(Photo : Tatyana Vlasova)
On Friday, April 4, Kristine Opolais will sing Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time. The Latvian soprano spoke with Latinos Post in anticipation of her Met appearance and not only talked about the difficulty of singing the role, but also the challenge that her artistic vocation is for her emotionally.
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"I am not playing on stage. I am living the situation. I cannot cut emotions and sing. I never save myself," she stated about her performance style. "I go through every single emotion. My artistic life will likely be shorter than it could be because everything is for real for me. This is my life and my soul."
That blurring of reality and imagination could not be more potent for Opolais than it is in the role of Cio Cio San in Puccini's tragic masterwork. The soprano became a mother two years ago and has found the role terribly difficult to endure.
"The story for me is about the baby," she explained. "Every normal woman that is a mother will do everything for your baby to make sure he is happy. Every mother understands that the baby is only happy being with his or her mother. Every single time I play it is so terrible. I am fighting with myself not to cry because I am very emotional.
"[Cio Cio San] lost all of her hope and love, but for her the most important loss is her child. She cannot live without the child, that is why she is killing herself."
The soprano revealed that her reaction to the role was not always the same. She sang it for the first time when she was in her mid-20s in Latvia. She stated that during this period her misery in the role came from the romantic sections, but her reaction to Cio Cio San and her baby was not as strong.
Then she sang it again while she was four months pregnant and the emotions started to shift significantly.
"I already found the scenes with the baby so difficult. This music and these words were giving me a hard time."
But now the experience is a far more brutal one.
"Now it is hard from the very beginning. The entire first act brings me to tears because I know where it is headed. The meeting with Pinkerton is a tragedy. I don't see the illusion of love anymore," she revealed. "Yesterday I sent my manager a message saying, 'Not too much Butterfly in my future.' He was shocked and said, 'You're a spinto soprano. What are you going to sing?' I told him that it was just too hard Especially for me who gives 100 percent in rehearsal and 200 percent in every performance. I have to fight with myself not to cry while I am onstage."
Opolais also noted that even though she usually travels with her two-year-old, she did not bring her baby to New York because she knew it would make the experience that much more difficult.
"I didn't take my baby with me because I knew it would make it harder for me," she said before noting that the decision is a double-edged sword. "But now I miss her so much. We usually sleep together on a big bed and I always feel her near me. Without her I feel so empty."
Opolais made her Met debut during the 2012-13 season in another Puccini role, Magda in "La Rondine," and received rave reviews. Looking back on that experience, Opolais noted that it was important for her to bring a new perspective on the character and she even revealed that she was adamant about changing some of the staging to suit her interpretation.
"With Magda, I wanted to bring pain from the very beginning. She is not happy with Rambaldo. She wants to be in love," she noted. "I cancelled the original staging in which Rambaldo comes in at the end when she sings the last note. I wanted to show her suffering but the fact is that she is not going back to him. She loves Ruggero and knows that they have no future.
"For her it is better to die because she has nothing left. She used her body while she was young," she elaborated. "My Magda is probably going somewhere that no one can find her. Maybe she dies or goes to a convent like Suor Angelica."
After "Butterfly," Opolais heads to London for another opera by Puccini. But this one will be a very special occasion for the singer for a number of reasons. She will be making her role debut in "Manon Lescaut," but more importantly for her, she will sing with tenor Jonas Kaufmann for the very first time.
"I am shaking now already because I will be singing with Jonas. He is not just a colleague. He is a teacher, a role model. I put him in a place like Maestro Domingo and Pavarotti," she stated with tremendous enthusiasm.
The soprano met Kaufmann after one her performances of Simon Boccanegra in Munich and will be performing with him again in September for the opening gala of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 2014-15 season.
"He was so nice and sweet. I am so excited to sing with him. I think I will learn from him because he is such a great artist, singer and actor," she stated. "This is an example of a person living the story. His singing is full of passion. He gives 200 percent on stage."
The performance will be recorded live and transmitted to movie theaters around the world. For Opolais, being in front of the cameras allows her to fulfill her very first dream of being a cinema actress.
"I am exited about this experience because I always dreamed of being a cinema actress," she stated. "That makes it more exciting. I don't like big gestures, but I like the simple actions where your back is speaking and the camera can catch small details."
