Home ENGLISH Nikolo Kotzev and his rock opera ‘Nostradamus’: Love for mankind is the most important thing in the world

Nikolo Kotzev and his rock opera ‘Nostradamus’: Love for mankind is the most important thing in the world

Nikolo Kotzev and his rock opera ‘Nostradamus’: Love for mankind is the most important thing in the world

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Interview with maestro Nikolo Kotzev by Ralie Blag
for Bright sparks in the Aura of Bulgaria
Alexsandra Vali
Neil Scarth

Have you ever noticed how sometimes you need a particular person towards whose sensibilities your own door is open: in order for him to lead you into territories which you hadn’t given much notice to previously and which had not entered into the realm of those beloved things that you deeply value? A case like this for me in the past, when a door was opened by another person to the personality and works of someone, was that of Exupery (not the Exupery of ‘The Little Prince’ but of ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’[1], for example). Recently I’ve rediscovered Nikolo Paganini in this way. As much as I love Mozart, Bach and particular works of many other composers, Paganini has always been one of those I’ve somehow lacked the right little key to. Until that is the appearance of David Garrett in my field of vision: the virtuoso violinist who personified him in the film ‘The Devil’s Violinist’, which opened up my perceptions to the works of this artist and to the person himself. Up until then, only the cliches about sensationalism and showiness which cluster around the name of Paganini had floated around my consciousness. I hadn’t seen the pain in his growth as a violinist nor the profound innovator, nor the beauty in his music (aside from the deliberate emphasis on technique), which greatly moved me. I’d failed to notice something which always impresses me in principle: the particular vein of mystical magic present in the life of the virtuoso composer of the 19th century.
But what has all this got to do with Nikolo Kotzev and his ‘Nostradamus’? Perhaps nothing apart from the names and the fact that, in some irrational way, Paganini on his part turned out to be the one who gave me the key to certain specific features of the figure of Kotzev as an artist. Because although I’d already noticed years ago Nikolo in a TV interview of his, his art is only now unfolding before me, blossoming beautifully with the robust seriousness and depth of a truly outstanding achievement. Only time will tell, but my personal conviction is that Nikolo Kotzev has already assured himself a place amongst its champions with the value of what he’s contributed.
Classical and rock, tradition and modernity in one – isn’t that compelling?! Especially when we’re talking about quality and class, which not only maestro Kotzev’s rock opera, ‘Nostradamus’, but his art as a whole possesses. If you haven’t yet made its acquaintance, I recommend you do![2] And now let’s give the floor to the maestro so he can take us a little closer to his world.

Why Nostradamus in particular? What inspired you and led you to re-create exactly his story in music?
When I decided to create a rock opera – a large-scale work – I wanted it to be something serious with a future: I wanted it to have good prospects, to have a chance of being noticed. If I’d done an opera with a plot based on the life of some local hero – either an artist or well-known figure, then the opera would have been worthwhile only for the place that person came from. Nostradamus is world-renowned and in this way, along with the fact that it was written in English, I ensured the project had a universal character.

Does the opera ‘Nostradamus’ have any special message? Something specific that you’ve discovered or become aware of in the seer’s path through life and wish particularly to highlight?
Nostradamus spent his tragic life striving to help people, healing them, despite the fact that this put him in serious danger. He risked his life to help others. Even more so, given that the way he healed was rather heavily criticised by his colleagues and by the Inquisition. In my view, the message here is that love towards mankind is the most important thing in the world and everyone ought to do everything possible to be able to give this love. Because the most powerful energy we receive, the driving force of this world, to my mind, is love for one’s fellow human beings, for people.

The thread of magicality continues in your next rock opera, ‘Draconia’. What’s the plot this time?
We’d need a very long interview for me to tell you the plot of my next rock opera but basically it is about fostering virtues, fostering a system of values. In brief, it concerns a young man who sets off to look for his beloved and the condition is extremely harsh: he has to collect all the gold in the world in order to find her. She for her part has been bewitched as a child so she is blind to everything evil, bad, corrupt and debauched and so on. While he is searching for all this gold, he forgets what he’s set out for and he turns from a good young man into a grasping overlord… In the end he finds her, but she can’t see him, because he is not longer his good self, but has become mean, corrupt and greedy.

