Red Hot

In just a few seasons, KRISTINE OPOLAIS has become one of opera’s most in-demand sopranos. This month, she stars in a new Manon Lescaut at the Met.
by Scott Barnes. 

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Photographed by Kristian Schuller for Opera News in Munich
Dress by Isoude
© Kristian Schuller
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Rusalka in Martin Kušej’s Munich staging, 2010
© Wilfried Hösl

PUCCINI'S MANON LESCAUT is a singing actress’s dream, as it traces the heroine’s development from a naïve country teenager to a spoiled, nouveau riche party girl, then to a woman who finally matures emotionally too late to save herself. Kristine Opolais, one of the most in-demand sopranos in the opera world, is preparing to star in the Richard Eyre production of Manon Lescaut that opens on February 12—the first new Met production of the work since 1980.

Opolais has already carved out a distinctive place for herself in Met history: in 2014, the Latvian soprano followed a Friday-evening performance of Madama Butterfly with a Saturday matinée as Mimì in La Bohèmenever having rehearsed on the set. Among the world’s top Puccini sopranos, she is often the first to be called.

Opolais’s husband is Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, the popular music director of the Boston Symphony. When I met her for a conversation last August at her hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, she was preparing to perform a concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the BSO’s summer home. Nelsons’s position with the BSO would seem to promise a chance for the couple to spend considerable time together in 2016, as the soprano’s winter/spring schedule at the Met puts her just 190 miles away from her husband for about sixteen weeks.

“From the beginning,” says Opolais, in her lightly accented English, “I was little bit careful to start career together, because I want to accomplish myself—as a soprano, Kristine Opolais, as an artist, a personality. And Andris has his way. Normally, people think, ‘Okay, the husband—of course he brings his wife.’ I wanted to be someone who they were happy to see, not just ‘Okay.’ Now it’s really something special. And we want to spend more time together now, because of our daughter, Adriana. Andris and I have a little bit different repertoire in opera. When we started in Latvian National Opera, we had Puccini together. This was our love. In the international opera stages, especially in the last years, Andris has a lot of Wagner and Strauss, which is too early for me. I am very careful about this repertoire. In
the last four years, we had only two times together—La Bohème in Berlin and Butterfly in Covent Garden, when I made my debut in 2011. And some concerts. And that’s it. In the future, we have some plans, finally, also for opera.”

OPOLAIS MET NELSONS at Latvian National Opera, where she was a chorister who worked her way up to leading roles. She ascended with astonishing speed: she had made debuts at many of the major European houses before her Covent Garden debut. Jonas Kaufmann, who joins her for the Met performances of the Puccini work as well, with Fabio Luisi on the podium, is a frequent costar. When you see Opolais onstage with Kaufmann, you can feel the heat; their scenes together are sometimes so intimate that you feel you’re eavesdropping.

“I feel very secure with Jonas,” says Opolais. “We have good chemistry—a good feeling onstage. Each time he starts before our duet, I am immediately in a good place, because he is great with the technique, and he has a good voice. And he likes to act. This is what helps us to be a great couple onstage—we like to act. Sometimes everything is great, but the person is just not with you. Chemistry—you have it, or you don’t. Doesn’t mean you’re bad. But with Jonas, it’s like you’ve met your person, your partner. There were a lot of stories about Jonas and me, when we did Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden. We were very happy about that, because it means our chemistry was very right. This is what I try to bring to the people—that they completely believe in the story. I think that Manon at the Met will be very glamorous, very feminine, like a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna—a super-sexy woman. Even her death will be beautiful. 

“For me, Puccini is the main passionate composer. He was the first composer I sang professionally onstage. Already when I sang Musetta, I was thinking about Mimì. I couldn’t understand why Mimì was a little bit boring to me. That’s what I thought back then.” She chuckles. “Back then I thought, ‘I have to change it! I have to put passion back into this role!’ 

“If we are speaking about Butterfly, which is kind of a signature role for me—a pity, because it’s such a difficult part, I don’t want to sing it! This is the most complete of the Puccini heroines. You have everything in this role. For Butterfly, you need technique, really to be actress. Because you cannot scream this role from the beginning. We cannot forget that she is fifteen years old. Which is difficult, because in the second act when she’s speaking to Goro, when Sharpless is coming, this is really theater. She’s whispering, crying, screaming and singing beautifully. When Sharpless reads the letter, her small phrases are so beautiful. ‘Oh, he really said that? He remembers me. Oh my God!’ The most complete role. All colors you can imagine in one small, strong woman.”

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© Kristian Schuller 

OPOLAIS'S VOICE LACKS the luscious core and consistent gleam that many earlier sopranos were known for, but she is a theatrical sorceress; hang in there, and her absolute immersion in character will get to you. And as she grows in reputation and demand, one thing is certain: it’s got to be her way. Rehearsal is vitally important to Opolais. Although she has jumped in as a late replacement on several occasions, she is not an advocate of “instant opera.” The days when maestros such as Tullio Serafin and Arturo Toscanini had the time and the interest to coach a singer into a new role are over. Yet on YouTube, there is a Manon Lescaut work session from Covent Garden—with Antonio Pappano coaching Opolais and Kaufmann almost word for word—that’s a throwback to the way conductors used to work.

