Unlimited Possibility

Elīna Garanča, Octavian in the Met’s new Rosenkavalier, thrives on expanding her repertoire.
By Jennifer Melick. Photographs by Nomi Baumgartl. 

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Photographed by Nomi Baumgartl at the Bayerische Staatsoper
Fashion styling by Melanie Cho
“I WANTED TO BE AN ACTRESS BUT I FAILED MY EXAMS.” 
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As Octavian, at Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Poehn
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© Nomi Baumgartl

“THE WORD DIVA COMES FROM DIVINE ,” says mezzo Elīna Garanča. “And divine is something that is not really approachable, something that you cannot touch, that is a certain pedestal that you cannot reach. And a great performance is divine. It brings you to levels that you cannot experience in everyday life. And that’s the music, and that’s the human voice. So if I manage to get that in my performance, then I am very happy that I am a diva.”

In the Met’s run of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux last spring, you couldn’t keep your eyes off Garanča, though she points out that, in that opera, “My role is not so big.” Playing against Sondra Radvanovsky, as the ferociously jealous Queen Elizabeth, Garanča sang Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, trapped in a forced marriage and tormented by her love for Roberto, played by Matthew Polenzani. In the big duet with Polenzani, “Tutto è silenzio,” Garanča’s rich, velvety timbre poured forth in phrases that ached with intensity. Here was a woman engaged in a great internal struggle between duty and love. The scene’s highlight was a moment at which the couple, kneeling, turned inward toward each other for a hushed, feverish declaration of passion that vividly communicated their terror of being discovered.

Garanča’s lower range has developed extra richness, and she is blessed with a free and easy top that is equally round and alluring. She blended perfectly with the lovely lyric arcs of Polenzani’s Roberto, while, against Radvanovsky’s more cutting sound, she provided a softer contrast that highlighted the vast age and power gap between these two characters. 

How does Garanča feel about the meeker character of Sara? “Actually, when we were rehearsing with David McVicar, he was talking the opposite—he was saying actually how strong Sara has to be,” says Garanča. “How to bring up her independence, her fight, how revolutionary you can be standing up. She is the one who sends Roberto away, literally pushes him out, deciding this is the time. It’s nice to be able to portray something which is, I wouldn’t say contrary to me, but I would know how to fight for my rights. The music is very gentle for her, particularly the little arietta at the beginning explaining her sorrow and frustration. It’s very intimate, the scene with Matthew, so you need to like and love that colleague to be able to really let it go.”

Polenzani echoes the sentiment. “We know each other so well now that trust between us is instinctual and emotionally connected. In the great duet between Roberto and Sara, the entire scene largely staged itself. Sir David McVicar gave us parameters to work inside of, and a shape he was looking for, and really, the scene came out in the first rehearsal almost exactly as it was when we reached the opening. Elı¯na is easy to trust, and open to trying things. My favorite thing about singing with her is that she’s funny! We spend a lot of time laughing, and that makes doing what we do even more fun.”

OFFSTAGE, THE FIRST thing that jumps out about Garanča is how low her speaking voice is—almost contralto or tenor range. Tall and athletic, she walks quickly and speaks rapidly, in a no-nonsense, thoughtful style. She obviously loves talking about singing. From as early as she can remember, she says, “I always wanted to be onstage,” although as a teenager her hope was theater, not music. “I wanted to be an actress, but I failed my exams,” she says. Her initial resistance to singing sprang from life in a household with two musician parents; her mother was a lieder singer, her father a choral conductor. But once she chose singing, things moved quickly.

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© Nomi Baumgartl

AMONG HER EARLIEST opera parts were pants roles such as Sesto and Octavian. Garanča has been singing Octavian since she was twenty-three, when she made her role debut in a production at Germany’s Meininger Theater. This season’s Octavian in the Met’s new production will likely be her last. “For me, the most important thing is to make a character believable,” she says. “I need to be able to justify for myself, firstly. And the pants roles need a different spiritual, mental condition. Octavian, he is seventeen years and two months old. The thematic of the Marschallin I understand, and it approaches me much more than the hormonal boy. 

“Singing it for seventeen years, I feel that I have said everything that I know about this role for myself. People say I still look like a young guy, and obviously I make extra effort to maintain and sustain whatever is necessary for this role. However, for me it’s not interesting anymore as a character. My voice is becoming more mature and more feminine. With my voice sounding the way I am as [Bellini’s]Romeo, it would be very funny to have a lyric and naïve-sounding Juliet. It just doesn’t make sense. Where’s the difference, and where is the youth that Romeo and Juliet is about? 