So how did the Latvian singer go from imagining herself on the silver screen to playing tragic heroines on the operatic stage? For her the answer comes down to one person - her mother.
Opolais noted that her mother had once studied to be an opera singer, but was never able to fulfill that destiny.
"When she sang it was scary. She has a huge dramatic singer by nature. She started to study but it was not destiny. She couldn't leave me alone," said Opolais about her mother's career aspirations.
But her mother seemingly wanted an opera singer in her family and told the young Kristine to go to the conservatory. But things never really went as planned as the student was promptly kicked out because of her dislike for music theory.
"What is theory? It's like mathematics. I hate everything that is rigid. I need freedom," she stated.
She then found a private teacher and after a few years of studying, she auditioned at the opera house where she gained a position in the chorus.
"After one year the teacher told my mother that she did not think I was special. But after a break of one year, we started to work and after six months she said, 'I actually changed my mind,'" revealed Opolais.
During her time with the chorus, Opolais became obsessed with opera and made sure to spend as much time as possible at the opera house to soak in as much as she could.
"I was there from morning to night at the opera house. I was absolutely crazy. This kind of obsession brings you where you want. You have to be obsessed."
It was during this time, that she fell in love with Puccini and Maria Callas, who she lists as one of her favorite artists alongside Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni.
"My teacher gave me a solo CD of Callas and the first aria was 'O Mio Babbino Caro' and from that moment I fell in love with Puccini," she revealed.
Musetta in Puccini's "La Boheme" would be the first role that she sang on stage in Riga and the composer would continue to be a major part of her artistic life thereafter.
"I like freedom. I don't like to stay in a box. I don't like when people say that a phrase has to be a certain way. Those phrases kill me. Nobody knows how the phrases are really supposed to be," she stated. " That is what Puccini gives me. Freedom. You need tears and tragedy in your voice to sing Puccini."
Opolais is slated to take on the role of Mimi in "Boheme" next season at the Met. Despite loving the music, she is not completely convinced of the role as usually portrayed and has plans on how she will add depth to the character.
"Mimi is very boring for me. I hate when she comes in smiling and singing. It's honey with sugar," she said. "For me the best Mimi is [Teresa] Stratas. She brings tragedy from the beginning. She's already weak during her first aria. She has a feeling that she is really sick, She wants to enjoy life but she can't.
"I want to bring that sense of tragedy to my portrayal."
What does the future hold for the rising Latvian star? Opolais made it clear that her main focus was to sing in the four major opera houses that made her happiest and those include the Royal Opera House in London, the Vienna State Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera.
"I think this is one of the most important opera houses in the world," she said in reference to the Met. "Maybe the most important. It is my audience. I only work in a few theaters where I get good warm attention from the audience. The atmosphere in this house is so special and so strong and it makes you so happy. It is a big challenge because you always have to be good. For me it is a big challenge. After a good debut you have to be at least the same or better."
She explained that the most important fact was that the Met provided her with the family feeling that is often missing with the constant traveling.
"Can you imagine such a huge house with over a hundred people everyday? It is a huge machine and yet there is a family feeling everywhere. The company pays attention to everyone. That makes it so special," she noted. "We do not have a home because we are always traveling and we need it. We are very lonely. If I feel that people do not understand you then I never go back. That is why I work in these four houses and my future is mainly with these companies."
So what does she plan to sing in these four houses? The soprano never committed to revealing where she would be singing anything, but she did hint that there might be more Puccini operas at the Met.
"God willing, I might be able to do every Puccini here. But I don't know how that will work out," she said with a smile.
Which roles would they be? She is slated for "La Boheme" during the 2014-15 season and has yet to present the New York audience with her celebrated rendition of Tosca, an opera that she mentions as her favorite.
"I feel so well with Tosca. I know every turn. My husband says I am Tosca. He always tells me that," she enthused before remarking on how Maria Callas' famous video recording of the second act inspired her while she was learning the role for the first time. "The best scene is from Callas. She was amazing. Nobody can repeat that. I feel it exactly how she did. When I saw this scene I was learning my first Tosca and I could not understand how someone could create something so powerful. I was in love with Callas."
