It’s good to see that the Royal Opera’s props department is keen on recycling. Among the documents scattered across Baron Scarpia’s desk that Tosca rifles through, desperately searching for the safe conduct pass that he has signed moments before she stabs him, I doubt she would expect to find the score to Enrico’s aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. “Maybe Bryn’s learning a new role!” laughs Kristine Opolais. We are on set in Scarpia’s study, the Palazzo Farnese, where a statue of the Archangel Michael, sword in hand, towers over us. You sense that Scarpia’s spies are keeping watch.

Kristine Opolais
© Elena Nezenceva

Elsewhere in the opera house, operatic ghosts lurk. In the foyer, securely encased in glass, is the iconic red velvet dress worn by Maria Callas in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1964 staging. No soprano has been more closely identified with the role of Tosca. What is it like for Opolais, back in London to star in the revival of Jonathan Kent's production, following in her footsteps?

“For me, Maria Callas is more than an idol,” she explains. “She is a planet! Every second soprano wants to be Maria Callas on stage but that’s impossible. It’s something you cannot even touch. It’s good to be ambitious, but nobody is Callas! Everyone who tries to replicate her has a bad destiny. What we can learn from Callas is how to live on stage, how to completely inhabit the role. Of course, I’ve watched Act 2 from that Covent Garden gala. It’s not just about the singing – the singing is not enough. You have to bring something more than beautiful singing. You need to feel Tosca’s pain and all the challenges the role brings.

“With each year,” she continues, “I understand more and more what makes opera art. It’s very high definition. You need to be able to act. Sure, you can just sing – some audiences are happy just to hear the singing – but for me it’s a high level of acting and singing. Each emotional reaction to your partners on stage can bring different colours to your voice and it means you cannot be vocally perfect; if you are it means you are a computer. If you sing ‘Muori dannato!’ you cannot be thinking ‘How can I sing this phrase beautifully?’ It’s impossible for me to think about technique during a performance; this is homework, to be prepared with your voice teacher. On stage, we need to show dirty things as well because this is real life! I have goosebumps now because I rehearsed today with Bryn Terfel – now that’s what I call an artist! You can see that Scarpia is there for real, even in a rehearsal!

Kristine Opolais (Tosca)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“That’s why Maria Callas, for me, is an example of what it means to be an opera singer. Sure, you can learn how to act, but this is something God gives you when you are born. There are certain things you cannot learn. You cannot learn to be charismatic on stage. I like this freedom, that’s why I love Puccini. He is the composer with the most free style. But he’s also the most dangerous, especially for singers who sing a lot of Mozart or Verdi. It’s music you have to feel. For Verdi, you have to be precise and you’re more ‘in the box’. With Puccini, there is freedom and that’s what I like.”

Opolais has sung roles like Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito), the Countess and Donna Elvira, but Mozart has never really appealed. “You have to be born to be a good Mozart singer,” she shrugs. “I’ve never been good enough for Mozart.” I remark that – on paper – Mozart looks so easy. Opolais nods violently. “Isn’t it?! Number One repertory for young students. Mistake! You know why? Because first you have to find your base, understand your possibilities, and then you can explore where your voice wants to go. That’s why this opera world is so amazing, the repertoire is so different. You cannot sing everything. You need to find your own way.”

Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia) and Kristine Opolais (Tosca)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Although she sings Rusalka and Tatyana, Opolais’ way is very much down the Puccini route. So what’s the appeal? “Puccini gives you freedom,” she replies, her eyes lighting up. “As soon as I hear it, I have so many vibrations. Puccini is in my blood and Dvořák is in my soul. Tosca is my very favourite role. When I sang my first Manon Lescaut here, Tony Pappano said to me ‘I think Manon will become your favourite role.’ No, it’s still Tosca. I feel this character in a different way. I disagree with many singers about what we’re supposed to say about Tosca. She cannot be scary and look like a professional killer.”

Surely Tosca has never killed before, I suggest. “I was saying this in rehearsals just today,” Opolais explains. “After Tosca’s killed Scarpia, she immediately starts looking for the safe conduct pass among Scarpia’s papers. Why? She wouldn’t be thinking that clearly. She loses her mind as soon as she kills him. That’s why she is quite hysterical in Act 3.”

