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Flirting With Rapture

Anita Hartig sings Mimì, one of her signature roles, this month in Rome.
By Henry Stewart 

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Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik

WHEN ANITA HARTIG SINGS MIMÌ IN LA BOHÈME, she delicately traces the character’s arc while producing a rush of sound like a river—the kind that swirls around you, instead of knocking you down. The Romanian soprano has taken her signature role to the most important opera houses in the world, from La Scala to the Met, where she made her company debut as Mimì in 2014. 

Now thirty-four, Hartig considers herself old-fashioned; her straightforward portrayal captures the character as written. You can hear why Rodolfo would fall for Mimì so quickly, especially in Hartig’s commitment to Mimì’s sincerity, which pays off in a moving Act IV. When I heard her sing Bohème last fall, her “Sono andati?” flirted with rapture, as if Mimì were a cousin to Isolde; when the horns sounded the C-sharp-minor chord that announces her death, I was beside myself.

“The public needs strong emotion to be impressed,” Hartig says, during an interview at OPERA NEWS’s offices in November. “And usually that’s why the composer lets the lyrical soprano die, because then the public is more like, ‘Oh, no! She died! She was so innocent!’ But exactly. That’s the point.”

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Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik
 

Mimì, she adds, is “one of the most approachable lyrical roles of Puccini for young artists, who always dream of singing Puccini characters, because they are so fragile. The music is so descriptive. It’s also very expansive and full of passion, and then again soft.” The character appeals to her because, well, she’s so appealing to everyone. “She’s a curious person. She’s dreaming in her little flat, as she says, about poetry and about love and about what common people—like we are, normal people—dream of. Love, romance, to [share] things with somebody. And it immediately appeals to each one of us, in the public or onstage. I think every girl dreams of that, too—right?”

Hartig made her professional debut as Mimì, with Romanian National Opera in 2006. She lives now in Vienna—“It’s a capital city, but it’s not so busy as New York”—but grew up in Transylvania, in Bistrița. She was only six when Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown, so she remembers little of hard times under Communist rule, maybe just the hours-long lines to buy small rations of milk and bread. “Afterward, I remember, we could buy more stuff!” she says, laughing. Her parents were not musical. She describes them as “simple, poor, like everybody else.” Her father worked as a hunter; Ceaușescu would visit, and her father would have to go out and kill bears in the Transylvanian forest, so the dictator could pose with them for photographs.

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As Mimì to Vittorio Grigolo’s Rodolfo in her Met debut, 2014
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
 

So how did she come to opera? “Exactly,” she says. “Ask the universe!” She was always interested in music, and she sang in the church choir. But as a teenager she wanted to sing Romanian pop music, even though she didn’t quite have the chest voice for it. A friend encouraged her to listen to opera, “and I’m like, ‘No way!’” she says. She knew opera only from Wagnerians howling on television, but the friend insisted, giving her a CD of Maria Callas singing famous arias. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool.’ I find it very expressive and extreme. Like, in pop music, you can’t be so extreme in expressing your hate or your love. I was like, ‘I have to do this.’” She admired Callas, even though her voice wasn’t beautiful. “A voice has not to be only beautiful,” she says. “It has to express something. So it touched me, because of this extreme espressività. The pain. I felt the pain. I didn’t quite understand it, but I could feel something, that it’s very powerful. And I promised—‘I want to do this, I want to express myself, and give it away from me.’ And who is going to accept it?”

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Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik
 

Just this past season, Hartig’s Mimì was accepted at the Met, Teatro Real Madrid and Vienna State Opera. In June, she’ll sing the role in Àlex Ollé’s production in Rome. It doesn’t get stale for her, though; it’s always changing, because she’s always changing. “Every time, it’s new—it’s like it would be for the first time,” she says. “Maybe that’s exaggerated, but it feels like that. You as a person, you are not the same every day. You wake up differently every day. You have different emotional baggage. Life is happening around you—also as a human being, not only as an artist. So, every time, it’s going to be different. Even though the words are the same, the music is the same. But everything around you changes.”

Of course, Hartig sings other roles; she was marvelous last September as Antonia in the Met’s revival of Contes d’Hoffmann, and she has had success with Marguerite. She still enjoys supporting roles, too, such as Liù and Micaela. Even with them, “I can deliver my message,” she says. “I can touch some of the people in the public, and that’s touching for me. That’s my duty.” spacer 



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