At Waterville Valley, the Slopes Are Alive - With the Sound of Opera

Dec 16, 2015

 

Credit Sean Hurley for NHPR

Vladimir Popov is known around Waterville Valley as the opera singing chairlift operator.  Although Popov sings strictly in the mountains now, as he told NHPR's Sean Hurley, he once sang in the world's great opera houses.

At the ski mountain's base lodge, cashier Jean Brousseau says she heard Vladimir Popov singing earlier, but she's not sure where he is now. She loves to hear him sing, she says, even though in the 15 years he's worked here she's never understood a word of it. "It's all in Russian and Latin or Italian or something," she says, "I would really love to hear him sing Silent Night or Oh Holy Night in English. Can you imagine that?"

Brousseau directs me outside.  "Go find Butch," she says, he'll know where Popov is.

I find Butch Cushing near the snow machines.  In charge of lift operations, Cushing sent Popov to the High Country lift today.  "When you get to the top just go to the next lift," he tells me, "he'll be at the base of that next lift.

Cushing escorts me to the lower lift and waits as my chair comes around. "Sometimes," he says, "even people from his country will come and they recognize him. I had one come up to me who said 'Do you know who's running that J bar?'"

It's a ten minute ride and when I get to the top, I don't need to ask for directions.

A group of snowboarders glide in toward Popov.  "Hi guys!" he calls out in greeting.  

After they're away, Popov squints at me from a distance. He knows why I'm here - but he's wary.  The last story about him didn't turn out well. "Four years ago they come in here," he says, "they ask me singing. They publish this and don't ask me nothing. And the guy make me look like loser. What is this guy doing in the mountains after a career like this?"

Usually the story goes the other way.  The unknown singer gets a break and leaves behind the little job in the mountains. But the retired tenor says he's never been happier.  He's outside, he's in the mountains.  He sings when he wants.  "I start singing very young, yeah," he says, "because my mother have a good voice. And later I go to the Soviet military and I go study after the military at the Conservatory."

He studied for six years before winning a coveted spot in the Bolshoi Opera. And then in 1982, while studying at La Scala in Milan. "I defected actually. Not immigrated.  Defected!" he says, laughing.

In jeans and a t-shirt he walked into the American Consulate.  "Oh this is scary stuff. I don't expect it myself too," he recalls.  

After the initial interview, Popov was told he could return to his hotel and someone would be in touch.  

"I say where I go? I go outside maybe KGB wait for me already," he says.

When I ask what happened next, Popov says, "They let me stay inside the consulate.  And guy give me actually a case of beer.  Because my birthday I defected.  Budweiser I remember.  Budweiser!"

Three days later, Popov was flown to New York, put up in a hotel and given 40 dollars. "I make an audition immediately," he says.  "City Opera take me for opening season Tosca.  Metropolitan Opera take me.  And Lorin Maazel.  But I said 'Metropolitan Opera, I am here!'" 

Here's a 1991 recording of Popov singing in Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" with Claudio Abbado conducting.

"This kind of life of the opera singers. Travel, travel, travel," he says, "but I see the whole world.  There are four opera important in the world. La Scala.  Metropolitan Opera, New York.  Royal Opera Covent Garden in London. And Vienna State Opera."

During the 18 years that followed his defection, Popov sang in all those great opera houses.  He met and married Lucy, whose family connections in New Hampshire resulted in the move to Waterville.  But, he says, a career in opera is a lot like a career in Hollywood. And so in 2000, when he was 54, Popov retired from singing and took a job at the ski mountain.

"People like this.  Go on the lift.  My voice travel far away," he says. "The girl today, she come in from the top she say, 'Hey Vladimir, I heard you up there...'"

And as opposed to the more formal divide of the stage, here on the mountain skiers can approach him when he's done and let him know what they think.

"And he started singing and I turned around immediately and gave him a hug," one skier tells me, "because I was crying at the time. It was beautiful."   

Video: Vladimir Popov and Aprile Millo Duet -Calaf and Liu Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990