There are very few complaints from residents about living here on the Grand Strand. In short, it’s great. The only caveat to living in this paradise is the feeling (reality?) that we often miss the cultural enrichment offered by major metropolitan areas. While it is true that we do not have all the culturally important amenities of larger cities, it is patently false that we lack culture. You just have to know where to look as it can be hidden in our colleges and universities, found behind our beachwear stores, vape shops and shopping malls. It’s in our museums, botanical sculpture gardens, our high school auditoriums, waiting patiently just behind the next sand dune.
The Varna International Academy of Music (VIMA) is once again bringing the high culture of a first class, fully staged, costumed opera to the Grand Strand this summer. From late June to late July 2023, VIMA will also present performances by chamber music, choral ensembles, and more. The Columbia, SC-based non-profit organization invites all who would like to dive in and take the opportunity to embrace these age-old forms of entertainment once reserved for kings and queens.
“This is the story of our heritage,” says VIMA co-founder Sharon Chonev, who, along with her husband, co-founder, music director Kalin Chonev, started VIMA more than 20 years ago, choosing Columbia, South Carolina, as her home and base of operations after Kalin’s education at the University of South Carolina and the couple’s subsequent marriage.
“Kalin is from Bulgaria, and his father is 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 legacy and now VIMA is our shared passion and mission.”
VIMA partnered with the world-renowned Violins of Hope and presented their own production, Songs of Life, on the Grand Strand last year. The event celebrated the heroic actions of Bulgarian citizens during World War II who sacrificed themselves to save around 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from the trains leading to the Nazi death camps. The dozens of violins, cellos and violas played in the moving performance once belonged to Jewish musicians, many of whom were not among those saved and killed during the Holocaust. The relocation program was just one of VIMA’s productions in the area last year.
Music! The Grand Strand Music Festival
From June 27th to July 21st (specific performance dates and venues have yet to be set), VIMA will return to Myrtle Beach as part of a broader South Carolina tour that will also include Greenville, Columbia and Augusta, Georgia. Last year’s music! marked the first time a fully staged and costumed professional opera with a full concert orchestra had ever been performed in Myrtle Beach. This summer, VIMA will present the operas The Marriage of Figaro, The Tales of Hoffmann and Street Scene, staged in a suitable venue that is still in the works. Last year, VIMA was able to use the Myrtle Beach High School Music and Arts Center with a capacity of nearly 2,000. It is hoped that VIMA will be able to use this facility again, but no confirmation was available at press time. The Grand Theater was originally funded and built to attract just the kind of shows that VIMA puts on, and has been the home of the Long Bay Symphony for decades. Long Bay conductor Dr. Charles Evans will conduct the full orchestra for VIMA’s The Marriage of Figaro. Maestro Gregory Buchalter, visiting the Grand Strand from the Metropolitan Opera, will conduct Verdi, the Requiem and the operas, along with Met soloists.
In addition, the Requiem Liturgy of Giuseppe Verdi will be performed in the Catholic Church of St. Michael in Garden City Beach on June 27. Choral and chamber performances are also scheduled for Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, Conway and North Myrtle Beach.
“We will have performers from the Metropolitan Opera, the New England Conservatory, the Dallas Opera and many other prestigious organizations from across the United States,” continues Sharon Chonev. “It’s really amazing. We will also feature voice majors and students from around the country in lead and supporting roles.”
Kalin Chonev, born and raised in Varna, Bulgaria, a port city and seaside resort on the Black Sea, first came to South Carolina in search of further musical training and degrees. He has BA and MA degrees from the National Academy of Music of Bulgaria and an MA from the USC School of Music in choral conducting and piano performance and an MA from the USC School of Music in choral conducting and piano performance.
“We just started reaching the Grand Strand last year,” explains Kalin Chonev, “so it’s still growing in our recognition there.
“Music! in 2022 had historical significance and impact on the Grand Strand community,” he continues, “and by that measure it was stellar. We were the first to blaze this trail. The facility at Myrtle Beach High School is the only one in the region with an orchestra pit, essential for staging an opera. We have more than 50 musicians playing in the orchestra, and you just can’t put them in the wings, they have to be in the pit. And offstage, our performers share the space with all the sets. This is a high level production. Last year we had some well-attended evenings and some not-so-well-attended ones and we want to see that grow to match the caliber of performance.”
Most of the performers are from the US, but some are international visitors. Most are young people between the ages of 20 and 30, and VIMA uniquely offers some of them chances to participate in their first professional, large-scale operas.
“They are young, but they are professional opera singers studying in master’s or bachelor’s programs,” says Kalin Chonev, “and we also have well-known professional opera singers in many of the lead roles who are looking to build their resumes.”
Local Riverside Primary School teacher Sarah Moray will train and provide a youth choir for this summer’s street stage opera.
“Last year, a youth choir performed the opera Carmen,” Morey says, “and the kids are still talking about it.” Her new choir, called The Grand Strand Voices Youth Choir, consists of 25 to 30 children 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 had. Seeing the kids on stage with these professional adults was so amazing. The kids were so inspired, saying, “I want to sing like this or that.” It had a big impact on them.”
Varna International Music Academy
“Varna is not one of the most famous European cities, as most Americans would make it out to be [recognize by name,]”, says Sharon Chonev. “We are not Rome, Paris or Vienna. We named our organization Varna International Music Academy because Varna belongs to Kalin [birthplace] and we travel to more than 30 countries and teach and provide performance opportunities to students and professionals. We started by offering courses only in Varna, but have grown to American students traveling with us; we are truly an international group.”
“Our master class instructors represent the best in the industry,” adds Kalin Chonev, “and we’ve presented concerts at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with the National Philharmonic, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, in Boston and many concerts in South Carolina, including Myrtle Beach.
“We started small and have grown over the years,” says Sharon Chonev. “We want to bring the right message to audiences and provide musical education for the next generations of performers and, frankly, the people of South Carolina who don’t have many opportunities to see such grand operas or hear this quality of music.” This is pioneering work, and like all pioneering work, it is not always easy. We’re a small non-profit organization even though we do big things, so there’s always a financial challenge as well.”
Interested in helping out as a host?
“We are asking for help and providing an opportunity for Grand Strand residents to host some of our traveling students and cast members in their homes for a few nights,” she adds. “As you know, mid-summer hotel prices are quite high and we really need help with accommodation. This kind of hosting is a tradition when a major international festival comes to town. We can say ‘Thank you’ by offering tickets to families and individuals.”
Before Music! In 2023, VIMA will tour Bulgaria and Italy before returning home to present nine full-scale opera performances, along with an additional 15 to 18 oratorios, chamber music and choral performances on the Grand Strand.
“I have lived here for 27 years – says Kalin Chonev. “South Carolina is my second home and we are very excited to return to the Grand Strand.”
“Kalin experienced firsthand the power of music,” says Sharon Chonev, “and how music can bring people together, bringing joy to both the audience and the performers. This work is his mandate.
For show dates, tickets and hosting information visit: varnainternational.com.