High Art in the Lowcountry
There are very few complaints from residents about life here on the Grand Strand. In two words, it’s pretty wonderful. The only caveat to living in this paradise is the perception (reality?) that we often lack the cultural enrichment offered by large metropolitan areas. While it’s true we don’t have all the culturally important amenities of larger cities, it’s patently untrue that we lack culture. You just must know where to look, as it can be hidden in our colleges and universities, found lurking behind our beachwear stores, vape shops, and shopping centers. It’s in our museums, botanical sculpture gardens, our high school auditoriums, and waiting patiently just behind the next sand dune.
Varna International Music Academy (VIMA) is bringing the high culture of world-class, fully staged, costumed opera to the Grand Strand once again this summer. From late June through late July, 2023, VIMA will also present chamber music performances, chorale ensembles, and more. The Columbia, S.C.-based nonprofit organization is inviting all who would like to immerse themselves in and seize the opportunity to embrace these centuries-old forms of entertainment once reserved for kings and queens.
“This is our legacy story,” says VIMA co-founder Sharon Tchonev, who, along with her husband co-founding musical director Kalin Tchonev, started VIMA more than 20 years ago, choosing Columbia, S.C., as their home and base of operations after Kalin’s education at the University of South Carolina and the couple’s subsequent marriage.
“Kalin is originally from Bulgaria, and his father was a famous conductor in Europe,” she says. “He followed in his father’s musical footsteps and began singing in his father’s choir at the age of five. This is his heritage, and now VIMA is our joint passion and mission.”
VIMA partnered with the world renowned Violins of Hope and brought their own production, Songs of Life, to the Grand Strand last year. The event celebrated the heroic actions of Bulgarian citizens during WWII who sacrificed to save about 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from the trains leading to Nazi death camps. The dozens of violins, cellos, and violas played in the touching performance once belonged to Jewish musicians, many of whom were not among the rescued and were murdered in the Holocaust. The moving program was just one of VIMA’s productions in the area last year.
Muzika! The Grand Strand Music Festival
From June 27 through July 21 (specific performance dates and locations are still to be scheduled) VIMA will return to Myrtle Beach as part of a broader South Carolina tour, which will also include Greenville, Columbia, and Augusta, Ga. Last year’s Muzika! marked the first time a fully staged and costumed professional opera with a full concert orchestra ever performed in Myrtle Beach. This summer, VIMA will present the operas Marriage of Figaro, The Tales of Hoffman and Street Scene, staged at an appropriate venue still in the works. Last year, VIMA was able to utilize the Myrtle Beach High School Music and Arts Center, with a seating capacity of nearly 2,000. It’s hoped that VIMA will be able to again use this facility, but no confirmation was available as of press time. The large theater was originally funded and built to attract just the kind of performances VIMA is staging, and has been the home of the Long Bay Symphony for decades. Long Bay conductor Dr. Charles Evans will be conducting the full orchestra for VIMA’s The Marriage of Figaro. Maestro Gregory Buchalter, visiting the Grand Strand from The Metropolitan Opera, will conduct the Verdi, Requiem and the operas, along with Met soloists.
Additionally, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass will be performed at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Garden City Beach on June 27. Choral and chamber performances are being scheduled for Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, Conway, and North Myrtle Beach as well.
“We will have performers coming from the Metropolitan Opera, the New England Conservatory, the Dallas Opera and many other prestigious organizations from across the U.S.,” continues Sharon Tchonev. “It’s really quite incredible. We will also be featuring voice majors and graduate students from around the country in lead and supporting roles.”
Kalin Tchonev, born and raised in Varna Bulgaria, a port city and seaside resort along the Black Sea, first came to South Carolina in his pursuit of additional musical training and degrees. He holds a BA and MA from Bulgaria’s National Academy of Music and an MA from the USC School of Music in Choral Conducting and Piano Performance Music and an MA from the USC School of Music in Choral Conducting and Piano Performance.
“We just started our reach to the Grand Strand last year,” explains Kalin Tchonev, “so we are still growing in our recognition there.
“Muzika! in 2022 had historical significance and impact to the Grand Strand community,” he contiues, “and, by that measure, it was stellar. We were the first to blaze this trail. The facility at the Myrtle Beach High School is the only one in the region with an orchestra pit, which is essential to staging an opera. We have more than 50 musicians performing in the orchestra, and you simply can’t put them in the wings, they must be in the pit. And off-stage our performers share the space with all the sets. This is a high-level production. Last year, we had some nights with good attendance, and some not so good, and we want to see that grow to match the caliber of performance.”
Most of the performers are from the U.S., but some are international visitors. Most are young adults, in their 20s and 30s, and VIMA uniquely offers some of them chances to be in their first professional, large-scale operas.
“They are young, but they are professional opera singers who study in masters or undergraduate programs,” says Kalin Tchonev, “and we also have well known professional opera singers in many of the lead roles, seeking to build their resumes.”
Locally, Riverside Elementary School teacher Sara Morey will train and provide a youth choir for this summer’s Street Scene opera.
“Last year, a youth choir performed for the opera Carmen, ” says Morey, “and the kids are still talking about it.” Her new choir, named The Grand Strand Voices Youth Choir, is composed of 25 to 30 kids, ages 8 to 18.
“We provide a small but important role in the opera, appearing in one scene,” she says. “Last year’s experience with VIMA and Carmen made for one of the best summers we’ve ever had. To get to see the kids on stage with these professional adults was so amazing. The kids were so inspired, saying, ‘I want to sing like this one or that one.’ It made a big impact on them.”
Varna International Music Academy
“Varna is not one of the most well-known European cities that most Americans would [recognize by name,]” says Sharon Tchonev. “We’re not Rome, or Paris or Vienna. We named our organization Varna International Music Academy because Varna is Kalin’s [birthplace] and we travel to more than 30 countries and teach and provide opportunities for students and professionals to perform. We started by offering classes in Varna exclusively but have grown to include American students traveling with us; we are truly an international group.”
“Our master class instructors represent the best in the industry,” adds Kalin Tchonev, “and we have presented concerts at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the National Philharmonic, at the Avery Fisher Hall in the Lincoln Center in New York, in Boston, and many concerts in South Carolina, including Myrtle Beach.”
“We started small and have grown through the years,” says Sharon Tchonev. “We want to bring the right message to the public and provide musical training for the next generations of performers, and, quite frankly, the people of South Carolina who don’t have many opportunities to see such grand operas or hear this quality of music. It’s pioneering work, and like all pioneering work it’s not always easy. We are a small nonprofit, even though we do big things, so there’s always a financial challenge as well.”
Interested in helping as a host?
“We are asking for help and are presenting an opportunity to the residents of the Grand Strand to host some of our traveling students and cast members at their homes for a few nights,” she adds. “As you know, hotel rates in the middle of summer are quite high, and we really need help with accommodations. This kind of hosting is a tradition when a large international festival comes into a city. We’re able to say ‘Thanks’ by way of offering tickets to hosting families and individuals.”
Prior to Muzika! 2023, VIMA will be touring in Bulgaria and Italy, then coming home to present nine full-scale opera performances, along with an additional 15 to 18 oratorios, chamber music, and chorale performances throughout the Grand Strand.
“I have lived here for 27 years,” says Kalin Tchonev. “South Carolina is my second home and we’re very excited to be coming back to the Grand Strand.”
“Kalin experienced the power of music firsthand,” says Sharon Tchonev, “and how music can bring people together, bringing joy to both the audience and the performers. This work is his mandate.”
For performance dates, tickets and hosting information, visit: varnainternational.com.