In the Netflix miniseries, Unorthodox, the women of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews are forbidden to sing in public. Near the end the protagonist, Esty, performs this very transgressive act. It’s a powerful assertion of agency: in doing so, Esty breaks from her past. Her unaccompanied voice symbols a new, authentic self and so, in this sense, it is revelatory. Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska’s life is very different; but the stirring way she articulates the inextricable relationship between singing and her own identity was redolent to me, at least, of Esty. Ema’s performances are captivating; but I am also struck forcibly by the ways in which she discusses what singing means to her emotionally, and the unique possibilities it offers to explore her most profound musical and personal beliefs.

Ema might not have performed since March—she is ensconced with her family in Toronto—but there has been plenty of music around. For as long as she can remember ‘[there was] always music playing in the house ... so many different kinds’. Ema moved from Macedonia to Canada when she was one, and happily describes childhood memories of vibrant musical gatherings with fellow émigrés. A musical father has been a pivotal figure in Ema’s musical development. ‘He’s the person who started me on violin’, she says, ‘and he’s one of the biggest reasons that I’m a musician because he’s always loved musicians and he’s always loved music. He didn’t know anything about classical music so we sort of started learning about that together, listening to records together’. They still talk about music all the time—the other day it was Jacob Collier (incidentally, the second endorsement of Mr Collier in this series). Ema believes herself to have been really lucky as both parents love music and have always been very supportive. There were never exhortations to find a “real job”: they instilled in her the belief that a life in the arts is a life well spent.

I’m quite confident in my theory that most people are musical but for whatever reason didn’t end up being introduced to the right instrument. Like dog owners and their chosen pooch, musicians with certain qualities seem to gravitate towards certain instruments. At the age of sixteen Ema was playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto; and, around this time she started singing lessons ‘just for fun’. Now, it must be said that singing is different from other disciplines due to the mysterious ways in which the human voice develops. If, for instance, during her violin degree Ema had decided that the piano, in fact, was her calling, someone would have probably had to break it to her that that ship had sailed. In other words, time is not always of the essence. In any case, a future in music was almost destined for Ema. Having internalised entreaties from the adult world to “keep going” and pursue violin, ‘I didn’t give myself too many options’, she says. (Ema’s interest in writing and fiction was, however, serious enough to lead to a successful application to the University of Toronto to study comparative literature and philosophy.) That’s not to say there weren’t doubts along the way but Ema resolved to finish her violin course, her parents reminding her of the value of a completed degree. Along the way, an instinctive awareness emerged for Ema that violin probably wouldn’t provide deep musical fulfilment. It would be wrong, however, to see the years spent pursuing violin as a mistake. ‘I don’t regret that period at all’, says Ema, ‘and I think everyone goes through a sort of personal struggle when they’re trying to figure out what is their place and what is the sort of medium that works for them’. Another straw in the wind came performing Don Giovanni in the middle of her undergrad, her first experience in the pit. At this point Ema tells me she began to envisage a job in an opera orchestra, but that it was the singers in rehearsals who enthralled most, and the inkling grew that her place in this system might not be as a violinist after all. Thus, after graduating Ema began teaching on an El Sistema strings programme, and gave herself one year to explore the latent feeling that she might after all be happier as a singer. 

We discuss some of the ways in which her years playing violin have influenced her approach to singing: there are distinct advantages—‘my ear was trained in such a way that I could hear so many different details and sounds and colours’, things that ‘might not have been obvious or audible to a singer’—but also vexing downsides—‘it can make you hypercritical of yourself and hyper-analytical and always obsessed with accuracy’. ‘What’s interesting about voice’, she says, ‘is that I’ve felt from the beginning of my voice lessons that I could move people as long as I had something to say, and it didn’t matter what my technical proficiency was’. On the other side, violinists might admit that practice is too often fetishised and—worse—discussed ad nauseum. As a violinist Ema was seldom impressed by virtuosity per se: ‘I was more impressed by sound, and concept, and possibility and feeling freedom within a certain piece to express something rather than showcasing skills or being enamoured with the instrument itself’. With voice, she says, ‘you sing what fits you: you have no obligation to sing everything under the sun because your body has limits.’ Perhaps, then, precisely because it came without so many of violin’s pressurised associations, ‘the voice was an escape’.

It’s hard to argue there is a more innate, primal instrument than the voice. ‘Singing is not some kind of show that you put on’, Ema says; ‘singing is you being honest and expressing yourself ... singing is something everyone does’. True enough, singing is something that we all do, but to sing professionally requires an awareness of certain fundamental technical principles—open throat, balance of air pressure in the diaphragm, et cetera. But, Ema explains, ‘none of those things work if your attitude is tense and locked’. During lessons she would constantly come up against this tension before she began to feel something different. ‘When you are breathing properly and when you are singing well, you’re in a position where you’re moving yourself. You’re so connected with this really deep part of yourself that it’s very overwhelming: that is terrifying. It’s terrifying because it makes you feel so much ... so much you’re worried that if you release those feelings they’ll swallow you whole.’ Clearly, then, as Ema describes, there is a significant psychological dimension to singing. It can even manifest moral consequences: ‘singing was like therapy for me in the sense that if you were unkind to yourself, if you have a very negative headspace, if you were very judgemental towards yourself, all of that is translated into feedback in your body.’ ‘I don’t mean that you need to be constantly happy to sing’, she affirms, ‘[but] your body attitude needs to be one of joy and release’. 

