Like any singer, soprano Natalia Pavlova — the Russian soprano making her U.S. debut in Spoleto Festival USA’s production of “Eugene Onegin” — has had to prove herself throughout her entire career.
But Pavlova’s situation is a bit trickier than most. She is a resident of St. Petersburg, which is also the home of another Natalia Pavlova. Fair enough: St. Petersburg has a population of more than 5.2 million people, some of whom share this common name. But this other Natalia Pavlova also is an opera singer, also a soprano and also an alumna of the Moscow Conservatory.
But there is a difference. This other Natalia Pavlova happens to be able to claim that Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature who wrote the novel in verse on which Tchaikovsky based his opera, is an ancestor.
A quick Google search will yield ample results for both women, who are each lean and pretty with long dark hair. As a result, some confuse them and describe the Natalia Pavlova who is currently in Charleston as Pushkin’s descendant.
Among those who made that mistake? Chen Shi-Zheng, director of Spoleto Festival’s “Onegin.”
“Everybody thought she was the descendant of Pushkin,” Chen said with a laugh. “We met and I asked her. She said, ‘No, no, no, we have the same name.’ ”
This Pavlova — well, technically both Pavlovas — came to Spoleto’s attention when a manager working for John Kennedy, the festival’s director of orchestral activities, heard her while visiting Russia. An impressive YouTube video of her quickly circulated among those who helped cast “Onegin.”
While they knew they were bringing the correct Natalia Pavlova to Charleston, they were confused in thinking she was related to Pushkin. “It’s sort of insane how similar their lives are,” said Spoleto public relations director Jessie Bagley.
Before beginning her singing career, Pavlova (the one here at Spoleto) was a skilled pianist who decided to pursue a conducting career. The other Pavlova was a singer. Mixups were common, and still are.
“I’m always the one correcting,” Spoleto's Pavlova said.
The Natalia Pavlova in Russia, who owns the nataliapavlova.ru domain name, confirmed the ongoing cases of mistaken identity but insisted they don't bother her.
"My great-great-grandfather, poet Alexander Pushkin, said in his verses that the name is not as important as the substance (of a person)," she wrote in an email.
The Charleston Pavlova said her agent has tried to make some kind of distinction between the two women, but besides legally changing her name, there isn’t much that can be done. Pavlova herself even said they look similar, especially from a distance.
There is little confusion about the impression Pavlova has made here. Chen said she is a phenomenal singer, and Bagley predicted that she will “blow up” in the opera community after the Spoleto run.
Let's hope the opera impresarios of the world distinguish clearly between the two Pavlovas.
Brianna Kirkham is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.