And then? What’s the end? Because we don’t like an ending like that?!
I’m not going to tell you what kind of ending there is because you have to come to the performance to see it :-)

Ok, you’ve already got us intrigued :-) You’re christened after Nikolo Paganini but apart from music being your chosen path, another interesting connection with him can be noted: between the aura of enigma and mystery present in the virtuoso’s life literally from birth[3] and your evident interest in ‘the supernatural and inexplicable’. How and when did this affinity emerge? Do you have clear memories of this?
Even as a child I remember that there was an illustrated series about Copernicus in a Bulgarian newspaper and I very diligently kept it in a little album.
I cut the stuff out of the newspaper and stuck each bit in an album because I wanted to collect the whole story. For me this was something extremely interesting, it was like something precious. And when I later got the idea of doing a rock opera, it was as if the name of Nostradamus immediately flashed before my consciousness, because people like that are really interesting for me and possess great potential to be brought back to life by musical means. Of course the plot has to be extremely rich and interesting and has to contain drama in order for us to get beautiful music.

Are there in your life examples of synchronicities, coincidences or striking constellations of circumstances?
I recall two cases bordering on the supernatural. The first is connected to the opera ‘Nostradamus’ in particular. After I’d recorded Alannah Myles on the Finnish island where I was living, she put me in touch with another Canadian singer, Sass Jordan, who played the other role. I went to Canada to record her because she had a small child and couldn’t travel (all the other singers came to me on the island). Her role was that of Catherine de Medici. When I went to record her, I arrived at the hotel, which was a reconstruction of an old mill. There was no TV, there was nothing in the room to kill my time with and I was wondering what to do with myself, since I couldn’t get to sleep. I began to look for something to read but again there was nothing except the Bible: all I found in the room was an encyclopedia. I decided to read the encyclopedia and I opened it right on the page about Catherine de Medici. A huge tome and I open it right on that page, the role I’d come to record in Canada.
The other case was in connection with a classical, traditional opera which I’d been commissioned to write in Finland. It’s called ‘Joel’[4]. The reason they’d commissioned it from me was because the composer who’d taken on the task of writing it had passed away suddenly. I got in touch with the people, who’d announced that they had a problem at the time, and suggested that I write the music. They listened to my works and entrusted it to me. Another aspect of the situation was that the composer they’d decided to carry out the project with had written a few bars of an anthem for the place where I was living in Finland. The organisers wanted the anthem to be included in the opera as a kind of token of respect. They said to me: ‘This is all we have of him.’ Since they wanted the extract to be used as an anthem of the city I set about finishing off this piece of his, of which I only had a couple of bars as a kind of sketch. I started. I had a desk-lamp whose bulb quite often stopped working – just like that, of its own accord. That day it had stopped completely. I remember I’d been working on the sketch in question and at one point I’d reached the place where I could choose between two alternatives for harmonising the melody. I thought and thought and in the end I said to myself: ‘OK… it seems to me he’d choose this option here.’ The moment I decided this in my head, the lamp lit up :-) This, to my mind, was a sign from the beyond that, yes: this was the right decision and so I just used this way of continuing.


Really nice… :-) And how does the music come to you, how do the musical ideas awaken?
That’s very difficult to explain because musical ideas come at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected places and for the most unexpected reasons. There is so much music that’s been created in the world that it’s almost impossible for something completely unique and genuinely new to be written and be able to belong to just one composer. We exchange ideas and just use them in different ways, clothing them in different forms. It’s true that I have flashes of inspiration with different musical themes, sometimes I write them on napkins at home… When I work on a big project I’ve asked my wife Dona not to touch my slips of paper because I have slips and pens all round the house. That’s how I manage to write down ideas as they come. Sometimes I get out of bed to write down an idea which has come to me in my sleep and so on. It’s complicated, but the main thing is that the ideas come.

We usually talk about music, but who wrote the lyrics for the operas or for individual songs?
I’d be so bold as to say that I write good lyrics myself but I prefer to leave this work to the singers because in my view the lyrics written by the singers themselves are sung more from the heart. Otherwise, I have several sets of Bulgarian lyrics which worked out well and which I like: ‘The Saint’ is almost all my work, ‘Pain’ is completely mine , ‘The Fool’, ‘Bitter River’…

And the opera librettos?
I was involved in the libretto for ‘Nostradamus’ but more as a consultant. The lyrics are by the singers, as I said, but in many cases when there is some kind of problem I try to help. The deal was that they’d get the credit for the lyrics , the authorship would be theirs and I’ve never marked where the idea selected is mine. Otherwise, the general storyline is mine because I had to gather information for the story itself.
‘Joel’ , on the other hand, is according to the libretto of a renowned Finnish professor who sadly left us a few months ago. ‘Drakonia’ still doesn’t have a libretto: I’ve only drawn up the storyline on which the libretto will be based.