As is the case with most of her other characterizations, Opolais sees Tosca's story as a tragedy right from the get-go. She does not even think that the love between her and Mario Cavaradossi, the character's only main hope, is substantial or even real.
"I unfortunately think that he is unfaithful. It is a tragedy as well. Maybe he didn't have a real love story with 'L'Attavanti,' but he likes her," said Opolais. "You know what is funny about Tosca? You never feel bad for her. She is a bit of a negative personality and that is something I always wanted to change. She is a fool with pain in the second act. In the third act she needs to be vulnerable. She needs to come full of hope and love and then we will feel sorry for her. We need to understand why she killed Scarpia."
One Puccini role that Opolais has yet to tackle is that of Minnie in "La Fanciulla del West." She noted that the role is on her wish list.
"I love this opera because the music is very different for Puccini," she noted. "The character of Minnie is a very strong woman. She is stronger than Tosca."
Aside from Puccini, the soprano hopes to delve deeper into Verdi's other major heroines. In fact she claims that her two major dream roles are Elisabetta from "Don Carlo" and Desdemona from "Otello." Though she does concede that Desdemona is a "boring" character, but her aim is to take the same approach as she is taking with Mimi and add depth.
"With Desdemona, if you don't think of something special to add to the character, then it doesn't work. I would love to bring something new to the work," she revealed.
The soprano also noted that she will sing Arrigo Boito's masterwork "Mefistofele," but with a twist. The role has two distinct soprano roles. The first half of the work belongs to Marguerita, while the second is the domain of Elena (Helen of Troy); most performances of the work usually feature two sopranos playing each part. But Opolais plans to do unthinkable and take on both roles.
"I will do two roles in one opera. It's a big deal vocally but I said yes because normally at the end of the opera when everyone is tired, I have a lot of energy," she stated. "Often when I finish an opera I always say that I would like to sing more."
She also unveiled her decision to sing Halevy's "La Juive." In fact she had made the decision days prior to the interview after pondering the idea for a year. Opolais noted that one of her major reservations in taking on the role of Rachel was the French language and her relative inexperience with it.
"French is my next big deal. I am afraid of it because I do not know the language well enough. I still have a lot to learn. I cannot speak the language," she noted before stating that Massenet's "Thais" was another opera she wanted to sing.
However, the big French role that Opolais dreams of is the eponymous character in Bizet's "Carmen." The Spanish gypsy is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, but some major sopranos, including Victoria de los Angeles, have taken on the iconic character onstage; Maria Callas sang numerous selections in concert and recorded the role as well. Opolais wants to take on Carmen to add her own spin to the role. And true to form, she also sees the icon of feminism as an "unhappy woman."
"She is not using her beauty or sexual energy to get men. She is just natural with it. She doesn't want people to get crazy over her. But it is her destiny," said Opolais. "The tragedy of this story is that she wants to love Don Jose, but you cannot control your feelings. You can't tell your heart to continue loving him. It is impossible."
However for Opolais Carmen is in love with another major character in the story.
"She is madly in love with Escamillo. She loses her mind when she sees him for the first time."
The soprano also revealed that Wagner was on her to-do list as well and even noted that her first Elsa in "Lohengrin" would come in 2018.
"I love Wagner and I know that I will sing Isolde and Senta. I know that Elsa will my voice grow, but for me the most interesting characters are Isolde and Senta," she mentioned.
Opolais actually sang the role of Senta during her time in Riga and really felt at home with the music and the character.
"I understand the obsession, I understand all obsessions about everything. For me it is everything or nothing. There is no middle way. It is not clever but it is my way," she said. "Wagner's music takes me to another world."
She is also excited about singing Isolde in the future and noted that she will get her first taste of the role this September when she sings the famed "Liebestod: with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of her husband Andris Nelsons.
Opolais did make a point to note that singing comedic roles was not on her horizon.
"Comedy is not for me. It gives me nothing. I am not singing a lot of Mozart because it does not give me enough happiness," she said before noting that she does not overlook the genius of the composer. "Mozart is a genius. There is no denying that. It is great music. But it is not for me. Not everything is for me."