“I truly believe that certain roles have to be done by a certain age. Now Cherubino I’ve done only one production in my life, with Muti. And because my voice wants to develop and go into different repertoire, it’s time for the younger generation to take over the boys’ parts.” Garanča, who turned forty in 2016, concludes, “It’s a good time to move on.” 

Recalling the beginning of her career, she says, “In Latvia in those times, you were automatically put into bel canto Mozart and Rossini singing. My voice had a certain agility that I created and developed and a relatively easy top. To maintain that, the only thing left for me was lyric-mezzo repertoire, which included Rossini, bel canto and boys’ parts—so Anna Bolena, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Norma, which I have done. You really have to have two octaves. It’s about the color—the color might change, and mine has changed with the years. It’s very nice to be able to add to that facility that I have just a different color now—richer, rounder, more profound.”

This season, and over the next five years, Garanča is shifting to some heavier major roles. She sang her first Santuzza earlier this season in Paris Opera’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Also in Paris, she will sing her first Eboli in Don Carlos (2017). She sings Dalila at the Met in a future season, in a production from Paris’s Garnier; and Paris will hear her Didon in Les Troyens in 2018. She has an ongoing recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon; her most recent disc, released in November, includes arias from those new dramatic-mezzo roles.  

This ambitious schedule requires careful vocal and logistical planning. “Santuzza is obviously very intense and dramatic, and you cannot just go from one production to the other. You need time to recover between the shows. So I sing concerts and liederabends, such as Mahler’s Third or Ruckert-lieder, or Alban Berg’s Frühe Lieder. To be able to sing operas, do new productions, then do recitals and gala concerts, summertime festivals, and have family time—it’s enough!” She laughs. 

When possible, she travels with her husband, conductor Karel Mark Chichon, and their two young daughters. “We have a limit,” she says. “I never separate from my husband for more than three weeks, and the children are never more than ten days without one of the parents. All our logistics are really just splitting time, who is going to take the children where, and the children are always with at least one parent.” When not on the road, the family divides its time between homes in Latvia and southern Spain. 

Apart from the sheer pace of Garanča’s schedule, there are also the physical demands of being onstage to consider. “With Nottingham, he drags me from one side of the stage to the other,” says Garanča of her recent Met performances in Roberto Devereux. That’s not to mention the heavy costumes. “The green dress is something like twenty or thirty pounds. And they are obviously very tight, with the corset. For conditioning, it’s the same as when I was preparing for Carmen, every morning running nearly six miles to get in condition. Well, I am doing four miles now—I am getting older—but I do go to the gym regularly to be able to sustain this.” 

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As Léonor to Mariusz Kwiecien’s Alphonse in La Favorite at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016
© Nomi Baumgartl

ONE OF GARANČA'S BEST -known roles is Carmen, which she continues to perform. “That is one of the operas, same as Werther, where I really, truly believe that your partner makes the person that you are,” she says. “So if you have a kind of a macho Don José, the Carmen becomes different than if you have somebody who is romantic and naïve. Also, if Bizet would have left that original habanera aria in the original version he composed, I think our view about Carmen would also be different. That aria is on the Habanera CD I made. It’s much more playful, more joyful, more spirited. The habanera that we know nowadays is really like a python—she’s going around tighter and tighter and tighter until at some point it just cracks. But in that original there is sparkle, fun, joy, flirtation. I think that’s what Carmen is—you can’t just limit her, make her someone who uses men and then throws them away. I’ve never seen her like that.” 

Garanča says that since the Met introduced its HD broadcasts, among them her 2010 Carmen, her name has become better known. “I have gotten incredible fan posts from New Zealand and Argentina, from Mexico, Iceland, South Africa—goodness knows which places. The possibilities are really quite unlimited.” But, she says, “If you want to have a taste of opera, you have to come into the audience, you have to listen to it and experience live vibration, what it means to be there within that energy that just swirls around and bounces back and forth between audience and hall. You just can’t describe it.”

When she is onstage at the Met, Garanča doesn’t try to project to the almost 4,000 people in the audience, which she says is “impossible for one person to do. I don’t try to step from the stage into the audience. I try to bring the audience to me. And that way, I think that when I do a forte, or I do a piano, I make people open and zoom to me. The experience in the Met, that moment of silence where you know that 4,000 people have held their breath—it’s such an orgasmic feeling!” spacer 

Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony. 



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