STUDY ROOM / EDUCATION


Image Courtesy of Erzsebet Ratkai


In the waiting room


Most of us are lucky enough to grow up in homes that set examples on how to navigate through life. Sometimes, we are grateful for what we receive, sometimes, we note the difference that we would wish to see in our paths. We use our homes to relate to the rest of the world, we expect it to serve as some sort of direction.


And then, there is this other type of guidance. The one that you don’t see coming. The one that is completely unexpected. The one which taps you on your shoulder, making you turn around just to see what you would have missed otherwise, the one that reminds you of who you truly want to be. A teacher, a colleague, a friend, or simply a situation or experience.

The expected and the unexpected come together in infinite ways, writing the most wonderful stories of the world, our lives with one shared purpose, to teach us how to become the best versions of ourselves.


Welcome to the study room,


Where we find ourselves listening to an intimate conversation of three extraordinary Creatives from three different parts of the world - tied together by their love for the world of performative arts. Erzsebet Ratkai, Costume Designer, Hui He, Soprano and Victor Hugo, Actor, share how they started their careers, and reflect on ways of learning that helped shape their paths along their passions.


Image Courtesy of Hui He


HH

I always sang, I have no memories of me without singing. When I was a child I remember how before school I went into the nature around my house to sing. The first turning point in my life was when my math teacher heard my voice in a school ceremony, where I sang a song. She advised me to go to her house neighbor, who was a singing teacher. After he heard my voice he decided to prepare me to attend the admission exam for the conservatoire, already that year. I was accepted and I began to study. A lot. I was the top of my class. After a while, they asked me to teach students even younger than me (they were not always so happy about it (laughing). In those years I heard opera for the first time, a recording of La Bohème with Mirella Freni...I didn’t know even a word of Italian but I cried and I felt some emotions I’ve never felt before. That was the moment I decided to be an opera singer and dedicate my life to singing.


Image Courtesy of Hui He


Hui He is a well-known Soprano who made a mark in the world of opera with her phenomenal talent, performing in every precious location imaginable. She landed her first role in Aïda produced by Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which later one went to become her signature one. She won 2nd prize at the Operalia Competition in Los Angeles, where Maestro Placido Domingo invited her to sing two concerts with him in LA and Shanghai. Since then, Hui performed Tosca at the Arena di Verona, Madame Butterfly in the MET and many more.


ER

I have always been focused on becoming a costume designer, even in primary school, where I attended extracurriculars in music and was part of the choir. I went to a high school where I was specialising in sculpture. Finally, I completed a university degree in Bratislava. My parents have always supported me. They set the example of dedicated hard work and showed me the importance of fighting for what is true and good. We lived according to these principles, surrounded by love. It came to me naturally to take responsibility for what my abilities could give to the world, so I tried to live with them as much as I could, bending my own boundaries. My parents serve as my idols, to this day teaching me how to be joyful and obedient. I am just trying to keep up with them.

I can’t lose, and that is my drive. I am very committed to moving forward no matter what. I couldn’t live any other way. Success isn’t measured in prizes. Being able to acknowledge myself among the creators of the world is what is important to me. I think we are our own judges.


Image Courtesy of Erzsebet Ratkai


Erzsebet Ratkai is an award-winning costume and set designer from Hungary. She won one of the most prestigious Hungarian awards, the Jászai Mari prize, and is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts. She worked in Germany, Finland, Slovakia, Austria and Canada. Besides creating remarkable pieces for several Hungarian theaters, such as the Hungarian National Theater, she passes her skills forward through teaching.


Moving on from the stage onto the screen, our third participant joins the conversation, Victor Hugo is a Brazilian born actor who grew up in Scotland and has already landed his foot in Hollywood. After being selected to play the main role of a Gillette commercial in 2016, he was spotted by the producer on set which then led to the first huge milestone in his career: Victor was chosen to play the younger self of Will Smith in Gemini Man.

As he points out, the role of an actor or anyone in the arts is not easy, but with the right mindset, anything is possible.


Image Courtesy of Victor Hugo


VH

We don’t have the luxury or security that other people have. We have to put in our own weekly hours in order to achieve our goals. If we don’t work well on our own, we don’t get paid, simple as that. For me, it is my drive, it’s what makes me resilient. So, whenever I get close to feeling down, I pick myself back up and push myself with the thought of ‘okay, it didn’t work out but what if it had.’ It helps massively that I had a slight taste of what my career could be thanks to Gemini Man. I have a lot to thank that film for, because it has given me a whole renewed confidence which I didn’t have before. Before I was going through weeks, even months without getting any roles and I was thinking that it must have something to do with my skills or capabilities. But now after having been in that film, I’ve done the work and I have worked with those people at that level. So my confidence can’t be shaken in that way again, because I know what I am capable of and I know exactly how well I can do my job.


