Bass-Baritone opera singer Božidar Smiljanić has come a long way from his early performances as a student with Nottingham’s Gilbert and Sullivan society. In his final year at the Royal Academy of Music, and with starring roles in Royal Academy Opera productions under his belt, Božidar is poised for opera success. With an enthusiastic passion for opera, it’s safe to say that music runs through this young star’s blood. But Božidar didn’t always have a career in opera in mind – he graduated from Nottingham in 2010 with a degree in law before following the bright lights of the opera world. Back in Nottingham last November to perform with the University Choir and Philharmonia, we caught up with Božidar to find out what it takes to follow your passion, what makes the best performance, and why Don Giovanni is the Game of Thrones of opera.
When did you decide you want to pursue opera after studying law?
“I came to Nottingham quite certain I wanted be a barrister. But I ended up doing a huge amount outside of my degree within the music department and especially the Gilbert and Sullivan society.
When I finished my degree, I remember thinking ‘what am I going to do next’ and yearning for a gap year. By chance, I spent New Year with a friend in Lincoln and I found a great choral scholarship with the cathedral there - for singing in seven cathedral services a week you get lodgings, a salary and free singing lessons. I thought that it was a great opportunity, and in that year I’d have time to do some work placements if I wanted to continue to go into law – so I did both. I really enjoyed it, but I was enjoying the music a lot more. I ultimately made the decision that I wanted to be a singer because it was something I was completely engaged with. I haven’t regretted it since!”
What advice would you give to people who wish to change their career and follow their passion?
“The main thing I would say is, don’t be afraid to explore. Make yourself completely open to new experiences because the danger of thinking you know everything means that you end up casting things aside which could have greatly enriched your life.
I would also say that by being open to new experiences, there isn’t a defined path that you have to go down. Different people get to different places in different ways – they might have an idea about where they want to be but they don’t necessarily have to go the most direct route there.
And have fun! It’s having fun that reinforces those good experiences and the things you’ve learnt.”
How do you handle nerves before you go on stage?
“I’ve been going up on stages for a long time, since I was little, so I don’t really get nervous. I suppose that’s a sign that it’s something I definitely should be doing! I get really ‘in the zone’ on stage - I’m concentrating so much on what I’m doing, inhabiting my character and so forth, that I feel quite relaxed. I’m even more relaxed on stage than just before I’m about to go on. I find audiences comforting rather than scary!”
What’s the best part about being a performer?
“There’s nothing quite like being in a fantastic moment on stage with brilliant music and being able to be present in that moment – it’s the most enjoyable thing. It’s such a coordinated effort and that’s the great thing about opera. You have superstars and so on, but it’s always a team effort and that’s really rewarding, that coordinated activity to produce something really special.”
Do you have any top tips for performers?
“Be present in the music. You can learn a piece and the notes inside out, but if you feel it in your gut, then you can really transport that meaning across and other people get it. That’s what the greatest performances are – they’re when people see something and they really believe it. The only way that other people can believe it is if you believe it.”
What’s your favourite opera?
“I have three that really stand out for me. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is a beautifully crafted opera, and I think it’s the perfect starter opera for people because it’s only one act. My favourite opera always used to be Verdi’s Rigoletto because it’s just such a powerful dramatic story. It’s got a real depth of human tragedy to it – it’s not a Shakespeare story but it has smatterings of it.
But my favourite opera is Mozart’s Don Giovanni because it’s got almost every aspect of human experience in that story and it’s told in quite a dark way. It’s almost the Game of Thrones of opera, it mixes comedy, really gritty human drama, womanising, love, betrayal, it’s got it all really.”
Posted on Tuesday 5th January 2016