“There are a lot of maestros who think they can work this way, but they are simply using your voice and your energy, and you are without voice for the performance, because they worked too much before! Tony never does this longer than in the first three weeks, when he really works together with the movement, when we do a Regie. And then he’s coming, and we build everything together from the beginning, word by word, phrase by phrase, reaction by reaction. When you have only one or two rehearsals for a revival and you are asked to change everything you had before, this I call ‘attack.’ This is just using you. I never understand it. We can speak, ask, propose, offer—but this kind of using voices, for me, is starting to be really difficult. And not every conductor has the right.

“Often you have a sitzprobe in the morning, and in the evening, the conductor wants to see you. And the next day, performance. You use all your energy for the sitzprobe, then you want to be good for the conductor, and the next day, you are tired mentally and physically, for the people! It’s difficult. I try to be delicate and open to work, because I like to know something new. If you say something to the maestros, they think you are a prima donna. If they have at least an idea what it means to sing, then they understand. It’s not just two small vocal cords. I put a lot of energy in everything I do onstage. I die for real every time. I know that every singer will say this. No! Not every one does, though. I unfortunately have to say it. I have a lot of great colleagues who think you never have to give 100 percent to the audience.”

At this point, Opolais, who began our interview with an apology for being jet-lagged, having flown to Boston only the day before, is sitting upright, eyes glistening, her sotto voce now rising in volume. You can feel the temperament and the overwhelming passion for which she is becoming famous. “But if you have only two or three days,” she continues, “give the singer freedom. When you have too short time, I am more stressed. Sometimes when you have a revival, you don’t have a real director. You have so many questions, and you ask the assistants about some deep things, and they can’t answer. So that’s why I do like to work with the real directors. I had a really difficult experience, stepping in for a sudden [house] debut of one of my signature roles. I couldn’t understand the character I played—why she was doing certain things. I was doing it because assistant asked for that. But when I had questions, he couldn’t answer. And I felt so sick. First time in my life, I lost completely myself. So now I am so careful with revivals. If they cannot get the director to work with me, I can’t do. I cannot just come, show my voice, ‘Hello, here is my beautiful voice, and I’m also not bad—take me, please.’ I am open for any kind of experience. In my heart, I am actress. I was dreaming to be a movie actress. Movie, you can play with just one small look. But I actually do onstage the same way. Because I cannot imagine singing without acting.

“Singing, for me, is not just a technique. I put emotions in. If I don’t have emotions or power to sing, my cords are very weak. The muscles don’t want to work. When you are at the very top, you have a lot of work. Like many singers, sometimes I am tired. Very simple—if you’re tired, you need rest. Which is never good for the audience, because every cancellation is a big tragedy for your fans. But that’s life. When people are working in the bank, they take off. They pay for it, but they take off when they need it. Singers always feel guilty about taking breaks. And singers who are not taking breaks? They are finished very soon. If the public really love you, they will wait for you. So, unfortunately, I think I am ‘pro-cancellation.’ We have to take care of ourselves. No one else will. There is always a next girl.

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As Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden, with Jonas Kaufmann as des Grieux
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

“LIFE IS VERY FUNNY. Things change. Sometimes someone says something, or you feel bad energy. That’s why I’m careful not to make plans. If I feel, ‘This is the house for me, this is forever,’ makes for”—she pauses—“surprises. And what then? You feel like you have to leave. I never go onstage in a house where I am not comfortable, even when I have a terrific contract. I am completely a maximalist. I need to feel one hundred percent secure. I will never work just to get paid. I say goodbye with a good heart, because I want no bad memories. Life is too short. If someone gets me, good. If not—divorce. I had a great time when I started in Riga, Latvia. Then something went wrong, because I changed my repertoire. I was too young to be singing so dramatically at that age. The biggest sign that you are doing something wrong is when the voice is tired after the first act. Either you are singing wrong, or you are pushing, or this role is not for you. So I moved to lyrical repertoire, and they didn’t like it, because they needed someone for those leading roles. So I left, with a good heart. This is important for any artist. The people around us sometimes think they know better what you need. They say something, and you get unsure. The most horrible thing you can do to a singer, even a very famous one—” She demonstrates, in a patronizing voice: “‘Are you okay? Are you changing your technique?’ We are very sensitive. And we can change ourselves because they propose it. But this is not what you feel. In the end, you are always right. If you feel you have to change your repertoire, or give less, or cancel, you are right.” spacer 

Scott Barnes is an audition and performance coach for professional singers. He often gives master classes in opera acting in the age of HD. 

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