There's no ignoring the power of buzz, and no singer this season has yet proved as buzzworthy as Marina Poplavskaya, who recently made her Met debut as Elisabetta in Don Carlo and is poised to sing Violetta with the company in Willy Decker's already-famous "red-dress" La Traviata. It's a rare thing — it always has been — for an opera singer to be the subject of a major profile in a mainstream magazine. So when Gay Talese's profile of Poplavskaya appeared in the December 6 issue of The New Yorker, I was happy to see the magazine, which is increasingly weighed down with wobbly fiction and dominated by lengthy political analyses, paying a little more attention to cultural matters, which are, after all, what established its reputation.
Since Don Carlo opened, I have received an amazing number of phone calls from friends and colleagues who wanted to know what I thought about Poplavskaya. What I find interesting is that they don't really want to know what I thought about her performance as Elisabetta, which I heard recently. They want to know what I thought of Talese's profile. "Have you read the Poplavskaya piece? Have you read it? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU HAVEN'T READ IT?" I was beginning to get the feeling that the other things occupying my thoughts — what to get my sister-in-law for Christmas, where to find a contractor to do house repairs, whether to take my cat to the dentist, or finding the time to finish writing my latest book — were all things I didn't deserve to be worrying about. I should instead be experiencing what I was beginning to think must be a milestone in cultural journalism.
This morning, I finally sat down, closed my door, turned off the telephone and read Talese's profile.
It opens with a very New Yorkerish nonfiction trick — the relating of a specific action in the subject's life, told in plangent detail. You know the type: "On a recent chilly morning in September, Estelle Rubin left the apartment she had occupied for the last forty-five years on Manhattan's West Side, on a grocery-shopping expedition. As she approached her neighborhood Food Emporium, she noticed a man she had never seen before standing on the corner, wearing nothing but ankle socks and a surgical mask, loudly singing a ballad from the obscure 1940s musical Ankles Aweigh...."
Talese's article began this way: "On an August night this past summer, the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya lay motionless for nearly three hours on the floor of her mother's apartment in Moscow, having collapsed shortly after 4 A.M. from inhaling noxious smoke from the forest fires that were burning out of control in the countryside...." The author developed this scene at some length, in the process confusing me. I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was: was he suggesting that Poplavskaya had somehow started the forest fires? But the point eventually became clear. The soprano telephoned a friend: "'Darling, I'm about to die," she whispered into the receiver. 'And so I ask that you help take care of my mother!'" It was Talese's clever way of setting up Poplavskaya as a creature with a truly dramatic nature.
I was expecting this to be a prelude that was going to make the link between the diva's often excessive and outrageous behavior in real life and the spell she weaves on the stage. But that never happened: Talese's piece was really just a catalogue of bizarre personality quirks, ranging from Poplavskaya's tendency as a child to burst into song in the classroom whenever she was bored, through her terrorization of cab drivers and rehearsal pianists, to her insistence on bringing her own towels to her Met dressing room. At no point did Talese attempt to connect all of this with her artistry and musicianship. Nor, for that matter, did his article delve into her singing in any detailed way. Seven pages of text, plus a full-page photo — and no real discussion of her an artist.
I think there's plenty to say about Poplavskaya. Listening to voices is a highly subjective thing, and I don't quite agree with critic Zachary Woolfe that her tone has a "smoldering darkness." The night I attended the Met's Don Carlo, I didn't hear a great deal of color in her voice at all. But she can act, and she has presence — and she was certainly light years ahead of her countrywoman Anna Smirnova, who was vocally the clumsiest Eboli I've ever experienced.
Talese has sometimes not shown the best timing in his career. His 1971 novel Honor Thy Father, about the mob, appeared two years after another book on the same topic, called The Godfather, caused something of a stir in the publishing world. But his article on Poplavskaya never gets out of first gear. It came as something of a jolt, given the magazine's distinguished history of music reporting — from Winthrop Sargeant to Andrew Porter to Alex Ross. Does the Poplavskaya profile represent the standard of cultural coverage we can now expect from The New Yorker?