Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais shot to international fame in 2010 with a controversial production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. She has recently performed the role in Mary Zimmerman’s much anticipated new production at The Met, a house where she made history in 2014, making two Met role debuts within 18 hours. After performing in Madama Butterfly, she then stepped in for a matinee of La bohème the next day. She is especially acclaimed for her Puccini roles, her Manon Lescaut with at Covent Garden reaching a huge audience via cinema relay and DVD release.
MP: What was it that got you hooked on opera? How did you discover your voice?
KO: I always loved music and sang quite a bit at home. I wanted to become a pop/rock singer or an actress. I never thought about becoming an opera singer, but my mother knew intuitively that I had a voice and pushed me to take singing lessons and to discover my voice. She is a very strong woman and doesn’t take no for an answer, so I had no other choice than to follow her advice and start exploring classical music! Once I listened to a recording of Maria Callas I knew that this passionate art form was the right choice for me. I was mesmerized by her passionate, expressive singing.
Tell me about Mary Zimmerman’s new production. From the photographs, it looks lavish and very traditional.
I love Mary Zimmerman’s production of Rusalka. It’s absolutely magical. This is only the second new production of Rusalka I have been a part of and it was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed working with her. From the very beginning there was great energy between us. I trusted her vision and she trusted my ideas to bring this complex character of Rusalka to life. She focused a lot on the intimacy of the scenes, the relationship of the characters to each other, and she gave us gorgeous costumes and a beautiful set. I could not be happier about this new production.
Martin Kušej's controversial Munich production – to which you return in June – was seen as a breakthrough role for you in terms of international recognition. What are the challenges in that particular staging of Rusalka?
Martin Kušej’s production in Munich is very close to my heart. It’s a deep, emotional, dark work. It’s hugely challenging for the performers and the audience. I was sick when we rehearsed it initially and had to remain silent while rehearsing. I couldn’t sing, so I spent my days rehearsing in silence, thinking about the role. Suffering. It was almost surreal that I had to live through in real life what Rusalka lives through in the story. I have had a great relationship with Martin Kušej. He is brilliant and this production initiated a huge development for the singer/actress in me. I became so much stronger and learned how to sing in any condition – feeling cold, being wet, being exhausted… I truly grew as a performer. A lot of people have approached me about this production who have told me that they feel it is unforgettable. It’s wonderful when theatre moves people to this extent.
Rusalka is such a psychological role. What does she mean to you? Is it important to dig beyond the fairy tale?
Rusalka is a magical story. We have to experience it in a magical way. There are many moments in the plot that can’t be seen as completely realistic scenes. Rusalka is a mermaid and asks Ježibaba to make her human, to give her a soul, so she could live with her human lover. The witch Ježibaba uses magic to give Rusalka legs and to make her human…or something in between a woman and a nymph. It’s a deep story, it’s not a Cinderella story. It’s heartbreaking and definitely more of a tragic tale than a romance. Her love affair is doomed and when she gets hurt by her beloved, she is lost. The role is still quite new to me. It’s a very special, delicate role. I am happy that I don’t sing it too often – it has to remain special for me. I depend on a longer rehearsal period to really dive into the character and it’s hugely important to have a great production and cast. I once jumped into a production of Rusalka and took over a few performances. I wasn’t happy. For a role like Rusalka, I need the rehearsal process. I need to explore different aspects of the her character and I need to feel supported by a cast I trust.
Technically, which parts of the role are the most challenging for you? And where are the emotional challenges?
Vocally, I feel quite stable. Rusalka is not a huge challenge for the voice. It’s more of an emotional challenge, an acting challenge. The biggest vocal challenge is the Act 2 aria, which comes after having been on stage for more than 30 minutes without singing a word. It’s a big jump from silence to a dramatic aria and there is no chance to warm up the voice. You just have to trust that it’s there.
I find that all operas are very emotional, and I express those emotions with my voice. It’s what I love about the art form. Emotions help a vocal performance, not hinder it.
Cio-Cio San is another crucial role for you, yet it’s not one you like to perform too often?
I can’t sing Cio-Cio-San that often because it’s emotionally exhausting for me. I am always completely immersed in the character and, being a mother, I find the scenes with my stage child so heartbreaking. I am an open and truthful performer, so I can’t hold back. I have to give everything, to feel it 100% and sing it 100%. It’s not something I can easily do over and over again.
Puccini is particularly cruel to his sopranos – they suffer! What is the appeal of his roles?
Puccini is a very passionate composer and almost all women are passionate. His soprano roles are all intense. Huge orchestration, romantic, tragic love stories – it’s always a challenge. I love this composer but he takes all my power. You can only sing these roles when you give it your all.
You’ve recorded Suor Angelica. Do you have any plans to take her to the stage?
Yes, I have some plans about singing Suor Angelica, but I can’t tell you where and when yet. But there is a confirmed project and I am very excited about it ;-)
Are there any particular sopranos you listen to on disc when preparing new roles?
I don’t listen to recordings that much any more. I used to listen to many, many singers, exploring different styles, expressions and vocal lines. Sometimes when I prepared a role, I listened to recordings to see how my colleagues solved difficult vocal passages or expressed certain phrases. I used to be influenced by a lot of singers, but now I tend to focus more on my own path. I work with pianists and coaches and try to discover my own interpretation.
I would encourage my younger colleagues to listen to the great singers of the past though. There is a lot to be learned, especially at the beginning of your career. When I first studied Madama Butterfly I listened to Renata Scotto, for Tosca, I listened to Maria Callas, also to Mirella Freni and when I prepared Manon Lescaut, I listened Renata Scotto, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas.
I have to say that I was also very inspired by Renée Fleming. My favorite album is the one on which she recorded Czech and Russian music with Valery Gergiev.
How has your voice changed over time?
The voice is constantly changing. Whenever I work on a new role, I learn something new. The voice is always evolving, but I feel that my voice is developing slowly. I actually used to sing a more dramatic repertoire at the beginning of my career, and I have added some more lyrical roles now. A strong technique and vocal control are very important, much more important than the sheer volume of your voice. The repertoire I sing demands technical expertise to protect the instrument. I am not a fan of an overly controlled sound. Emotions need to be expressed with different vocal colours. As I said, emotions help you sing… they add colours and expression.
How do you keep your voice healthy?
I don’t think I have such a demanding schedule compared to many of my colleagues. I say no very often. I am a mother and my daughter needs me. I would work much more, if I didn't have a 5-year-old daughter. I love spending time with her and she always travels with me. My schedule is very manageable. I try to live healthily and I welcome the challenges I have.
And finally, a fun one… If you woke up and discovered you were a mezzo-soprano for the day (again!) which role would you want to sing?
Carmen! Sorry for being so obvious in my choice, but I would love to show a side of Carmen that we’re perhaps less familiar with… she does not have to be so vulgar. It's a story about a powerful woman. I would really like to show a different side of her character. She is not a primitive sex symbol, but for this vision of Carmen I would need a very special staging.