St.Petersburg… Japan… Rome… Winston-Salem…

Nadia's journey to America

When you meet Nadia Bakhireva for the first time, she seems soft-spoken, even shy. She smiles easily and speaks quiet English with a rich and lilting Russian accent. Few would guess that Salem is only the latest stop of an adventurous life that has taken her from St.Petersburg to Japan to Rome, and now to the practice rooms of the Salem Fine Arts Center.

  Bakhireva grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, a world mecca for the performing arts, and attended a theatre academy where she says the emphasis "was more on acting than music. It was a little of musical theatre, but not much." After earning the equivalent of a master's degree, Bakhireva started working with professional musical theatres. A natural curiosity about the world emerged, inspiring her to seek posi-tions all over the world.

It was while working for a ballet company in Japan that Bakhireva began seriously considering taking time off to get more extensive vocal training, which she'd never really had. As the ballet's only singer, Bakhireva performed in shows every day, sometimes more than one, and also did concerts in other cities. One time, Bakhireva was to give a concert by herself in a distant city. She traveled to her destination by bus, and was told that someone would meet her at the station. "They told me the bus had a few stops in the other city, and they told me the name of my stop." When she heard the name of the stop, she got off the bus.

"I waited, and nobody came, nobody met me. It was my fi rst time in a strange city in Japan somewhere. I didn't know what to do. Fortunately at that time I spoke some Japanese, and I asked some of the people around. They said, 'You know, actually with this name there are three stops. Which do you need?' I said, 'Oh my God, I have no idea!' I had no money. I only came to sing. I had a performance that evening. I had to be there somehow."

Bakhireva began picking her way through the city looking for the correct station. Each person she talked to got her a block or two farther along until fi nally she found the people who were to meet her. "I was on time at least for the concert," she says.

The more she worked, the more she regretted her lack of vocal training. "I felt like I needed a music education, the voice technique and everything," she says. The ballet company's producer told her about maestro Joseph Giardina, a renowned pianist and teacher working out of Rome. Without question, Bakhireva (who says she spoke "about fi ve words" of Italian) traveled to Rome to meet with the legendary teacher.

Giardina noted Bakhireva's self-taught vocal technique immediately, and referred her to an acquaintance with more experience teaching singers: an American opera performer living in Rome named Barbara Caprilli. Caprilli, now head of Salem's voice department, remembers that "The people she'd worked with had gotten her into some bad habits," mainly Bakhireva's inclination to constrict her throat muscles. "When I started working with her, she couldn't comfortably sing an entire octave," Caprilli says. "It wasn't that the voice wasn't right, it's always been a good voice. She just didn't know how to do it. But she got it almost immediately. Right away, she started to change, but it's very hard to break old muscular habits."

Bakhireva worked with Caprilli for a few months, during which Caprilli says her student made "tremendous progress," and then returned to Russia to sing for the Moscow Circus. "In Japan I sang mostly Russian folk songs, and some French, and in the circus I sang classical pieces - much harder."

Two years ago, she emailed Caprilli, asking if she could return to Rome to resume her voice lessons. There was only one problem: Caprilli no longer lived in Rome. By this time, she had taken the teaching position at Salem College. Rather than giving up on her tentative plans, or perhaps fi nding another voice teacher ("impossible," Bakhireva says), she uprooted herself again, this time destined for Winston-Salem.

The move to America was diffi cult. Like most of Salem's international students, it took several months for Bakhireva to obtain the proper visas. Figuring out the equivalencies between the American and foreign educational systems is always a lengthy process. Eventually Salem granted Bakhireva a semester's worth of credits toward her chosen bachelor's degree in music.

Caprilli says, "I was a bit concerned because I didn't know how good her English was. We'd always spoken Italian together." She was pleasantly surprised to fi nd that Bakhireva had been working on her own to improve her English, in addition to continuing to practice sing-ing. Interestingly, Bakhireva's focus has shifted from musical theatre to opera.

When she completes school, Bakhireva says, "My dream is to live in Italy, just because I love that country very much." However, she is open to staying in this area, should she fi nd work. She says that her main concern is fi nding a job doing what she loves. "It's a second question for me, the where," she says. The veteran traveler of some of the world's great cities says that Winston-Salem is a pleasant place to live. "I like this place," she says. "I heard before that it has beautiful nature, the mountains and the ocean and everything, but it's really beautiful. People here are very nice, very kind. I would say it's the most help which I've received in my life! People just passing by - 'Oh, you don't have a dollar? I have, I can give you' - I've never had it before."

Other students are often surprised to learn how Bakhi- reva came to Salem. Even in a community of driven, adventurous learners, she stands out for her nonchalant willingness to follow her passions, wherever they might take her. Caprilli says that's just who Bakhireva is. "She wants to explore something that is interesting to her, and so she's going to do it. She is a wonderful performer, but she knows that the more she learns, the better performer she will be. She wants to learn as much as she can about everything she can."

Bakhireva learned long ago not to be intimidated by unfamiliar people and places, or even of situations like her blind journey through that unknown Japa- nese city. "There are so many scary things in life," she says. "I was so frightened that I already wasn't frightened anymore. So many emotions, so many impressions, people…It pushes me to express myself and to fi nd something new in myself."