Ivo Dimchev: gay singer/songwriter's Bulgarian rhapsodies

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday June 27, 2023
Share this Post:
Ivo Dimchev (photo: Justin Monroe)
Ivo Dimchev (photo: Justin Monroe)

As the music starts, he slowly leans back onto a plaid easy chair. He's wearing an open, loose fitting green shirt, revealing his chest. His hair falls carelessly across his forehead. He sings intensely about not being able to give up on a love who has already found someone else. It's a gut-wrenching song called "I Can Not," and the singer/songwriter is Ivo Dimchev, an openly gay HIV-positive performer who hails from Bulgaria, a fairly conservative country. Yet Dimchev stands his ground, proudly letting the world know exactly who he is.

Dimchev has performed all over the world, singing in both Bulgarian and English. He has amassed quite a following, and on July 5 his Bay Area fans will have a chance to enjoy his music when he takes to the stage of Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. The concert is titled "Top Faves." It's a collection of Dimchev's greatest hits from the past two decades. This is not his first time entertaining Bay Area audiences. In 2016 he performed at CounterPulse.

"Back then I had only twenty songs in my repertoire," Dimchev said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I started writing songs when I was forty years old, now I'm 47 and I have already a hundred songs. So my repertoire on the 5th of July is going to be very different."

Dimchev has an impressive falsetto range. His voice is almost operatic, yet he was never trained in opera and isn't an opera singer. He doesn't even listen to opera. His voice, he says, gives him a vibe of classical music.

"It gives me this vibe of femininity which I kind of enjoy exploring and using this feminine energy I have as a performer," he said. "The falsetto voice makes this very accessible and very easy to me, so that's why I'm using it, but I don't believe that I have a big range. I'm just comfortable with my falsetto which gives the impression that my vocal range is very big."

Ivo Dimchev  

Prior to his singing career, Dimchev was a performance artist. While in his twenties he enrolled in Bulgaria's National Academy for Theater and Film Arts, but he found their method of teaching to be restrictive, so he left shortly thereafter. Two years later he mounted his own show at the National Theater, but he still wasn't satisfied. He found Bulgaria to be too conservative, so he left to perform in other, less restrictive countries. For the next fifteen or so years he mounted numerous productions and became established in avant-garde circles, performing across Europe and in the U.S.

"In my early twenties I deeply believed that the performative body does not have a gender by default," he said. "I felt if I was using just part of my just part of my genderless performative body, it would be just like cutting off half of my vocabulary as an artist. So it was very important to me to use the capacity, the full range of emotions, of expressions of my body, which includes feminine/masculine and it's primitive, very high, very tender, very violent, very everything."

During the COVID-19 pandemic Dimchev performed four hundred private concerts in people's homes. This began in Bulgaria, but went on to include Istanbul, New York and Los Angeles. He is now making a documentary about those at-home concerts, as many of them were recorded. He wanted to interact with these audiences, so he asked them strange questions.

"I was asking weird questions like, from a list of fifty questions, 'Would you prefer to be in hell with Jesus or in heaven with Trump?' or 'Would you have sex with Putin or sex with the Dali Lama?'" he said. "So I would give them these strange dilemmas that they would never ask themselves, but just because they're put in this kind of narrow choice and possibilities, they would choose one from the other. It would give me a little impression of who these people are."

Those questions became the dramaturgical spine of his musical "In Hell With Jesus," because he found that most people preferred that option. The American version of this show will premiere at La Mama in New York this coming fall. When he performs in Berkeley, he will be performing some of the songs from this musical.

Dimchev is a huge Elton John fan, and even wrote a song about his idol. As a kid in Bulgaria, John was his only gay role model and was a source of support for him. He didn't have it easy as a gay kid in Bulgaria.

"Having Elton John as somebody who I connect with musically and emotionally, but also on a queer level for me, was really helpful," he said. "Even if he doesn't hear it (the song), I'm happy to have it and to sing it."

He hopes that the Elton John song will be ready to be performed in Berkeley.

He says that things have gotten better for gay kids in Bulgaria. Nowadays schoolteachers are obliged to support kids who experience aggression directed toward them.

"Back then, forty years ago, they were not obliged to support you," he said. "I had a difficult time as a kid, not as being gay, but as being extravagant. But for me it was the same thing. My queerness was coming out in the way I behaved, the way I dressed. I was not fitting any norms, and it was part of my queerness. It was so difficult for them to accept it as normal so of course my environment was very aggressive towards me. When I was twelve I went to a theater school where my extravagance and my strange way of reacting and expressing myself was found good and creative. It was tolerated and encouraged."

These days, things are much easier for him because he's well known. In Bulgaria he's respected as an artist.

"I have beautiful love songs in Bulgarian that many people relate to, besides my weird songs about food and cock-sucking," he said. "I am the only Bulgarian who is openly HIV-positive. My HIV status is open, and I'm the only one who talks about this in the media. To the majority of the Bulgarian audience I am very, very out of the box. Being HIV-positive makes me even more strange, but thank God there are enough intelligent people who are okay with it."

Most HIV-positive people in Bulgaria are fearful about coming out. They think that being open about their status will cost them their careers or their personal lives. But Dimchev has no such concerns because he doesn't consider himself a Bulgarian artist. His stage is global.

"I feel good about who I am," he said. "But it's important for me to be accepted by Bulgarian audiences because I'd like to educate them. I'd like to be an example of somebody who's free, somebody who's brave enough to cross boundaries and play with them and just be gay and be happy. I think they need this example and I don't think I have something to lose by being honest about it. I don't think I even have a choice."

'Ivo Dimchev: Top Faves,' July 5, 8pm, $15-$34, Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. Berkeley. 18+ wsww.thefreight.org

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.