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A. When I am at home, I enjoy working in the yard. Right now, I am working hard on growing drought-resistant plants, though a certain affinity for roses tends to be in a way.  On the road, I like to drink as much water as possible.

Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook?  Twitter?

A. I maintain several websites:,, and on Facebook (, Twitter (@gloomycomrade), and Instagram (@timurdimemuseum)

Don't miss Mr. Bekbosunov's performance in
The Golden Cockerel playing now through March 19th. Tickets are available at or by phone at (941) 328-1300. 

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