Singers are perhaps—and often to the bemusement of instrumentalists—susceptible to obsessions over the sanctity of the text. Ema, however, describes song as ‘so much about the words’, but adds ‘it’s also not about the words: the words are a tool for your imagination to be provoked, and for the audience to respond to that, and for you to communicate to the audience through this provocation. You’re creating a collage, sometimes, of senses that the audience can tap into.’ Ema’s own enduring love of languages derives from ‘the colours they make themselves ... I’d always be fascinated just to hear the sound of a language’. Moreover, she explains, ‘listening to the sound of a language also extends into learning about a culture, and the psychology behind this culture is rooted also in the sound of the language’. This, what she describes as ‘grunt work’, Ema finds a rewarding process, and just one of ‘so many strands’ that she relishes. 

Ema is able to concoct such arresting programmes due to her scrupulous determination to research and fuse disparate musical styles. ‘With song - unlike opera - I get to choose what story is being told for 75 minutes. I get to plan the way time is handled between sets. I get to introduce audiences to composers...and to things which may disturb them but, in the right context, might actually appeal to them.’ Young singers, Ema believes, will find in the song repertoire far more opportunities to grow and experiment than feeling pressured to tackle a handful of famous arias with their ‘daunting’ legacies. Even today, she speaks of ‘natural limits in opera - because we’re typecast and, sure, I have no problem with that because rightly we are serving the drama, but one can only sing certain things at certain times. And with song you can sing anything that strikes you as important’. 

This autumn, Ema will join the Berlin Staatsoper, a move that both excites and terrifies her. ‘I'm so honoured to be joining and working for an institution I greatly admire...especially as someone who is still quite new to opera life’. She happily anticipates the chance to be a professional—not being in school anymore; being thrown into the fire, and people saying “well, figure it out”’. Nevertheless, some apprehension finds its roots in the less familiar working processes of opera. Ema has in recent experiences learned to accept that the music serves the drama, and that what she describes as musical ‘illogical oddities’ exist: ‘everything you do is filtered through the lens of a character’s perspective’, she says. Thus there is something challenging about starting with the psyche and tenue of character as opposed to her usual plunge into an intense, personal response to the music and text. Indeed, in opera ‘you have freedom but only in a few areas. Otherwise it’s a really cooperative, collaborative effort.’ Much like playing in an orchestra, Ema finds this collective feeling inspiring, but at the same time acknowledges it can feel restricting ‘because you have people to answer to’, she says. Ema has found it fascinating working with directors, observing the ways in which visual and dramatic manipulation can make the audience focus on “the right thing”: ‘I’m positive that that has influenced how I make song’. In any case, according to her the common division between singers of opera and song isn’t particularly helpful. ‘I enjoy both worlds’, she tells me; ‘they need each other.’ 

Frustration with pervasive stereotypes within the opera world might explain the urgency with which Ema speaks about dismantling the affecting stereotypes so many people associate with classical music. She describes her dream of a more diverse, fluid world of live performance in which it is possible to escape the restrictions of genre, and present classical music in a way that, as she puts it, is ‘less contrived or less didactic.’ There’s real exasperation in her voice when she asks ‘why, why, should people feel like they need a musical education to understand a Schubert song but not, for example, a Kendrick Lemar song? How is what those two people are doing any different? I love them both - and often they’re communicating such similar feelings just in different contexts’. Ema believes that for listening attitudes to shift, art song needs to be part of everyday life. This seems like a deep vocation—a mission, perhaps—but, Ema stresses, ‘it’s not about converting people ... it’s about saying “this option is open to you: you don’t have to like it, but it’s open to you, and maybe give it a chance”’.

It’s easy to believe Ema when she tells me she could talk about this for hours. She is fervent on subjects that truly matter to her; on several occasions this results in us both forgetting where we started. She apologises for her discursive style, declaring an ambition ‘to tame it all’ (a part of me hopes that she only half-succeeds: she is so pacy and rich with ideas—some fully-formed, some nascent, all of them sensitive and worthwhile). One particular word that resurfaces throughout our conversation is ‘challenge’—a necessary element, I realise, if something is to capture and retain Ema’s attention. In fact Ema would be completely unsuited to a life and career without fresh stimulation and obstacles with which to grapple. She concludes, ‘I want a balanced career that is always challenging, to take on certain things, to always keep certain skills sharp, to always be learning new things, to develop outside of music, and, also, to think beyond the stage’. For Ema, then, singing is a form of catharsis and a perpetual means of self discovery; it’s about having the courage to find the edge where, sometimes, as Ema relates ‘it feels too good to be true.’