Tom Strini

A rookie impresario arranges an aria recital

By - Feb 23rd, 2011 04:00 am

Vovkova and Vovk in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Brno Opera. Photo courtesy of the artists.

When two friends, Nigerian John Mgbere and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Riffard came to the U.S., they tried to find a way to help Nigerian students.

“Sometimes, John’s school would have just one textbook on a subject for the entire school,” Riffard said, in an interview Monday (Feb. 21).

In 1998, they established the non-profit Intercultural Assistance for Environmental Development. But Mgbere settled in Houston and became an international business consultant. Riffard became a pilot for the Midwest Airlines group, and their project remained dormant all these years. Riffard was downsized by the airline. He has some time and wants to put it to good use. IAFED is about to stage its first fund-raiser, a recital by dramatic soprano Katarína Vovková. She will sing a program of opera arias (and, with her husband, baritone Aleksandr Vovk, some duets) Friday and Saturday (7:30 p.m. Feb. 25-26) at Marcus Center Vogel Hall. Milwaukee pianist Matthew Bergey will play for them.

Vovková was born in Slovakia before Czechoslovakia split. Vovk is from Ukraine. Both now work all over Europ,e but reside in the Czech Republic. Riffard’s spouse, Ivana, is from that country. The Riffards are music fans and they often visit the Czech Republic, which explains the connection.

“We went to the opera in Brno,” Riffard said. “Katarína was singing. Such a beautiful voice.”

They approached her about a benefit concert, and she agreed. Then Riffard got acquainted with the U.S. State Department guest artist visa process.

“It took eight months,” he said. “We originally wanted her to come before Christmas, and sing in the Basilica of St. Josaphat. But this is good; the Marcus Center people have been extremely helpful.

Vovková and Vovk speak a little English, but Ivana translated most of the interview.

Vovk helped her select the program, with the specific intent of showing off all aspects of her voice and temperament.

“This is very difficult,” he said. “Few sopranos would be able to sing these pieces on one program and in this order. Her voice is very colorful, and very rare in that, and we want to show all of them.”

He had a point. With a couple of Czech and French exceptions and the two duets, the program is one big, taxing Italian aria after another, from the likes of La Traviata, Aida, Il Trovatore and Tosca. It requires stamina. Vovková appeared confident and even eager to take on the challenge.

“I like Italian composers,” she said. “I like to show the emotions of Italian music. My repertoire is mostly Italian.”

She will, however, sing The Song to the Moon, from Dvořák’s Rusalka. This is the national opera of the Czech Republic, and no visiting soprano from that country could omit it from an aria recital.

Riffard, who has a home in Grenoble, France, in addition to Shorewood, is a chemist by training and runs several business ventures, hopes that Vovková will be the first of many performances to raise money for IAFED causes. He envisions organizing tours of three or four cities, perhaps with the assistance of the French consulate in Chicago. His goals are modest: To raise $5,000-$10,000 per project.

“I would like to bring some French songs to Milwaukee,” he said. “But let’s see if this one goes well. I don’t have much experience at this.”

The program, called Casta Diva, after the first aria to be sung, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Marcus Center Vogel Hall, 123 W. State St. Tickets are $38-$45; call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206, or click here to order.

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