How do you combine your classical music education with your love for rock? Does one help or hinder the other? I mean isn’t this kind of crossing of boundaries between genres met with distrust by both ‘camps’?
Amongst people who know me as a rock musician, there’s always amazement that I could be a classical musician whereas those who know me as a classical musician are always amazed that I could be such a rocker. The way I see it, it’s normal for there to be amazement as to how one person can combine such talents and the energy to work on such diverse projects, but for me the classical training has always helped[5]: it provides a stable foundation and everything that happens around a musician becomes comprehensible. There are people who can’t read the notes – there are even fantastic composers who work by ear. But a classical education helps, of course – for example, without it I would never have been able to write ‘Nostradamus’.

You have a second classical opera too, don’t you? Once again, how did such a large project come into being?
Yes, but so far I haven’t had the pleasure of bringing it to the stage to be performed. It was written because there was a really beautiful scenario. We had the idea and the desire to start this undertaking but the piece has been put aside for now since there aren’t the financial resources to bring it to fruition. The plot is once again local, Finnish. It concerns a really famous sailing ship which sank because of a tragic error by the captain. This ship was the pride of the fleet belonging to a great merchant on the island. There’s also a love story… an interesting plot which could be pretty successful as a stage performance.

Isn’t the creation of these kinds of new musical challenges such as whole operas actually rather an exception in modern times? We’re used to the idea of operas having been created at one time and then no more.
The life of a modern opera is often very short, yes. They’re usually created for a particular occasion with a budget available – they’re performed around the occasion for which they were written, after which they’re consigned to oblivion. My ‘Joel’ was written exactly like this with a budget already finalised. It was performed nine times with great success but fortunately it wasn’t consigned to oblivion but was performed again a few months ago, albeit in concert format. At the moment there’s interest on the part of an opera company in Norway who want us to open their opera festival with ‘Joel’ next year. I hope this will happen. There’s no greater recognition for an author than a work of his leading a life of its own.
As far as ‘Nostradamus’ is concerned, this show would have been absolutely impossible without the cooperation of Russe Opera and the ‘Bee-hive’ Foundation who gave us really strong financial backing. The Director Ivan Sariev is a patron and benefactor of the arts and perhaps supporter of my art in particular because he has financed not only this work of mine and I’m delighted to have made the acquaintance of a person like this. 115 people take part in the current show. Such a large number of people can’t just pile together and decide to do something. There needs to be organisation, to be financial backing, someone has to take on the potential risk of financial losses and so on. Our art isn’t Lepa Brena, it isn’t Slavi Trifonov (translater’s note: Serbian and Bulgarian entertainers respectively, both originally associated with the low-brow pop-folk genre) and for us things are a bit more complicated because we have to be absolutely certain that when we go somewhere we have done our financial sums and that they work out right. But from what I see and hear, there’s enough enthusiasm present and I hope that we’ll do new shows elsewhere in Bulgaria. (New performances are in the pipeline – dates are already announced for Sofia, Plovdiv etc.: see Trailer)

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You’ve lived for many years in Finland. What are your observations? Is there anything positive that we could take from there and apply in certain spheres here? Something which you like and which is lacking here, which could serve as an example?
The most positive thing is that there are organisations as well as the government itself which allocate huge resources to preserve the nation’s culture there. These are people who work single-mindedly to preserve their language and culture. They make sure that their artists are fulfilled, that they have work and funds, ensure their well-being and so on. Even I, as a Finnish citizen, have made use of this, because I’ve received grants to create works. They greatly value their artists and don’t begrudge the funds to create the conditions for their work.

Amongst the cultural accomplishments of humanity as a whole, what appeals to you personally, be that music, literature or science? In terms of values, in terms of favourite sources of inspiration, personalities, important paragons, just like the case of Copernicus from your childhood?
I love and respect the accomplishments of Mankind, whatever they are. For me, science, culture and art are the most important things for any self-respecting nation. It’s impossible for a nation which does not value these things to prosper. Once the right conditions have been created for talented people to develop in these areas, they and their activities will enrich the life of society in a thousand different ways A spiritually enriched person develops a higher system of values, is more receptive to the realisation of higher goals and feels the need to perfect themselves further. Fulfilled and high-minded people in turn develop qualities such as mercy, charity and, more than anything, love for their fellow human beings. And love is the most important thing: it is what keeps the world from collapsing. Not money, hate or war.

