When I reviewed Elīna Garanča’s Wigmore Hall recital last year, I was struck by her remarkable poise and stillness as a performer. Vocally, hers is probably the most beautiful mezzo voice in the world right now – velvety smooth, with just a flash of silver at the top. She is equally at home on the operatic stage, in Mozart or bel canto roles, or as Octavian or Carmen. In January, I saw her superb Charlotte in Paris. She is one of a remarkable number of Latvians prominent in the classical music world. In our interview, Garanča muses on why so many great voices are emerging from Latvia, as well as discussing key roles, singing competitions, and how her voice is developing.

You come from a musical family. How did you take your first steps into opera? How did you discover your voice?

My first opera visit was at the age of seven, an older girlfriend took me to see Wagner’s Tannhäuser. We left after the first act! I was actually much more surrounded by choral singing and lieder repertoire as well as straight theatre, so at the beginning I wanted to become an actress. Or a musical star! So, the stage was always calling. But I failed in my exams for drama school, and in Latvia we don't really have a school for musicals, so I decided to try for singing, and it turned out to be opera as well.

For a population of just 2 million people, Latvia produces some remarkable musicians. How do you explain this? Why are there such great voices coming out of Latvia?

First of all, I think it's because we have a very deep choral singing tradition. Everybody sings in Latvia. We have a huge choral festival that started 1873 and happens every 4-5 years. Around 20,000 people get together and sing, whole cities across the country are living this for a week. Also our language is deep, it comes from the lower part of mouth, and it gives the voice a certain colour and strength and then we try to make it more Italian, to add more brilliance. In my generation, we had a very serious musical education even in non-music orientated schools: obligatory opera, concert and theatre visits. And since those times we had only two or three TV channels, mostly about Russia, so parents had to occupy their children whilst they were still at work, so after school kids went to different drama, music and artistic programmes. One such programme that many of us attended was called "Kinderstube" and I believe that it has given the present artists a musical background that stands out in comparison to other musicians from other countries.

We reviewed your Wigmore Hall recital in December. Why is Lieder so important to you? And how do you put together recital programmes?

Lied gives me the possibility to work in finer detail than in opera. It's also a very good vocal condition training as you sing for one and a half hours nearly non-stop – usually there is no opera role that has so much pure singing. And as my mother was a Lied singer, I grew up hearing it at home so part of me has Lied in my blood. Often, I opened a score in the past and instantly knew the melody, sometimes even part of the text, from childhood. I feel that in opera, you kind of reach out to the public, but in Lied you bring the public to you. It's a different sensation for me. I like to be able to tell whispering stories or just take time to pronounce certain words which with orchestra would be submerged. I always start with the text. I need to like and feel the text in Lied, only then will I explore the melody. I take about half a year to select a recital programme that I will be then singing for two to three years.

You’ve sung the role of Charlotte for some time now, most recently in Paris. What is it about her that appeals to you? Is there any other Massenet you’d like to explore?

I love Massenet because, in my opinion, he really understands how to bring out the warmest and most profound emotions in the mezzo voice with sometimes very few notes and gentle orchestration. In general, I find that French music – Gounod, Massenet, Saint-Saëns – is something that brings out the best of my voice. I have been singing Charlotte for over ten years now. With time, I feel that the “girlish” part of the role, which is Act I and partly Act II, is becoming more difficult as I have matured myself. But the nice part is that this role allows you to express every possible real life experience that one might gather. It is natural and can be real in everyday life too.

Carmen has been one of your key roles in recent years. How has visiting Spain influenced/changed your interpretation at all?

When preparing Carmen my husband and I went on trips to explore Spain. We saw gypsies dancing flamenco in Granadan caves, in Seville’s countryside, we saw blond gypsies in the north of Spain and spoke to them, we went to Corrida in Sevilla to see toreadors. I realized that the Spanish gypsy is very different to, for example, Caucasian gypsies, and they are very proud and very introverted people who will only react like a wild animal or uncontrollable fire when it really is necessary. So my vision about Carmen also changed. If you see real Spanish flamenco, you see that the pride they carry – straight back, an incredible energy that is locked into the body – you feel it, but you don't see it immediately. It's not like wild Italian gesticulation. They don't shout and scream, it's burning inside. They have their dark – or even blue – eyes that look at you so deeply that it makes you stop breathing: I think Carmen has to have that much more than vulgar sexiness.