I tell Opolais about Michael Sturminger’s production last year at the Salzburg Easter Festival, where Tosca fails to kill Scarpia, leading to a surprise denouement. She likes the idea. “You have to be so strong to kill someone. That’s why sometimes Tosca really needs three or four stabs! She has to be really scared too. When she discovers what’s going on in the torture chamber, she has to be really shocked. Spotting that knife, it’s her last chance to save Cavaradossi. She’s out of her mind already. I never see this enough, because everyone is saving their voice for “Vissi d’arte”. As Callas said, this was Puccini’s biggest mistake, having this aria at this point. It’s a prayer, but Tosca is an artist, she’s a diva which means she’s hysterical. Artists cannot be normal! We’re not normal! If something like that happened to me, I’d be hysterical. That’s why I think “Vissi d’arte” should be something like a sob… it’s nothing about beautiful praying."

Kristine Opolais
© L'Officiel Latvia | Natalia Berezina

Opolais started her career in Riga singing quite heavy repertoire with the Latvian National Opera. It wasn’t unusual for her to be singing Tosca, Aida and Senta in the same week. “My career went straight from Riga to the Berlin Staatsoper so I had no ‘proper’ slow way of building a career, moving through smaller houses. I just…” Landed? “Yes. It was a great opportunity. It made me unafraid of anything, so I am prepared for challenges. I survived, but it’s not my recommended route!”

She sang lyric repertoire like Liù and Micaëla before returning to dramatic roles and recognising that she faced a problem. “I was 34 or 35 and had forced myself to become a spinto because that was the repertoire offered to me. But I realised that I needed time to think about what I’m doing, where I’m going, how long I will sing. I did a lot of concerts and this break from a busy opera schedule gave me time just to breathe and let my body grow naturally into the heavier repertoire which is easier for me to sing now. I’m almost 40 – a lyric soprano must grow up! The opera business is very tricky – as soon as you do a role perhaps a little earlier than you should, you get invited to sing it everywhere and then you get tired. This is what happens to many singers. It’s important to have time to relax and work on technique.”

Opolais stopped booking in roles five, six years ahead. “This is crazy. For example, some time ago I suddenly felt that I’d like to sing Salome, but two months later, I changed my mind. Everybody said ‘You’d be so amazing’ but my body and my intuition said no.”

Brian Jagde (Pinkerton) and Kristine Opolais (Cio-Cio-San) in Madama Butterfly
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2015)

Previously, Opolais has told me that a role like Madama Butterfly is difficult because, “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.” The soprano nods. “That’s why I took a big break from Butterfly. If you are an emotional type and you are singing a role like Butterfly, it’s double the work because you feel all the pain for real. I am sometimes so tired from suffering on stage, but this is my way and I love it. It’s also cleansing. When you cry, you clean your soul. Some people would love to cry, but they don’t know how to do it.”

We cite singers like Ermonela Jaho who fully inhabit the characters they portray. Opolais explains that she saw Jaho in a cinema screening of La traviata here in London recently. “My boyfriend – a tenor – turned to me and asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ because I was crying non-stop. For me, that means these artists did more than their job. They were here for us, they lived through their characters for real.”

That same emotional commitment applies to a role like Suor Angelica, which Opolais sang in New York. “It’s very heavy. I feel her pain. When I finished at the Met, I said I will never return to this role as it took everything from me. But because I’m an ambitious person, I would be interested in doing all three Trittico roles, but the Met would be the wrong place for that because it’s huge.”

Kristine Opolais as Suor Angelica
© Ken Howard | Met Opera (2018)

Opolais is busy preparing Giorgetta in Il tabarro – “an amazing opera” – and agrees it would be fun to do some comedy in Gianni Schicchi. But what other roles are on her horizon? She concedes that Senta is probably the only Wagner she’d still consider. Opolais withdrew from Elsa in last year’s new Royal Opera Lohengrin because alarm bells rang when she started studying the role in Munich and she decided it wasn’t for her. She would love to sing Minnie (La fanciulla del West) and Maddalena (Andrea Chénier). Plus Desdemona. “I don't understand how long I have to wait. I need to sing Desdemona.”

Perhaps there’s time to change her mind about Salome? “Ah, but Salome has to be young,” she sighs. “You still need to have a body. You need to show something! But there are so many Italian roles... and French roles. Mezzo roles.” Charlotte in Werther, perhaps? Opolais grins. “You guessed it! Not Carmen. With Carmen, everything is visible, but Charlotte is somebody who has feelings. You have to show a whole palette in your acting and this is a role for me.”

What would her compatriot Elīna Garanča say? Opolais laughs and is at pains to point out that mezzos are safe from her stealing any more roles from them… just this one. “It’s quite high tessitura which is why it can be difficult for a mezzo. Singing Charlotte would be amazing!” Let’s hope Scarpia’s spies are listening and taking notes to Pappano.