As for Bulgarian accomplishments of the spirit or culture: what stands out for you?
I’ve always been proud of several aspects of Bulgaria’s history: for example of the Assen dynasty or the Second Bulgarian Kingdom when our borders extended to three seas. I am proud of our opera singers and classical instrumentalists. Many of the famous symphony orchestras in the world have Bulgarian first violinists. There are many people who spread Bulgaria’s fame. As a whole, Bulgaria has a very great deal of talent. What hinders an awful lot of Bulgarians today, though, is complaining about conditions and waiting for someone to finance what they’re doing. I can tell you, though, that a star that shines brightly enough will never go unnoticed. The bad thing is that the greatest enemy of a talented artist is his mediocre colleague who is always feverishly struggling to gain superiority, position, projects or financing… without people taking into account the fact that sponsorship ‘just like that’ is something that just doesn’t exist abroad. There everyone works and strives and toils with the sweat of his brow in order to achieve some kind of public self-expression. I can tell you, for instance, that one of the foreign performers in the Nostradamus show works without a fee just to be on this stage. I give this as an example of how people abroad first have to prove themselves and if they can do that, everything all of a sudden becomes really easy and doors start to open before them.

So here we have the principle of giving something of yourself up front before looking to receive something?
Obviously. However much money you pay me, I’m not going to start drawing like Leonardo Da Vinci :-) I don’t know of any great artist who has become one due to the fact that someone has paid him to become great. First come talent and work. Then comes recognition.

But on the other hand you did mention that in Finland substantial sums are allocated to supporting culture? Or do these become an option once someone has already proven himself?
Of course. There are committees of specially chosen public figures who, after some debate, decide who to sponsor with the budget available. It’s exactly here that the example I gave comes to the fore. Those who have demonstrated talent and results will receive financial rewards and the opportunity to create other worthwhile things. This policy has already started to gingerly make itself known in Bulgaria but we are still far away from the true way…

Is there something especially interesting that you have learned about Bulgarian history or individual historical figures in connection with your work on the project ‘The Assens’?
I’ve learned a lot: interesting details, different versions of what happened. I was definitely enriched by researching the events. Now I know much more about the subject :-) Overall, the creation of ‘The Assens’[6] afforded me enormous pleasure. I hope to be involved in more such projects.

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Artist: Todor Angeliev

Are you an optimistic about the chances of us living to see substantial social improvements in our country?
If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t have come back to live in Bulgaria – I’d have stayed abroad where I’ve been over the course of 25 years. I’m a Finnish citizen and if I want, I can stay there, retire ‘happily’ with a pension etc. However, I’m not a person for Finland, I’m a person for Bulgaria. That’s why I came back here 5-6 years ago and began to do what’s needed, come what may :-)


[1] Terres des Hommes.
[2] Nikolo Kotzev’ Nostradamus music HERE.
[3] He was born in ‘Black Cat’ Street, which only goes to fuel the idea of the ‘devil’s violinist’, but what’s more striking is that both of his parents displayed to some degree a gift for prophesying and fortune-telling, while his mother is described as a deeply religious woman who sincerely believed in the future success of her son and dreamed prophetic dreams in this connection.
[4] The opera was commissioned in connection with the opening of a new opera theatre in the city of Mariehamn on the Åland archipelago of islands. The plot recreates the life of the local artist and writer from the beginning of the 20th century, Joel Pettersson, unacknowledged and unappreciated in his lifetime, who died at the age of only 45 after a nervous breakdown. The show was staged in 2009 with exceptional success over 9 performances to packed concert halls and unrelenting ovations, as reported in the local press. The Finnish President Tarja Halonen was present at the premiere as were many local government representatives alongside the Bulgarian Ambassador in Helsinki.
[5] Nikolo Kotzev was born and grew up in a family of musicians. His mother was a musical director and light opera singer who, apart from that, also played the accordion and guitar. His father was a clarinettist and saxophonist. His grandfather and brother – violinists. He himself started to play the violin at the age of 5 and from around 11 the guitar, after having already fallen in love with this instrument. In subsequent years he developed in both symphonic and rock music. He graduated from music school in Stara Zagora. He has a Master’s in music from Sofia and has even completed his doctoral degree in Music Studies and Musical Arts.
[6] Nikolo Kotsev for Bulgaria Today info agency: The initial impetus for the Sound and Light Spectacle (called in this case ‘The Assens’) came from the Mayor of Veliko Turnovo, Daniel Panov. The decision was made to base the new spectacle entirely on the history of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, the dynasty of the Assens. The scenario was designed in such a way as to bring together the whole splendour of the Second Kingdom in the space of 17 minutes, including the rise of Bulgarian letters, of the Church, of crafts and art etc. It became evident that the work ought to be recorded with a large symphony orchestra and a large choir. What’s especially interesting about this project is that during the process of working on it the idea took shape of making a multimedia film alongside the music to provide information in the form of text for the listeners. I.e. it was now becoming a different form of art and the work would be able to be performed sometimes not only as the music and light show ‘Sound and Light’ on the Tsarevets citadel but also as the projection of a 17-18 minute film by the renowned director Rumen Ganev with artistic images of extremely high quality specially created for the scenario. The viewers of the work could now read the scenario itself and visualise the events.


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