As a mezzo who has sung a lot of Mozart and bel canto, you’ve played your fair share of ‘trouser roles’ – not forgetting Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. How difficult is it to play a male character?

Not really. At the beginning, maybe one needs to learn about male body language to make the character believable, but once you've grasped that, it doesn't make a difference. I had a period once preparing Octavian where, after three weeks of rehearsals, I was going in my dreams to the men's loo! I completely forgot on stage that I was a woman. You just try to react as you would wish a man would react. With time though, I have to say that I prefer that the men are running after me on stage and not me hunting women!

Which of your female operatic characters is least like your personality? Is it a release to play someone so completely different to your real self on stage?

To be honest, I think I have something of every character I play on stage. I have my share of life experiences that I think I can apply to any role. When I go on stage I never think of myself as Elīna singing a role. I might register certain emotions from daily life experiences to be then able to use them, but I am playing a character not Elīna in a role. And I like that during a rehearsal period I am pushed to my limits and need to "break" me and my impulses, because that makes also me develop more. But at the same time I am very intuitive and believe in the first movement and reaction when staging a scene for the first time – that's the most natural. Then you can develop it, but our body – hands, legs, head, back – it all has to come from inside, this process of thinking, hearing, feeling what your character is saying, then movement becomes a flow to following the music and vice versa.

You participated in the Cardiff Singer competition in 2001. How important are competitions to young singers? What are the benefits/drawbacks?

In general I believe that competitions are good for you to find an agent. It has been proved that not everyone who wins competitions also has a successful career. It's very different to prepare four or five arias than to perform an entire role in an opera, or prepare a couple of songs than put together a Liederabend. You have to be able to incarnate yourself in another character. In competitions, it's about a few arias that you sing at your best. Nevertheless, I always say to my younger colleagues that they should do competitions because you learn about the level of your current potential. You may find a great new teacher, and – if you get to semi-finals – there are usually agents, theatre intendants and promoters in the audience who may invite you to do auditions or even offer you a contract.

How is your voice changing? You’ve talked about taking on Eboli, Amneris and Dalila. Are these roles still ‘on the cards’? 

Oh, they are definitely on cards and I am already preparing them and have then scheduled: Santuzza this November and December in Paris, Eboli next year, and Dalila in two years. After having children my voice has become darker, heavier, rounder. I feel I can now manage the emotional and psychological baggage of these roles and have also gathered experience and the technical capacity to be able to give dramatic vocal moments without harming my voice. I think that's the most important thing, to be able to fill the necessary tension, exclamation, desperation and know how to ride over the Verdi or verismo orchestra and not lose your voice. It has to do also with body energy that one learns to channel. I am on my way now towards this new repertoire.

You returned to bel canto next with Sara in Roberto Devereux recently at The Met in David McVicar’s new production. As your voice changes with time, does this make bel canto any harder to sing? How do you keep your voice trim/flexible enough to cope with these roles?

Indeed it's harder as the voice is heavier now and a role like Sara requires a lot of flexibility in a very high register. It's a challenge for me. But I also try to protect myself and not put two completely different roles one after the other because it would be too hard to have a role that’s very low to sing immediately after one that is very high. For Roberto Devereux, we had six weeks of rehearsal and that was enough time for me to make the voice lighter and work on – as I call it – vocal gymnastics. I have much experience of singing bel canto in past, so I can always look for those tricks and try to make my life easier. My voice will though always have a bel canto quality because my voice is like that, with that colour and quality of vibrato. I believe that even Verdi has to have that. It's rather style and expression that makes Mozart different to Verdi, not the size nor volume of the voice.