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I never wanted to be an opera singer! An interview with Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais - November 2010 (BM)

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka - Picture © Wilfried Hösl

Kristine Opolais’ spectacular debut in the title role of the new Munich Rusalka may have catapulted her to stardom in the opera world overnight, and one would be hard put to overlook the fact that she is tall and gorgeous, but her easy and entirely unassuming manner convey more of a girl-from-next-door impression.

congratulate her on her tremendous success, remarking that I was also very impressed by her Tosca some years back.

“Oh, that was in a different life!” she exclaims, “I have a new manager and a new teacher now, so many things have happened. Having an agency that I feel comfortable with has made all the difference - it is crucial to have a manager who is sensitive to your wishes and needs. I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but in my profession so many artists are treated like prostitutes by agencies, the type who pressure singers to accept everything they offer them. But artists who are forced to work like that end up losing themselves.”

And now she has chosen Munich over the Met, withdrawing from an engagement there at almost the last minute! On her manager’s advice? “Yes indeed, I will never forget the day he called me and asked me to say yes to what he was about to suggest, before I even knew what it was. But he was absolutely right. The moment he told me what Munich was offering, I knew: this is it! It is a bit unfortunate, though, that this seems to be what some people think is most newsworthy about my debut here. All I can say to that is the following: one very important principle of mine is that when I decide to accept an engagement, it is never about the house and always about the role. In this context, I might add that my debut at La Scala, for example, was a prospect which almost scared me to death at the time – and I don’t know whether that is really a compliment to this particular opera house, although it is a great one. I had been waiting for my debut at the Met for two years, but the entire time I had a vague feeling that somehow it wasn’t right, and Musetta is a part that simply can’t compare to Rusalka – the difference is like day and night. Musetta is a great role for a big star to make a type of cameo appearance in – that would be fun! Rusalka, on the other hand, is a dream role for any soprano, and you need more than just a voice, which is almost enough for Tosca; rather, you need a whole range of colors, similar to those required for Butterfly or Aida, I would say.

So I will be eternally grateful to Nina Stemme, whom I admire no end, for deciding at fairly short notice that this part was not for her after all - it’s been the opportunity of a lifetime for me! I can certainly see why she was drawn to it, especially as such a renowned Wagner singer, since I feel there are many parallels between Wagner’s works and the way Rusalka has to sing with and over a strong orchestra.”

The director of Munich’s new Rusalka, was given quite a bit of negative press in Germany, forcing him to settle for plastic replicas of deer instead of the real animals he had planned to used as props on stage (although these would have been acquired through a perfectly straightforward transaction with a local butcher). How did she like working with him? Judging from the amount of time she spends in the water on stage, she must have felt literally waterlogged after a day of rehearsal…

“Well, I won’t deny that this aspect took a great toll on my health: I was ill during the better part of the rehearsals, which took about five weeks, and having to be in the water that much didn’t exactly speed up my recovery. But mind you, I don’t envy the colleagues who will have to prepare the revival of this production in a single week! I was very worried, however, that I wouldn’t be able to sing, and actually never even sang my entire part at full voice until opening night!

Martin Kušej is an exceptional director and I learned a great deal from him. He has a very strong personality, but he is never selfish. If I was uncomfortable with something, he would try to change his concept accordingly. He treated me with respect and always supported me, as a singer and as an actress. On another level, though, one thing I really had to insist on was the water temperature! I don’t know how many times I had to say: ‘People, why don’t you come and have a dip in the aquarium yourselves if you think I’m just being difficult? The water cools off really quickly, so it needs to be
hot to start with!”

So she had five weeks of rehearsals, but did she know the role when she got the call from Munich? And had she sung anything in Czech before?

“Only the aria and a few other passages, so actually I had only twelve days to learn my part, but I enjoyed the work immensely! And I feel very much at ease singing in Czech, a language which is very close to my heart. To me it also feels very close to Russian, my second language. A Czech friend and colleague, the tenor Pavel Černoch, told me after the premiere of Rusalka that he couldn’t believe how I had managed to get through the entire evening without making any linguistic mistakes, even though I don’t speak Czech, and I was very pleased with that comment, as I reckon you can imagine!

Having experienced the sheer power of her voice and stage presence, one would imagine that she had always wanted to be an opera singer?

“Absolutely not!, it was the
very last thing I ever wanted to be when I was growing up. To me, opera singers were fat people who stood stock-still on a stage and bellowed. My mother had wanted to be an opera singer, it was her dream, but then she had me and was obliged to settle down. Years later, when I made a successful appearance in a pop song contest in our small Latvian hometown as a teenager, she decided to enroll me in the conservatory – I thought it was the most tragic day in my life at the time!

What happened to turn things around, then? “My teacher gave me a Maria Callas recording of Puccini arias and showed me a film of her singing Tosca at Covent Garden. That did it for me. I realized that it was all about bringing the acting and the music together. I had always wanted to be an actress, and if I hadn’t become a singer that is what I believe my profession would be today. That is why music theater is so perfect for me.”

The reference to Maria Callas prompts me to mention that it was in Athens that I heard her sing Tosca (read a review here.)

“That was an almost spiritual experience for me. Most people don’t know this, but I have Greek blood, since my maternal grandfather was Greek. As I just mentioned I greatly admire Callas’ performance of this role, so it was extremely moving for me to be singing it in Athens; I felt her support and energy on that stage the entire time. Afterwards, an elderly lady who knew Callas personally came to see me in my dressing room and told me that she had seen Maria on stage again that evening. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to pay me a greater compliment.”

But back to her training – she went straight from the conservatory to Latvian National Opera? “No, not quite. My experience at the music academy was far from positive. It did nothing for the development of my personality as an artist. I felt they were trying to fit me into a box or a mold. There were complaints about my lack of knowledge of music theory and solfège, but what was even worse was that I was constantly told that it was “too early” to be singing what I had chosen to practice, that I shouldn’t attempt to tackle repertoire reserved for more advanced, mature singers, that I needed to sound my own age, etc. I remember being criticized in this vein by a jury once by all of its members but one, who turned to her colleagues and said: ‘What is wrong with you, she’s a born opera singer!’ At some point I left and started taking private lessons with a wonderful teacher, then went on to sing in the chorus at our national opera company for two years, after which I joined the ensemble as a soloist from 2003 to 2007 and learned many new roles, including Mimi, Musetta, Tatiana, and Lisa. And the rest is history, as they say. I truly believe it was my destiny to end up in this profession.”

An apt note to end our conversation on, as we set out to find our seats in the stalls for a performance of Jenufa at Bavarian State Opera – a role Kristine Opolais will be singing in two years time in a new production in Zurich, and no doubt something to look forward to!

So for now, the Met can wait, but I think it’s safe to say that they will be back with another offer, and most likely sooner than later…

Bettina Mara

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