Image Courtesy of Victor Hugo


HH

The life of an artist, especially a singer, is really special, because our life is complicated, we are, for the most of time, far from home, living in apartments or hotel rooms. During the

rehearsals the theatre is the centre of our life, we all work for the best artistic result. On the contrary, when you study a role you need a routine: you must be daily concentrated to develop a character from a music point of view and theatrical side. I need to be focused on my studies. I start studying the words of libretto, wanting to understand every meaning: I usually have some friends who help me. At the same time, I study the music part with my vocal coach and I also listen to some recordings of the opera I’m studying, especially wonderful recordings from the golden age. I think coaching/mentoring for an opera singer is really important because It helps you to combine your idea of a character with some precious advice and secrets to face the difficult points.


All three Creatives present in this conversation have had unique starts to their careers but one thing they all have in common is the sense of gratitude to their teachers and mentors.


ER

At the university in Bratislava I was fortunate enough to learn from extraordinary professors who were internationally known artists. The knowledge that I gained in those 6 years became my foundation. The vibrant personalities of my teachers encouraged me to experiment and think fearlessly. They didn’t have to explain that much, their presence was powerful enough. They taught us practical skills. During my career these lessons never faded. My studies served as a guidance on how to become successful in unknown territories, both in terms of the thought and materialisation process. I learned how to take risks. I also learned how to be inventive, as I had to face the constantly degrading state of the processing industry of performing arts in Hungary.


Image Courtesy of Erzsebet Ratkai


VH

I think Will (Smith) was definitely like a partner in most things that we did together but also a mentor in others. It’s not like he was a father figure but he took on the role of a mentorship, especially since I was playing a younger version of him in the movie. So this ‘I’m the older one and you are the younger one’ situation was already established from the beginning, which was really cool. So, when he needed to, he gave me advice which I very much appreciated. And where he had to be a partner on set, he was also great at that. There was this mutual respect of ‘I’m learning from you but I’m also working with you’, which was great because it made me feel like an equal.


Image Courtesy of Victor Hugo


From working with Will (Smith) I learned not only how to be an actor, but also how to be a decent person on- and off-set. I think it’s very important to make a conscious choice of being kind to people in whatever you do, and I believe that can take you a long way. People remember a person that they worked with, who was incredibly fun and cool as opposed to someone who was a pain in the ass or difficult. Obviously, if you’ve been in the game for 10+ years, you might feel entitled to acting that way but you really don’t have to. Maybe you have your special requests, you might for instance have certain professional preferences, but you don’t have to be difficult with it. What I think really helps you in your career is to maintain a good reputation by being good at the job, taking it seriously and make the people around you feel safe and relaxed.


HH

In 1998, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino was on tour in China, they were looking to cast a second Chinese singing company for their production of Aïda, and they chose me. I made my debut in a magnificent Italian-style production, with one of the hardest Verdi roles, a role that became one of my signature roles...It was incredible! I think that I gained my skills because I never stopped studying and wanting to get better and better.


I think that, apart from educational institutions, the most important thing is to find the right teachers and mentors for your artistic development. The thing I always tell young artists and students is to believe in yourself, work to find your own identity as artists and come alongside people who love art and honestly want to help on our journey in this difficult but wonderful career.


Image Courtesy of Hui He


When asked what our participants learned throughout their experiences and working with such amazing teachers and mentors, we received grounded answers, that one might want to call ‘golden rules’.


VH

To be a sponge is incredibly helpful. Absorb as much information as you possibly can from anyone and everyone. While I was on set I would take information from actors as well as from sound, light and set designers. I sat down and tried to understand their craft and thought processes, and how these tie together. It was so insightful, hearing about the things that everybody does. These at first might appear as separate things, but ultimately they all come in the final production of a film.


Sometimes on set, there exist certain unwritten laws about, for example, which people you should be hanging out with. Actors only hangout with actors, extras only hangout with extras. One time, I was helping production workers, and they were telling me that no actor would typically ever lift boxes just because they have nothing else to do. In some ways, it is helpful to understand the underlying norms because it can help you navigate. But in terms of ‘you shouldn’t really hangout with extras, or you shouldn’t really help out production workers’, that doesn’t really sit with me. I think a give-and-take is important. In the end of the day, we’re all in it together.


Image Courtesy of Victor Hugo


HH

My first “golden” rule is never stop working to get better and better. When I finish a performance I’m never totally happy, I’m my worst critic. Even though I sung nearly 200 performances of Aïda and Madama Butterfly, I still continue to study these roles. I have never been complacent with myself. Study, study and study. My rule is to always be proactive, and to accept challenges. Two years ago I debuted in Turandot, a role they offered me for the 25th year...I finally thought I was ready and I worked really hard to give my best. Critics and the audience were really happy, and after the debut at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, I also performed in Dubai and in Shanghai! After a month I debuted Mimì at the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, a completely different role! I can say that one of my golden rules is to follow my voice, and trust my intuition. I think a singer needs to have imagination: I’m also a painter, so for me every colour, even in my voice, is important to give reality to my characters.


Image Courtesy of Hui He


VH

At times you of course need to conform to the traditional ways of doing things, yet also be smart enough to make your own choices. When I was considering bringing my at the time boyfriend on set with me, I was nervous at first. I was worried wether me being open about my sexuality would affect me getting casted for straight male roles. But then I was like ‘ you know what, I’m very proud of my boyfriend, I’m very proud of me so I’m going to bring him in.’ And as soon as I did, I had the biggest positive feedback from everyone. Everyone was super nice and funnily enough I think my courage to just be myself actually ended up benefitting my work.


Our backgrounds, what we learn along our journeys, and finally the principles that we lay down, all inform a routine for the everydays that helps navigate through challenges. It defines the direction where we are headed, which might bring new beautiful aspects to our lives. Our interviewees reflect.


HH

I think that daily life and learning processes influence one another. In my work I travel a lot, I visit the most beautiful cities of the world, where I have the opportunity to visit the most important museums: for an artist it’s like nutrition for the soul. Also, in my life on stage, I work with brilliant artists that feed my imagination with their aesthetics. I want to name some of those geniuses I was lucky to work with: Franco Zeffirelli (I sang four productions of his Aïda, in Rome, Florence, at the Arena di Verona and at the Teatro alla Scala, il Trovatore and Madama Butterfly again in Verona’s Arena), Hugo de Ana (I’ve sang in his Tosca at the Arena, Un ballo in maschera and Il Trovatore at the NCPA Beijing), Pier Luigi Pizzi (I’ve done his Un ballo in maschera production at the Arena) and Anthony Minghella (I sang in his amazing Madama Butterfly production in Guangzhou and at the Metropolitan Opera for three run of performances, in 2014, 2017 and 2019).


Image Courtesy of Hui He


ER

In Bratislava we were all shown our own ways. At the same time we learned the thought process of this influential school. We acquired the skills of paying attention and curiosity while exploring our ambitions in a healthy competition with each other. My work impacts every segment of my life. The tasks and challenges that come with it define my everydays. Tight schedules, traveling, all-nighters and, of course, the creation process itself is the center of everything. In a bigger context, the base of my life definitely roots back to my home and my professors. They are my compass. They show me the right measures and guidance. My experiences have been shaped according to these roots and helped me pursue a path that I am grateful to share with my husband. He is understanding and supportive, he makes my world go round.


Image Courtesy of Erzsebet Ratkai


Of course, we couldn’t end this conversation without touching base on a larger context. Our cultures.


ER

European people share the roots of christianity. Their perspectives, holidays, habits, thoughts, even the subject of their art is influenced by this heritage. Our culture makes it possible to interpret our lives, this is where we feel home. Our associations are based around this physical and ideological context. Creativity and our creative work is no exception.


VH

I was born in Brazil but moved to Scotland when I was five. Even though I consider myself 100% Brazilian, I also consider myself a Brit, but it’s so hard to place myself somewhere. I don’t sound fully British (people mention I have an international accent) and I also don’t sound fully Brazilian when I speak Portuguese. However, both backgrounds have led me to be the person that I am today. I’d like to think that I encompass both the Southern hospitality (warm, loud, passionate) and the British politeness and humour. I feel very privileged to have grown up in Scotland and to have spent my formative years in the UK. I also feel lucky with the amount of culture that I have with me from Brazil.


Image Courtesy of Victor Hugo


I also had the ethnic experience growing up as the only black kid at my primary school. I believe that if you’re black, or ethnic, you’re not just doing things for yourself, but also excelling in it for the sake of others. I feel obligated to do well not only for myself but also for kids who can reflect themselves in me. Historically we have had a bit of a slow start in the sense of being granted equal opportunities. And I believe it has impacted the way people of colour are working in any industry. But I am happy to see so many of my peers doing so well in their respective fields. My personal background certainly has played a major role in the motivation which drives my career. However, ultimately it comes down to the love I have for my craft and the joy it brings me.


HH

My Chinese culture absolutely influences my way of life, my approach in relationships and in facing the difficulties of daily life. My life pillars are the values of my Chinese culture:

family, friends, loyalty and generosity. My culture taught me to be disciplined and about the importance of working to achieve your own self-realisation. But I’m a woman of two cultures: living and experiencing Europe and after twenty-four years of my career in the opera world, influenced me and my imagination so much. In my soul the West and East have met.


Image Courtesy of Erzsebet Ratkai


Bringing the conversation to an end we must come to a conclusion that, in one way or another, learning is at the core of our lives providing us with the tools to define who we truly want to be.


ER

Learning can be tiring, however, it remains the essence of a meaningful life. It has the power to make you happy, feel secure, and to give you a sense of modesty and independence. Learning accompanies us throughout our whole lives. In our profession, the attained knowledge serves as a tool of protection against frauds. Learning comes in many forms. We must be conscious, selective and receptive. That’s the way to a stable and healthy mindset.


Written and edited by Julia Horvath